As director of B’nai B’rith’s “embassy” in Jerusalem, I am acutely aware that the relocation of the American embassy to Israel’s capital — slated for this coming Monday — has special significance for our organization. It was at the September 1980 International Convention that B’nai B’rith International decided — perhaps the first by any U.S.-based Jewish organization — to establish a “permanent and official presence” in Jerusalem. This was B’nai B’rith’s robust refutation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 478 that just weeks earlier had called on all 13 member states with embassies in Jerusalem at the time (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay, Venezuela, the Netherlands and Haiti) to withdraw their diplomatic missions from the city.
The U.N.’s excuse for this assault was passage of the Jerusalem Law by the Knesset in July of that year which declared Jerusalem to be Israel's "complete and united" capital, declaring it a violation of international law. At its height, Jerusalem boasted 16 embassies — the above plus Ivory Coast, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Kenya. But since 2006, Jerusalem — the Jewish capital since the days of King David and never declared the capital of any other people, despite having been occupied by many — has been bereft of any embassies and official recognition as Israel’s capital.
Jerusalem was long the seat of B’nai B’rith in Israel. It was where the Jerusalem Lodge — the first lodge to be established in the Land of Israel — was inaugurated in 1888 (nine years before the founding the Zionist movement by Theodore Herzl) and undertook some of the most significant civic projects at the time: sending clandestine missions to establish lodges in Jewish communities across the Ottoman Empire; founding the first library in the Land of Israel; setting up the Committee of the Hebrew Language and battling Christian missionaries by providing alternatives to Christian education and medical services, among others. But leadership — both in Israel and internationally — recognized that the U.N.’s affront could not be left unanswered, and the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem was founded.
Since then, successive chairmen and directors have implemented its role as the organization’s public affairs arm in Israel and permanent and official presence in Jerusalem. One of our declared goals was, indeed, to encourage countries to move their embassies to the city or establish new one’s here, instead of in Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan. While we cannot claim success in this endeavor, the World Center did submit a white paper to the Foreign Ministry that identified strategies for attracting embassies to the city, although this never seemed to be a priority for Israeli governments faced with a multitude of bi-lateral and multi-lateral diplomatic challenges throughout its 70 years.
Finally, on Monday, this will change as President Donald J. Trump makes good on a 23-year promise by Congress and successive presidents. By also recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital de jure, Trump will blaze new, significant ground that was not engendered by the presence of embassies in the past. All praise for these courageous steps, long-awaited by the people of Israel, is deserved. The move has already had a ripple effect — albeit modest at first — with Guatemala and Paraguay following suit. The fanfare of Monday’s events will undoubtedly convince other countries that the rightful place for their legations is in Jerusalem — at least 10 are reportedly considering an imminent move — and this will have a positive effect on this fascinating, but challenging city.
Certain questions remain about the full significance of the embassy move as U.S. State Department officials insist that the administration will continue long-standing policy not to note “Jerusalem, Israel” in official U.S. documents, but only “Jerusalem.” There is also the cloud cast by the long-awaited U.S. proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that according to news reports, will call on Israel to relinquish control of four Arab neighborhoods in favor of the creation of a capital for “Palestine.”
These questions will undoubtedly be dealt with after sometime after Monday — perhaps even far in the future. But in the meantime, we will bask in the knowledge that Jerusalem has begun the long journey to its rightful place among the great capitals of the world.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
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