In December, the White House announced that it was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and would aim to move the United States Embassy there.
I happened to be in Jerusalem that very day, and was with an Israeli government minister and a group of senior international religious leaders as several of us listened live, over dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Old City walls, to the announcement in Washington, D.C. Soon afterward, I took a scenic route through the picturesque Yemin Moshe quarter in order to get a view of a laudatory message beamed near the Tower of David in honor of the decision.
The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jewish organizations, B’nai B’rith included, greeted the White House decision with strong praise. In principle, the U.S. move stood, any foreign grumbling aside, on about as firm a ground as it comes: If the Jewish state cannot legitimately claim its capital in Jerusalem, where can it? And if the Jewish people cannot look to Jerusalem as a focal point, no people can really lay claim to any city, anywhere.
As Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s would-be first president, once told a British dignitary who asked why Zionists — Zion, of course, being another name for Jerusalem — would not settle for a different place, he responded that Jews were in possession of Jerusalem when London was still a marsh. Separately, it was Winston Churchill who said, “You ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem; it is they who made it famous.”
King David established Jerusalem as Israel’s seat of government some three millennia ago, well before the other major faiths cherishing the city came into being. The Temple Mount has served as the perennial epicenter of the Jewish world, the place toward which Jews pray daily and have looked with longing for thousands of years. Jews have never had any other capital, and no other nation ever made the city its own capital. As even the diplomats stationed in Tel Aviv know, Jerusalem has served since Israel’s founding as the site of practically all the country’s foremost national institutions: the Knesset, the president’s residence, the prime minister’s office, the Supreme Court and nearly every government ministry. And it is precisely under Israeli sovereignty that Jerusalem, for all its fissures, has remained diverse and a place of religious freedom rare in the annals of the city.
Indeed, in contrast with the pre-1967 era, when Jews were expelled and attacked from Jerusalem’s ancient center, and barred from their holiest of places, some of which were ravaged and desecrated, Israel has with negligible international acknowledgment gone to the unparalleled lengths of maintaining the Temple Mount under Islamic clerical administration, thus preventing non-Muslims from praying openly there.
And so, as a Jew, Jerusalem has always been at the center of my consciousness — and I have always believed, in keeping with very broad, long-standing communal consensus, in the utter irreplaceability of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But I, like a fair number of others, received the news of the American “recognition” decision with a bit of misgiving. Would there be negative implications to the decision’s having been made by the U.S. at a time of exceptionally acute political divides? Would the embassy actually move in the foreseeable future (and to what part of the contested city)? Would the decision have any practical impact on strengthening Israel’s hold on Jerusalem in eventual final-status peace negotiations? Might there, in the nearer term, be an international diplomatic backlash that would undercut, rather than cement, the status of the city as Israel’s capital? Would U.S. warnings about “taking names” of countries lashing out in response have any effect on efforts to rally United Nations condemnation of the Jerusalem recognition?
And, not least, would the decision provide a pretext for yet another wave of deadly Palestinian terrorism against Israelis?
Now, to be sure, it was clear from the outset that global alarmism about the recognition decision was both highly overblown and hypocritical. After all, few objected, let alone predicted or justified any violent Israeli response, when the U.N. prematurely recognized a “State of Palestine,” when some European and other states did likewise (even in some cases exchanging embassies with the Palestinians), when the Vatican signed an agreement with “Palestine” that seemed to assign it oversight of Jerusalem, when Iran and various Arab governments deed all of Jerusalem to the Palestinians and when Russia independently announced recognition of two capitals in Jerusalem. Widespread media reports of the White House “reversing decades of U.S. policy” omitted all nuance and context — particularly the fact that the U.S. Congress had more than two decades earlier overwhelmingly recognized Jerusalem’s status as capital, while urging the relocation of the American Embassy there, and that both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates had repeatedly pledged to fulfill this bipartisan commitment. Moreover, there is surely some truth to the administration’s argument that more than 25 years of denying Israel’s capital had not prevented the Oslo peace process from grinding to a halt.
And one can only describe as chutzpah the fact that a U.N. General Assembly resolution adopted to berate the U.S. decision was sponsored by Yemen — a country torn between those merely belligerent toward Israel and those so belligerent that their official flag reads, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse to the Jews” — and Turkey, which, even as the motion itself demanded that countries desist from establishing diplomatic facilities in Jerusalem, said that it planned to open its own embassy to the Palestinians in the holy city.
As to my initial misgivings, it appears that the U.S. plans to actually expedite the opening of an embassy in Jerusalem, at least in temporary facilities, this May. At the same time, the Trump administration has gone out of its way to indicate that its recognition would not prejudge the contours of any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The U.S. decision has been panned internationally, but two countries, Guatemala and the Czech Republic, have echoed the American recognition, with the former also planning to locate its own embassy in Israel’s capital. While the General Assembly reprimand, with a pro-Palestinian automatic majority in that body, did advance (following a failed effort in the Security Council, where the U.S. has veto power), U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s pledge of consequences for those denying America’s right to make sovereign diplomatic decisions did at least shift the voting considerably, relative to that on a rote prior U.N. resolution on Jerusalem. Even Arab states essentially limited their protests to rhetorical ones — and the popular Palestinian response was relatively subdued, notwithstanding the open fanning of flames by both Hamas and Fatah.
We can only hope that senseless, self-defeating Palestinian violence will not reignite in May, which coincides with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
At a most fundamental level, though, while there may be no perfect manner or timing to assert what is right amid daunting threats and complex circumstances, the assertion of Jerusalem’s centrality to Jews and of Jews’ centrality to Jerusalem has never been as necessary as it is today. Where once this bond was universally recognized and even celebrated — among Christians as well, who trace the origins of their faith to a Jew in Jerusalem, but also Muslims — today a whitewashing of Jewish religious identity and national history, and thus of Jews’ basic rights and legitimacy as a people, is underway with unprecedented brazenness.
Too many influential Islamic figures not only deny Jews an entitlement to pray at the Temple Mount but that the historic temples ever existed there, all archeological and other evidence to the contrary. And a dominant Muslim bloc at the U.N. has had even UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — engage in this bigoted revisionism through resolutions that belittle (with parentheses), call into question (with quotation marks) or erase entirely the original Jewish names of the Mount as well as the Western Wall and other sacred sites.
Passover is one of the three yearly pilgrimage festivals when, in ancient Israel, all Jews would ascend to the Temple Mount — and when Jewish families worldwide continue to culminate their Seder with the exclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
During this holiday, it is especially fitting to welcome any contribution to restoring acknowledgment of the holy city as the beating heart of the Jewish people, and of the world’s only Jewish state.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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