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David Matas

The building in West Jerusalem that formed Israel's first Knesset.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak.


By Rhonda Spivak, November 1, 2009

The case of Eliyahu Veffer of Toronto, who wanted his passport to show his birthplace not as Jerusalem but  as Jerusalem, Israel  generated much interest in considering the ongoing political dispute over the unique status of the  city.  But, the issue has been put to rest in Canada.

On February 15, 2008 the Supreme Court of Canada refused to grant leave to hear  Mr. Veffer’s appeal.

The law in Canada is that an individual born in Jerusalem can not refer to Israel in his or her passport.

With the exception of Jerusalem, Canada’s passport policy is that when a city is in a disputed territory the passport applicant is allowed to choose which country to include on his or her application. (For example, a person born in Cyprus can choose whether to put Turkey or Greece as a birthplace)

 “The only exception to that general policy is Jerusalem, and for that disputed territory alone Canada says you can not put Israel, you can not put Jordan, you can not put anything,” says David Matas, Senior counsel for B’nai Brith, who unsuccessfully represented Veffer in his legal battle

The rationale for the current passport policy was laid out in a court document in the case filed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Michael Bell who stated:

 “ Canada continues not to recognize the sovereignty of any party over Jerusalem and agrees that the status of Jerusalem can only be resolved as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. Canada  opposes Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of the City of Jerusalem as defined in the UN  Partition Plan.” 

According to the UN Partition Plan in 1948, the city of  Jerusalem was to be  under the exclusive jurisdiction of the  UN, and was not to belong to either the Jewish or Palestinian state that were proposed to be created by  the plan.  Accordingly, Canada says its policy is not to allow a Jerusalemite to name a country in his or her passport.

In response to this policy, Matas says that  “ It’s true that under the Partition Plan, the UN was to have had jurisdiction over the city of Jerusalem.  But, The UN never sent troops into Jerusalem in  1948  to exercise sovereignty or control over the city.  Israel accepted the Partition Plan, but the Arab states did not and they invaded.  . . Jordan got to Jerusalem because it invaded during the war [of 1948], and the UN Plan never materialized.”

In the Veffer case, lawyers for the federal government successfully argued that until Israelis and Palestinians negotiate their competing claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem, any change in Canada’s policy would show favouritism to Israel’s side in the dispute and would prejudice the Palestinian side.

A coalition called Canadians For Jerusalem, made up mostly of Arab groups, intervened in the Veffer case and argued that “Canada would be playing a dangerous political game” if it allowed individuals to identify Jerusalem, as part of Israel on a passport.

Matas rejects the notion that ruling in Veffer’s favour would have undermined the perceived neutrality of Canada in the Middle East. As he says,

“Prior to April 1976,  Canada’s passport policy  was that a person born in either East or West Jerusalem could have Israel shown in the passport as his/her country of birth simply by asking. The Canadian contribution to peace in the Middle East was at its height in 1957, when then Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lester Pearson won a Nobel Peace Prize.  At that time, anyone born in Jerusalem could have in his passport Jerusalem Israel as his place of birth.”

 In April 1976, the Canadian policy changed to the present one.

 Matas says “The shift in Canada’s policy in April 1976 was not motivated by the situation in the Middle East.  It was because some passport applicants born in Yugoslavia wanted Croatia indicated in their passports as the country of their birth, and Croatia wasn’t yet a country.  Jerusalem was included in the new policy… But, in my view, Croatia wasn’t a very analogous case to Israel, because Israel already existed as a country.”
Matas adds that “ For 32 years, from 1948-1976, Canada allowed Jerusalem, Israel in Canadian passports, for parts of East Jerusalem and all of West Jerusalem without any apparent impact on Canadian perceived neutrality.  For nine years after Israel assumed control of East Jerusalem in 1967, Canada allowed Jerusalem, Israel in Canadian passports, for all of East and West Jerusalem without any apparent impact on Canadian perceived neutrality.”

In the last five years the Canadian passport office in error allowed 131 individuals to record Jerusalem, Israel as a place of birth in their passports, and 15 individuals were allowed to record Jerusalem, Jordan. “But, these 146 passports were recalled as a result of the litigation” Matas says.

In the event that Canadian passport policy were to be changed back to the previous  pre-1976 policy as Matas wants,   how would the passport office   deal with a Palestinian born after 1967 who wanted to put Jerusalem, Palestine in his passport?

Matas responds, “Our position is that if someone wanted to do this, we’re not precluding anything. It would be up to the  Passport office to  decide.”

However, he did acknowledge that “the problem with putting Palestine on a passport is that it’s not a country.”

Although it may not have been stated clearly in the litigation, it is possible that this very scenario was what the federal government was worried about most?  If the passport office were to allow Eliyahu Veffer to show Jerusalem, Israel, in his passport, how would the government deny a young Palestinian from recording Jerusalem, Palestine in his passport? If such a denial took place, wouldn’t Palestinians have ammunition to complain that Canada was prejudice the Palestinian/Arab side to the conflict? 

On the other hand, it is possible that some will see the decision against Mr. Veffer as being one which in essence denies Israel’s right to exist.   After all, it cannot seriously be doubted that if there ever is a peace agreement, Israel, at the very least, will always retain sovereignty over West Jerusalem.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Zivotofsky in the United States will be more successful than Mr Veffer in Canada in trying to get this issue resolved in his favour. 

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.