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Shaare Zedek is Jerusalem's only major, centrally located hospital. Founded in 1902 and named after the biblical expression "gates of righteousness", the medical and research centre moved in 1979 to an 11-acre campus opposite Mount Herzl, several miles to the west of the Old City and on land that has been Israeli territory since 1948. 

Nine years ago, Naomi Zivotofsky gave birth to a boy at Shaare Zedek. She and her husband Ari are American citizens by birth. Their son, whom they named Menachem, is therefore a US citizen. When Menachem was not quite three months old, Mrs Zivotofsky went to the US embassy in Tel Aviv and applied for his first passport. This records, simply, that Menachem was born in Jerusalem. It gives no country of birth.

Some people would not have given this a second thought. After all, Menachem has his passport and it accurately names his city of birth. But the Zivotofskys are made of sterner stuff. On November 7, their counsel will tell the US Supreme Court that the place of birth recorded in Menachem's US passport should be Israel. Their legal action, launched eight years ago, names the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. But the litigation has much broader implications, calling into question the powers of President Obama himself.

A couple of weeks before Menachem was born, the US Congress enacted legislation dealing with this very question. Section 214 of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 refers to US citizens born in Jerusalem, directing the Secretary of State, on request, to record their place of birth as Israel. But section 214 has a more political aspect. It also "urges" the president "to immediately begin the process of relocating the United States Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem". 

The US maintains a consulate in Jerusalem to handle relations with the Palestinians. But its embassy remains firmly in Tel Aviv. When the legislation was passed in 2002, President George W. Bush declared that it "impermissibly interferes with the president's constitutional authority to conduct the nation's foreign affairs". 

Those unfamiliar with the US constitution may find it strange that the president may veto, or simply ignore, an act of Congress. Yet Congress is not sovereign; its powers are shared with the executive branch of government and disputes are ultimately settled by the Supreme Court.

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