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Citizens at Birth

In the United States, the debate is over the 14th Amendment. In Israel, it’s centered on a government decision to deport the children of migrant workers. The core issue is the same: Should birth confer citizenship? And who gets to decide?

The first question ought not to be difficult to answer, for the right to citizenship for anyone born in a particular country dates back to English common law, a tradition most enlightened leaders would naturally continue but, sadly, these debates are not fueled by enlightenment. They are propelled by crass Americans stoking nationalist fears for political gain, and by Israelis doing much the same thing. The numbers involved may be minimal — 400 offspring in Israel would fall under the government’s proposed edict — but the moral cost of forcefully expelling children merely because of an accident of birth is incalculable.

Who gets to decide? This is actually the more interesting issue because it goes to the heart of defining national identity. The American public crossed that bridge when it approved amending the Constitution just after the Civil War to ensure that birth citizenship was enshrined as a national, legal right, not subject to the vagaries of state governments or political whims.

While certain GOP leaders in Washington huff and puff about congressional hearings to abolish or limit that right, changing this or any part of the Constitution is a laborious process, by design. The document is America’s ultimate expression of civic values, not meant to reflect simply the mood of the moment. At a time when 140-character rants pass for reasoned debate, this sturdiness is, we must hope, a good thing.

Israel has no such document. Though academics, civic and political leaders have sought for decades to draft a constitution, the challenge of such a project in a fractious 62-year-old nation has kept these noble efforts at bay. The decision by the Cabinet to deport 400 children is one more reason why Israel needs the legal and moral force of a written constitution.

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