Aliyah Diary: The price of citizenship
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Aliyah Diary: The price of citizenship

If you can recall the opening sequence of the TV series “Get Smart,” where Agent 86 passes through a long series of security doors, you can picture my passport renewal experience at the American Consulate in East Jerusalem.

When I arrived at the consulate, on Nablus Road on the Arab side of Jerusalem’s Highway 1, I lined up outside to get my online appointment receipt verified and attached to a number ticket. Then I lined up again to start the many-doored journey into the building.

At the first guard station/metal detector, a handsome young Israeli security guard rummaged through my personal belongings and instructed me to surrender my “cell phone, headset, disk-on-key, MP3, MP4, MP5, MP-whatever.” (If I had been sporting a “Get Smart” shoe phone, he would surely have confiscated that, too.) He instructed me to take a sip from my water bottle before allowing me to keep it.

He buzzed me through another locked door into a room where my considerably emptier handbag was scrutinized by an X-ray scanner. Finally, I was buzzed into the waiting room for passports, visas, birth certificates, and other official American documents.

The staff there was unusually friendly. One clerk handed out crayons and drawing paper to the children present while another found humorous ways to announce turns: “Will the fabulous Finkel family please step over to Window 3?”

A pleasant woman went through my documents with a check list, and another swiped my American Visa card to pay the $75 fee.

But that’s not all, folks. I was then sent upstairs to yet another waiting area to buy a courier envelope (about $10) to have the new passport delivered to an office in central Jerusalem for me to pick up. Back downstairs, I handed the envelope and receipts to the clerk and retrieved my electronic devices after exiting the building.

The process cost me about an hour and $100.

I had considered letting my American passport expire and using my Israeli one exclusively. But this made no practical sense. Without an American passport, I would have to pay a fee to apply for a visa to visit the United States – meaning another trip to the consulate – and would have to get fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. Customs. With both passports in hand, I get citizenship privileges on both ends. For those of us with family in the States, such convenience counts.

The larger issue here, however, is the awkward concept of dual citizenship. I found no clear estimate of how many Israelis are American citizens, but altogether about 5.2 million Americans live abroad and most retain two citizenships.

A recent article on this topic in Israel’s popular daily Haaretz explained that renouncing American citizenship is mandatory only for those taking foreign government posts. Voluntary renunciations are rare – although some American émigrés considered this step when it looked as though “Obamacare” would include a hefty “non-user” fee.

Israeli sociologist Chaim Waxman (formerly of New Jersey) told Haaretz that Americans feel politically connected to “the old country” and don’t want to give up their right to vote.

While I believe Waxman’s observation is on target, my husband and I decided not to vote in the last American elections. We had faithfully exercised our precious right to vote since we turned 18. But once we chose to live elsewhere, it didn’t seem right to elect the leaders of the country, state, and town we no longer reside in. Israelis living abroad may not vote in Israeli elections unless they come here on Election Day (although this may change) and that seemed to us a better model.

So why retain American citizenship if not to have a say in the electoral process? Several pundits quoted in Haaretz cited the “security blanket” dynamic: Immigrant Israelis feel safer knowing they can flee if things get dicey in the Promised Land.

That particular motivation really doesn’t speak to me. However, the Haaretz article also quoted Eli Lederhendler of Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who posited: “American Jews living in Israel just don’t see themselves as ex-Americans. Why, therefore, would [American-Israelis] pay the price of giving up a passport over a [negligible] matter, a few forms to fill out? It doesn’t make sense.”

Though I am a proud holder of an Israeli ID, it has been no small matter – emotionally speaking – to discard other U.S. documents as they have expired or become irrelevant: my New Jersey driver’s license, my Blue Cross card, my Teaneck library card, even my CVS and ShopRite key ring tags. Perhaps, subconsciously, this factored into my willingness to take a morning off from work and run a gauntlet of security doors to buy an official extension of my American identity.

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