Recognition of Jerusalem: Momentous Occasion or Not?

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07 Dec 2017

It was the top news on CNN and The New York Times. And everywhere else, really. President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Of course, equally front and center were the dire predictions. Before Trump had even made his statement, many news sources, as well as Arab and European nations were advocating against it, including for good measure, the Pope. The world was blaming Trump for the violence that would surely follow his statement, even before he delivered it.

And yet despite this, or perhaps because his statement came with so much opposition, the moment of delivery was a historic moment and I did not want my students to miss it. And so just as when I was in 6th grade and the whole school watched the handshake of Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993, we filed all of our students into the auditorium to observe President Donald Trump’s momentous speech.

Although we all had an inkling of what he would say, I had tears in my eyes as Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. My students, as young as they are, with many not fully appreciating the magnitude of what was happening, applauded enthusiastically without being prompted. There was such a feeling of pride in the room, a pride of being Jewish and a pride of being American. Our Israeli shlichim were also incredibly moved with one saying the Geula can’t be far behind and another telling me his heart was racing from excitement.

It was truly a momentous occasion.

Or was it?

I am not an expert in American law or foreign policy but let’s look at what will actually change (at least, according to my understanding). The embassy at some point will be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. American children born in Jerusalem (like my second daughter) will no longer have just “Jerusalem” written in their passport, but Jerusalem will be accompanied with a state (namely, Israel), like every other country (although latest reports are that the State Department won’t be changing passports anytime soon).  Some maps may be redrawn, perhaps a few foreign dignitaries will reside in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. In other words, this grand announcement will not change much.  

Let’s look at the political angle: what statement does this make about America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Many news sources have indicated that taking this position removes America’s ability to be an honest broker. But is that true?

Palestinians have long since demanded East Jerusalem as their capital. Trump was clear that by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, he was not negating this possibility if both sides choose to go down this path in favor of peace. Trump was also clear that he was not negating the possibility of a two-state solution if that’s the solution favored by both parties. In other words, the Palestinians lost nothing with this declaration. Neither did anyone else in the Arab world. Jerusalem has always functioned as Israel’s capital and as Trump said, this declaration merely recognized a fact that was already in play since Israel’s establishment.

So why the tears and racing hearts? Why the extensive media coverage and threats and warnings from across the world? If indeed not much changed, why was this such a momentous moment in Jewish History?

I can’t speak for anyone else but for me, it was a moment of respite in the constant frustration of having to defend Israel. As Zionists, we have come to expect unfairness and double standards as our due. What Trump said is true: There was never a reason for the United States not to recognize Jerusalem and this recognition was long overdue. Referring to Jerusalem as an international city hearkens back to the Partition Plan of 1947 which never came into existence because the Arabs rejected it and declared war on the infant state of Israel. After the War of Independence, the world had no problem accepting the 1948 boundaries of the state with its fragile borders, nor did they seem to have a problem with Jordan occupying all of the West Bank and prohibiting Jews from worshiping at our holy places. So borders were accepted except for the ones recognizing Israel’s capital? And even if one wants to argue that after the Six Day War, it was politically risky for the United States to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Eastern Jerusalem, why not recognize West Jerusalem as the capital?

Listening to the President of the United States admitting an injustice done to Israel was powerful. Hearing him right that wrong, when so many others have promised and then refused to do so, was powerful. Hearing him state that Israel is a just country that allows other religions access to their holy sites when CNN loves to paint Israel as an aggressive occupier was powerful.

My six-year-old daughter sat beside me as we watched and she whispered to me, “Is Trump Jewish?” I told her no. She whispered, “So why is he saying this?”

We are a nation that stands alone. We’ve become accustomed to it, even come to expect being blamed by headlines in the New York Times or CNN or MSNBC when an innocent Israeli is murdered in their bed “because they are a settler”. It’s normal when the world screams loudly about a Palestinian protester killed (with a knife in his hand!) but Jewish blood spilled is not worth mentioning. But as much as we’ve come to expect it, the resentment and frustration never truly goes away.

And so perhaps the greatness of the moment was simply being validated. Being told that Israel doesn’t have to be pressured to give away land and ignore their own security concerns but that these should be Israel’s choices to make. Or that Israel should have the right to choose its own capital as much as any other country. Obvious statements but ones that when they come to Israel, we cannot take for granted.

Will President Trump remain a friend of Israel? I hope so. Will the recognition of Jerusalem come with a price tag? I hope not. I certainly hope this statement is not accompanied by violence or G-d forbid, war. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of following Israeli politics, it’s that nothing can be predicted. I hope that threats of “Days of Rage” will remain threats alone and that if G-d forbid, those threats materialize, that no one is injured or worse. I hope that the world does not stand idly by and condone violence.

What will be tomorrow is unknown. But for just one solitary moment, it felt nice to be heard and understood. So thank you Mr. President. Jerusalem was and always has been our capital and your recognition was appreciated. But giving us the validation of being understood was the greatest gift we could receive.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.