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Shul gets insider view on Israel passport case
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Shul gets insider view on Israel passport case

Family’s attorney says Supremes will weigh presidents’ privileges

If there is a young, female equivalent of “the old boys’ network,” it was very much in play at a talk in West Orange on Nov. 13 and might play a part in resolving a long-standing conflict in American foreign policy.

Alyza Lewin, an attorney involved in a contentious Supreme Court case regarding Jerusalem and its status as a part of Israel, spoke at Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David as a favor to her old school friend, adult education committee member Shelley Raab Mendelow of West Orange.

And, as Lewin told the crowd of around 50, she got involved in the case because of a little boy born to another friend of theirs from their days growing up in the Washington, DC, area, Naomi Siegman Zivotofsky.

Lewin is in a law partnership with her father, Nathan, a longtime activist when it comes to legal matters affecting the Jewish community. She recalled something her father said in 2002, shortly after then President George W. Bush blocked a law passed by Congress giving American citizens born in Jerusalem the right to list Israel as their place of birth. “My father said, ‘Don’t you know anyone who’s had a baby in Jerusalem?’”

Lewin said she thought at once of Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky, born just weeks earlier, and contacted Naomi, who had made aliya in 2000 with her husband, Ari. They readily agreed to be the test case, working with the Lewins to fight for their son’s right to name Israel as his birthplace.

For the past eight-and-a-half years the Lewins have been fighting, pro bono, for that right, backward and forward through various levels of the DC court system.

On Nov. 7, they argued their case before the Supreme Court.

Alyza Lewin told the West Orange audience, “If the law passed by Congress had been followed, this would have been a non-issue.”

Question of sovereignty

The law, enacted by Congress and signed by Bush in 2002, would have provided Americans born in Jerusalem — an estimated 50,000 — the same right all others have to identify their birthplace as they see fit, she said. “We have taken the position that it is simply a matter of personal identification and not a foreign policy issue,” she said.

But Bush insisted that the law Congress passed infringed on the president’s right to conduct foreign policy and refused to enforce it, using a “signing statement.” The Obama administration has stuck to that position. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as the respondent named in the Zivotofskys’ litigation, argued that a passport is an official document that communicates the country’s official position, and that position has been to maintain neutrality on the sensitive issue of who has sovereignty over Jerusalem.

In their petition to the court, the Lewins focused less on the merits of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but rather pressed the argument that it is unconstitutional for a president to refuse to enforce legislation that had been signed into law.

But much as they have insisted on the personal application of the law, Lewin acknowledged in answer to a question, they were aware that the case might come to be seen as having greater significance — at least in the eyes of the broader Jewish community. So far, there has been no opposition to the Zivotofsky petition voiced by any Arab or Muslim organizations.

“The justices could state that their decision relates only to passports and Americans’ right to self-identify their place of birth, and that it has no bearing on the foreign policy questions relating to the status of Jerusalem,” Lewin said.

On Nov. 7, people lined up hours before the Supreme Court hearing began to ensure they got seats in the court room. Lewin said that among those present was Menachem himself, now nine years old. Sounding more like an affectionate aunt than a litigator, she said he came a bit reluctantly, convinced it would drag on longer than his mother had told him.

As it happens, the hearing was over in an hour — just long enough for the two sides to state their positions and answer some questions from the justices. The court has until next June to decide the case.

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