Jerusalem Journal: No. 2 — What Does It Mean to Be a Citizen?

What does it mean to be a citizen?

That is a question that was raised for me during our visit to Jerusalem, when I made an acquaintance with a 50-year-old cab driver, a native of Jerusalem, a man whose father and grandfather, and even earlier generations, were born in that holy place.

Jerusalem cabThis man, Muhammed Siam, was as gentle a man as I would ever hope to meet. He took me and Jonathan to a mall so I could buy a connector for my camera, and then I arranged for him to take me a couple of days later to Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center on the outskirts of Jerusalem (more about that in a future Journal entry).

It was on that second trip that I learned he was not a citizen of Israel. Indeed, he carries a Jordanian passport, even though he has lived his entire 50+ years in Jerusalem.

I am a citizen of the United States, by virtue of being born here–in Ann Arbor, Michigan on October 10, 1946. I have never lived in any other country. I have resided in Milford and in Ann Arbor (during college) in Michigan, and in the states of Massachusetts, Maine, New York, and now Virginia. And if I moved to France or Mexico or Israel, or even neighboring Maryland, I could retain my U.S. citizenship.

The reality for my friend Muhammed, and another man also named Muhammed, a tour guide I got to know while he guided us to Masada and the Dead Sea and showed us other things on the way to and from these destinations, is that the place of their birth is less important than their religion and politics and perhaps most of all their identity as Palestinians. I started to write “their nationality as Palestinians,” but realized that this is not so clear.

East Jerusalem neighborhoods
East Jerusalem neighborhoods: pink=Arab, blue=Israeli

Can we say someone has a nationality when there is no nation? Recently, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority unsuccessfully sought recognition for their “country” from the United Nations. Does this mean there is no nation? No Palestine? Legally, it is so.

Morally, it is not so, at least to me. Clearly, the intent of the 1948 UN Declaration was that there would be two nations, side by side, Israel and Palestine. That has not happened. Initially, that seems to be because the Palestinians, and their Arab allies, were unwilling to share what had for millenia been their land, their home. They thought they could defeat the upstart Jews who had settled there and even expel them.

The reverse was true. The Jewish Agency forces defeated the Arabs/Palestinians and forced many Palestinians to leave (I will get in trouble with some Israelis and allies for saying this, but it is nonetheless true–maybe a few Palestinians left willingly, but most of the hundreds of thousands did not). This is an ordinary outcome of war. People are  displaced.

But for my two Muhammed friends it is not so simple. They are residents of East Jerusalem, an area that Jordan ruled following the 1948 war, until 1967. So they became Jordanian citizens. But in 1967, Israel defeated Jordan and Syria (and Egypt in a war that was initially focused on Israel attacking and defeating Egypt in the Sinai and Gaza). When the six days ended, Israel had control of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 300,000 Palestinians fled those two areas, but many also stayed.

Hence, the situation of my two friends.

Jodranian passport coverThey carry identity cards as residents of Jerusalem, but they are not citizens of Israel. This would be somewhat analogous to foreign nationals who obtain Permanent Residency status in the United States.

But it is not the same, because Muhammed the cab driver cannot leave Israel to visit his grandchildren in Jordan (his daughter married a Jordanian) unless he is willing not to return to his home in Jerusalem. A permanent resident of the United States is allowed to leave and return, within certain time restraints.

Muhammed told me that Israel does allow people like him to apply for citizenship, but that most, including him, refuse because to do so is to recognize Israel’s authority to determine whether or not they are actually citizens of the land into which they were born. He also says that Israel makes it very difficult and time-consuming for those who do apply.

So, he remains a legal visitor in his native land–without the freedom to come and go.

I have been sitting with this ever since he told me on October 25. I understand Israeli concerns–if they allowed all the Palestinians to be citizens, and thus to vote, they would most likely no longer have a Jewish homeland–but I also understand the feelings of Muhammed–an alien in his home.

I am not sure I could remain as patient as him, in a similar situation in the United States.

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