Here are some thoughts in response to President Trump's announcement yesterday about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital and initiating the transfer of the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. I'm thinking about this spiritually and emotionally as a Jew, as well as politically as an American and as a person tied to Israel.
All day yesterday, I felt like I was thinking about the Jerusalem announcement through clenched teeth. This felt wrong; we are taught to “lift Jerusalem above my highest joy.” Then in the evening two people asked me what I was thinking, right before the daily minyan (service). That helped me find my starting point. I thought about the first words of the opening psalm, Ashrei yoshvay vaytecha – “Happy are those who live in Your house.” One of the meanings of that house is the House of God, the Beit Hamikdash in ancient Jerusalem.
The meaning of that House in Jerusalem for me is in the second chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, which is almost the same in the fourth chapter of Micah:
“It shall be, at the end of days, that the mountain of the House of Adonai will be established as the highest of the mountains, and will be lifted up over hills, and all the nations will flow toward it in joy. Many peoples will come, and they will say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Adonai, to the House of the God of Jacob, that God may teach us of God's ways and we may walk in God's paths.” For out of Zion shall come forth Torah (teaching), and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem. God will judge among nations, and set right many nations, so they will beat their swords into ploughshares and their swords into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and they will not experience war any more.”
That is what Jerusalem and the holy mountain are all about. This vision, and many others related, are why Jerusalem is a holy city and such an important symbolic place in our world. Lose the vision, and there is no point in quarreling about the city.
Here is something that seems too obvious to have to say: Jerusalem is Israel's capital.
“Jerusalem” could mean two things. There is the core of Jerusalem – the Temple Mount and nearby, the oldest parts of the city where the holy sites of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are. Then there is the modern city of Jerusalem, almost all of which is less than 150 years old. By now the modern city is on all sides of the Old City, not just east and west. Both “West Jerusalem” and most of “East Jerusalem” are that modern city. (See my column here for more detail.) The importance of those modern areas derives from being attached to the core. They aren't particularly holy in and of themselves. What exactly did President Trump recognize yesterday?
No one who accepts that there is an Israel denies that at least some part of this modern Jerusalem is part of Israel and always will be. It's in that modern Jerusalem that President Trump wants to put the embassy.
Everyone knows I am no fan of President Trump. But really, his statement and decision don't decide anything about the core of Jerusalem. He did not say, for instance, that all of ancient and modern Jerusalem should be under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. He left in place everything that has been standard peace-process policy. To be determined in negotiations: what exactly are the official boundaries of Jerusalem, what would the arrangements be in Jerusalem in the future if there were two states.
But he said the obvious and indisputable, that the capital of Israel is in Jerusalem.
People other than Israelis, and Jews generally, have strong ties and claims in Jerusalem. It is a holy space for them. It is a politically significant space for the Palestinians in particular. My own view is that there is room for both Israeli sovereignty and other sovereignty. It's not zero-sum, and recognizing Palestinian political claims in Jerusalem does not mean surrendering Israeli sovereignty by the Temple Mount. In fact, the current arrangement on the Temple Mount is built on Israeli sovereignty with Muslim/Jordanian administration from day to day. This is already a creative solution, which has held up for the past fifty years even during times of tension, and it has never been the obvious one. Israel rarely gets credit for this. Other creative solutions, for a time when the Palestinians have full sovereignty, are certainly possible.
No solution is ruled out by moving the American embassy somewhere in the area of pre-1967 Israeli Jerusalem.
I have to say that I was astounded, though not surprised, to see how much coverage was devoted yesterday evening on National Public Radio to the matter. So out of proportion. There are so many things going on in the country and the world that have more practical effect on people, in the short and long term, that never get this much attention.
There is a sneaky imbalance, especially in the media and in Europe and on some parts of the American left. Israel is not allowed to say that any part of Jerusalem is its capital. But the Palestinians are entitled to say as a starting point of all negotiations that the oldest parts of Jerusalem are their capital.
When Israel or any country moves to formalize the reality of Israeli sovereignty in the “undisputed” part of Jerusalem, “West Jerusalem” – it turns out that it's disputed after all. Today Hanan Ashrawi, a PLO leader, pulls that move in the New York Times today: “Since Israel was established in 1948, the United Nations and the United States, like most countries, have refused to recognize any country’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians.” That's smoke and mirrors, meant to confuse people who don't know their history. There is no peace plan of any sort that has not envisioned Israel sovereignty in some of Jerusalem. Even the Saudi peace plan talked about the pre-1967 borders, where some of Jerusalem is part of Israel. And yet, anyone who says even this much is considered to be violating Palestinian national rights.
An imaginative Palestinian leader could have seized the high ground yesterday. She or he could have taken what the president actually said, and responded: “We welcome President Trump's recognition of our rights and role in Jerusalem, and his invitation to begin negotiations about Jerusalem and our statehood. Peace with Israel means sharing Jerusalem with the Israelis. Peace with Israel means sharing the intertwined holy sector. We reach out our hand to the Israelis, to negotiate an arrangement that recognizes the complexity of Jerusalem. When that is achieved, this is how Palestine will show its commitment to the peace and holiness that al-Quds represents: the very first foreign embassy we open as a sovereign state will be our embassy to Israel in its capital in Jerusalem.”
Instead, as one of my thoughtful colleagues pointed out yesterday, it is assumed ahead of time that Arabs react with violence, and violence is therefore not their responsibility in any way.
Now I absolutely believe that President Trump cares very little about Israelis and Palestinians, and was motivated by nothing other than his own political needs at the moment. The careless rollout of this policy puts American in danger, as our own State Department says, and this was a reckless way to do it that will cost lives.
I believe that Palestinians are justified in their fear that Prime Minister Netanyahu has no intention of making a shared Jerusalem possible. He is proposing expanding the definition of “Jerusalem” as a way of taking certain territory off the table for negotiations. The prime minister too could have seized the moral high ground, and made the kind of statement I imagined for a Palestinian leader: “We thank President Trump for acknowledging our eternal capital in Jerusalem. From that city, we as Israelis will show our commitment to all that Jerusalem, the City of Peace, represents. Our capital is already unlike any other capital in the world. We reach out our hand to the Palestinians to negotiate an arrangment that recognizes the complexity of Jerusalem. Together, we can fulfill the vision of Isaiah: 'My House will be a house of prayer for all peoples.'”
Next week is Channukah. The story begins with corruption and desecration in Jerusalem, and it ends with rededication, with miracle, with hope. All of it on the very ground we are talking about this week. We will retell that transformation for eight nights, and it should center us as we think about the conflict of our day. For Jews, Jerusalem is a site of holiness and awe and aspiration. That is why we claim it still, as a capital and more.