The two almost identical blue rectangular books are so tiny compared to the power they represent that it is almost laughable. As a dual citizen of Israel and America, I encounter the same problem before every trip I go on. Which passport do I use?
Most of the time it makes little sense to debate this. Though I was born in Israel, I haven’t lived there for a meaningful stretch of time since I was 5 years old, and I am perceived as an American when abroad. It’s only upon entering Israel that this question presents itself as a real dilemma.
The existence of those two passports represents two parts of my identity; two allegiances tugging at me each with different strength at different times. It makes me wonder what would be most honest even when passing immigration control into Europe or Africa — present the American or the Israeli, or maybe both.
The question of dual citizenship feels particularly poignant now, in the wake of the Prisoner X scandal. We now know that Prisoner X was Ben Zygier, a citizen of both Australia and Israel who was working for the Mossad when he was locked up for unspecified crimes. In 2010, while still in custody in a maximum-security prison in Ramla, he died, apparently by suicide. We also know that part of what made Zygier attractive to the Mossad as a recruit was that he was able to use his Australian passport to carry out his spy work undetected. The Australian secret service even investigated him for this reason in the early 2000s. Reportedly, the transgression that led to Zygier’s extraordinary confinement also had to do with passports and dual citizenship: Though this has yet to be confirmed, Australian media alleges that Zygier was about to reveal to Australian authorities that Israel was forging Australian passports for its agents to use in operations.
The Prisoner X story is an example of a dual citizen’s worst fears. Being forced to choose which soccer team to root for is hard enough, but in this case, Zygier seems to have been caught between his two identities, with his Israeli life eventually subsuming his Australian one. But even as he found himself locked up in an Israeli prison, it was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that investigated his disappearance and eventually revealed his identity. In a way, this was his birth country reclaiming its hold on him.
The dual citizen is constantly asked to choose sides. No matter how many pins with joined flags we own, there will be times when we are asked to pick a national identity.
And then there is the very serious game of national security and the undeniable reality that we dual citizens are attractive to security apparatuses precisely because of our dilemma. There is room to push and prod, room for them to question and judge, to force us into an unenviable situation, all because of an uncontrollable event. We were born in one place at one time, with little voice or say in the matter. Wouldn’t it have been so much simpler if I were born in Ohio and not Jerusalem?
But I was not born in beautiful Toledo to an ironworker and teacher, and every time I let my Israeli passport lapse I am forced to return to the highly guarded consulate in New York City. I smile at my closely shaven friends who are miffed that this Yerushalmi barely speaks any Hebrew. They are wondering what I am doing there, who I am and what brings me back. When I get upstairs after passing through metal detectors and more questioning, I am both at home and abroad. I understand almost no one in the room and am embarrassed by my stumbling tongue when I try to speak Hebrew.
At the same time, this garishly lit room, an embodiment of bureaucracy, slowly lulls me into remembering that I am Israeli no matter how poor a job I am doing of acting and speaking like one, and soon I am beating the drums of the Israel Defense Forces in my head, waiting for my number to be called. But then, when I am called to the window and asked if I served in the army, I simply reply, “Of course not, I went to high school in America.” In return I receive a sympathetic nod, a stamp and another temporary extension until I return to Israel to live for longer than a year.
It is in that room, or at customs, or in my own house that I think about how lucky one must be to possess a singular identity, as rare as that is these days — to have no questions about where and why one exists, and to simply live harmoniously with one passport, one country, possibly under one God.
Of course the bigger question looms above our heads. What does it even mean to be a citizen of one country versus the next in this age of global connectivity? Do we need national citizenship? If we abolished citizenship, would it change the way we treat our fellow human beings? Are massive American corporations, hiding profits in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, really trying to teach us a lesson about the possibilities of global citizenship? Would you care about a porous border if the border were meaningless?
Until that unlikely day of global citizenship arrives, I will continue to hesitate. “Which is it?” I will ask myself while in line for immigration control, or sitting on my bed at home with an empty valise, or filling out papers at the municipal building. It is a haunting question that presses on your rib cage, shortening your breath, making you sweat. It is almost impossible to answer with a definitive statement.
Who are you? For Ben Zygier, perhaps that question became too much.
Ari Jankelowitz is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn.