My wife and I, and five of our children, had a discussion over Shabbat dinner recently about giving up our US citizenship. Five of my six children were born in the US. On my father’s side, I’m a second generation American. On my mother’s side, fourth or fifth. When we moved to Israel, my oldest was 11, and the youngest was 3. A year later our youngest son was born in Jerusalem. He’s an American because we are. Some are surprised to know that we choose to keep out US citizenship, or that we’re even allowed to. Others ask why we’d want to.
Being American comes with many rights and responsibilities. Our situation as dual American-Israeli citizens is not unique. There are a growing number of Americans in Israel, but I suspect that there are many more in other countries where the same conversations are taking place.
I am proudly American: born, raised, educated, and will always be American in my mind and culture. On many levels, the United States is the greatest country with the greatest potential for so many. It is the greatest democracy, and is a world leader in so many things. No country is perfect, and the US is no exception. Keeping my citizenship is not a political issue, nor a partisan issue. It is a great blessing to have been born there, have the opportunities I have had, and made for myself.
American is also the country in which Jews have had greatest opportunities in our diaspora, despite overt discrimination in education, residentially, socially, and more, that have been (and in many cases still are) part of the US society. American Jews have established perhaps the strongest diaspora community ever. Time will tell if it withstands the trend of pretty much all other diaspora experiences. Nevertheless, until now, the US has contributed to the Jews, as the Jews have contributed to the US.
Spending most of my life and career in the US, I’ve also worked hard and contributed my share of taxes. I hope that Social Security will still exist when I am eligible to retire and reap what I sowed.
Living overseas has broadened and deepened the understanding of the significance of US policies, its role in the world, and the value and strength of the US economy and dollar.
I also consider it a privilege to vote in the US. Some ask why, if living overseas, I should be able, much less would care, to vote. When I explain that we never stopped being Americans, are required to file (and pay) taxes, and that it’s a right and privilege, most get it.
But every privilege also has its responsibility. Since living in Israel I have been called for jury duty twice. I am exempt because I live overseas (though wouldn’t complain if they wanted to send me a plane ticket), but I still have to respond. The US also imposes complicated bureaucratic standards that all US citizens living abroad, earning over a certain amount, still have to file taxes in the US even if we pay more in tax in Israel than we would in the US on the same income. We still have to let the IRS know. Some people with young children also get a tax credit, but you have to file to do so.
Opening a bank account here as an American requires extra scrutiny. Israeli banks ask, covering their assets literally and figuratively, if we are US citizens. The last thing they want to do is cross the US and its banking system. So, they don’t. And it costs us.
More frustrating is that, regardless of income, American citizens have to file an FBAR if their financial assets exceed $10,000. That includes saving accounts, pensions, brokerage accounts, etc. Even if people have no current income, they have to report total assets. Unless you have time and know what you’re doing, you have to pay someone to do this. For young people starting out in their careers (like my kids), it’s a burden and expense that’s hard to justify. It’s almost something you have to pay someone to do because with the bureaucracy, while one can file their own taxes and the like, making a mistake would create even worse problems.
It’s disappointing that my kids don’t appreciate the blessings of being American the same as I do. Forget that they don’t know about many American cultural and historical pillars (shockingly not even Woodstock), they just don’t look that far west. It’s disappointing that they don’t care that much, and it’s disappointing that the US makes being a citizen overseas that much of a financial burden. Nobody’s given up their citizenship yet, but they have a hard time rationalizing paying what’s for them a lot of money just to maintain their “membership,” and risk something criminal for not doing so. My oldest daughter has two children and, even though they are eligible, they’re not registered as Americans.
But there’s always a catch. You can’t just burn or give up your passport and say, no thank you. Giving up US citizenship is a costly bureaucratic process. It costs about $2500 per person (a month’s salary for some, before taxes), as well as an “exit” tax which basically is a percent of your assets. That’s not only shocking, and out of reach for some on its own, but makes it cost prohibitive to renounce one’s citizenship to the extent that it’s a financial burden to do so, a unique American catch 22.
A few months ago, one of my daughters joked how once, an Israeli man offered to pay her to get married as a means (illegally) to get US citizenship. Of course, that’s not happening. Now, my kids are talking about dumping their citizenship, especially if the US allows Israelis the reciprocity of getting an automatic visa to visit the US, like Americans have coming to Israel. Avoiding waiting for an appointment, and in line for hours just to apply for a visa, will be a turning point in how they consider keeping their American citizenship, or not.
A college professor once said that a Jew can never have too many passports. If you ask my kids and others who are no longer diaspora Jews, one is enough: the one with the Biblical emblem of the State of Israel. Who cares if we can’t go to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other enlightened countries.