If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I set not Jerusalem
Above my chiefest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6, 1917 JPS Tanakh)
The Psalmist wrote these words from the point of view of exile 25-hundred years ago, describing the Jewish people sitting, weeping, by the rivers of Babylon and vowing never to forget Zion, never to forget Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is the beating heart of our nation. From the day, some three thousand years ago, that the Bible says King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to the city and set up in the Tabernacle that he had constructed for it, Jerusalem has been both the temporal and the religious capital of the Jews. Since that time, Jerusalem has been a national capital city ONLY for Jews. Not for any of its conquerors in the past two thousand years, be they Greek, Roman, Christian, Ottoman, or Arab.
One hundred years ago, Lord Balfour declared England’s support for a modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land – a declaration supported by the League of Nations in 1922 and by its successor, the United Nations, in 1947. Not, as detractors and anti-semites later would insist, as a post-World War Two colonialist enterprise to grab land from Arabs and assuage European guilt over the Holocaust. But rather to put right a historical wrong.
This week, President Trump sought to redress another historical wrong – by recognizing that Jerusalem IS, in fact, the capital of the modern State of Israel. And I think that is a really, really good thing.
There is no other example that I can think of – certainly not in modern history – where a sovereign nation did not get to choose where its capital would be. And no other example where that decision was ignored or even condemned by the rest of the world. The State of Israel operates out of Jerusalem: the president’s residence, the prime minister’s residence, the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and government agencies all are located in Jerusalem. And diplomats from other nations waste hours on the road every week, making the trek from their embassies in Tel Aviv to the seat of power in Jerusalem.
The president was just stating a fact, acknowledging reality. And that, unfortunately, is something that seems to be an alien concept in other parts of the world. I actually wish this had happened sooner. Maybe 70 years ago, certainly 50 years ago. I wish the western nations that all supported the creation of the modern Jewish homeland in our ancestral land had done the same. Because it would, I believe, have forced the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, as well as the self-described Palestinian people, to acknowledge reality, instead of dealing in false narratives.
It is a message long overdue: Start negotiating based on facts on the ground, not the fantasy of a past that really never was.
The delusion goes back all the way to the UN partition plan of 1947 that envisioned a Jewish state and an Arab state carved out of the land, living side by side, with Jerusalem as an open, international city.
The Jews said yes to that plan. But the Arab nations, in unity, said no. No to it all. No to a Jewish state. No to an internationally supervised Jerusalem. Instead they attempted to engage in genocide. And they lost. They – the aggresors – lost in 1947 and in 1953 in the Suez Canal zone and in 1967 when Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem away from Jordan. They said no. They don’t get rewrite history now: Well, we still don’t want a single Jew on the land, but we’ll take an international Jerusalem. No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. You said no back then. And you walked away from prospects for a negotiated peace at least half a dozen times in the last thirty years. So, no.
I am no fan of the current Israeli government. Not a surprise there. They, too, have squandered opportunities and engaged in deliberately provocative building campaigns over the green line. With a current cabinet that is solidly right-wing, there’s little incentive, and little appetite, for anything else. But, historically, Israel has been open to negotiation.
Everybody has ‘known’ for decades what the parameters of a peace plan would look like: both sides acknowledging the validity of the other and providing security assurances. Land swaps to compensate the Arabs for Jewish settlements – 85 percent of which are on only 8 percent of the West Bank and hug the green line. Acknowledgement of the Jewish capital in West Jerusalem while accommodating an Arab capital in East Jerusalem – even if that meant extending the city’s eastern boundary to achieve it.
Everybody “knows” this is what needs to happen. But it has never happened. And it never will happen as long as Jewish historical ties to the land and the city are disputed, and the right to Jewish sovereignty is denied.
This is probably why even some left-wing Laborites in Israel, who would never push for such a declaration from Washington, are reportedly delighted now that it’s happened. Maybe this announcement will be just the kick in the pants that the Arab world needs to get real.
That’s definitely not happening yet in Gaza, where Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, yesterday called for yet another violent uprising. “The only way to deal with the Zionist policy,” he declared, “is sparking a new intifada against the occupation and welcome resistance to this occupation.” By occupation, he’s not talking about the Old City or the West Bank. He’s talking about the entire state of Israel, which he is still committed to wiping off the map. And so are the leaders of Iran, who echoed these same sentiments. Violent protests are breaking out in Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem as a result.
Interestingly, we’re hearing very little from Arab capitals. Another truth of the current Middle East is that the Palestinian issue – which has long been used as a red herring by Arab autocrats to deflect anger away from their own oppressive policies – is not so important to them anymore, what with Iran’s bold ambitions, the bloody Syrian civil war, and the remnants of ISIS still at large. The Saudis are clearly re-thinking their alliances, and my colleague Rabbi David Kaufman of the group We Are For Israel writes that they are not alone: “Several Arab nations have come to realize that establishing more significant relations with Israel would be substantially in their best interest . . . If the Palestinians and Israelis do not make peace soon, several Arab nations may establish peace agreements on their own without that happening first.”
I was on a conference call yesterday with David Makovsky, a former State Department official who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he pointed out that there’s a duality here that the Arab world seems to be ignoring. Yes, President Trump did correct an historic anomaly – some would say an historic injustice – in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he also said: “We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” Rather than closing the doors to a possible peace plan, the declaration is designed to go along with it.
Makovsky’s advice was that the White House should make that duality clear – not just in English in Washington, but in Arabic in the Middle Eastern media as well. Most of the Arab world is not told the truth by state-controlled media. A majority of Palestinians think that Israel wants 100 percent of the West Bank, which is both absurd and untrue. So it should be the responsibility of the United States to tell the truth, in every place and in every language it can.
And that includes the fact that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem will take years, given the need for land and security. That gives everybody enough time to do what everybody “knows” they need to do. This is what our former Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, had to say about it:
“I supported all three presidents’ use of their national security waiver authority to delay the move in the interest of pursuing Middle East peace. But I have never believed that arguments for moving the embassy were groundless, or that it must await a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
“I’m influenced by my love of Jerusalem — an emotional attachment born of decades studying its history — and sense of justice for Jewish claims to the city that are far too often called into question. The presence of a U.S. Embassy in parts of Jerusalem no one disputes are Israeli territory is one way of acknowledging the centuries of history that link the Jewish people to the city, the questioning of which is closely linked to the denial of Israel’s very legitimacy.”
David Makovsky, during yesterday’s conference call, acknowledged the short-term threat to a long-term solution: “I think it could get bumpier before it calms down,” he said. And I understand the concern of my friends and colleagues who live in Israel, many of them in Jerusalem. They fear for their safety and that of their children, some of whom serve in the IDF or in the reserves. Some think this was the wrong time to make the announcement, absent a detailed peace plan, and that the United States going it alone in the world – yet again – is not necessarily helpful.
And yes, I can say all of this because I have no skin in the game. I don’t live in Israel. I don’t have children who put their lives on the line there. But my colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden does. He picked up his family and moved them from England to Israel decades ago. And he lost his son Jonathan, an IDF soldier who was killed on a rescue mission in Southern Lebanon in 1993. Here’s what he wrote this week in the English-language newspaper Times of Israel:
“So the international community continues to play the charade of maintaining its embassies in Tel Aviv while its ambassadors and other officials travel up the winding highway to Jerusalem to do business at the Knesset and Israel’s government ministries. . . . Of course, there is still the issue of the Palestinians and reaching an accommodation with them. However, no one can seriously believe that Israel will relocate its seat of government to Tel Aviv even in the context of a peace agreement. Therefore, it is time to stop playing games.”
The work of peace is hard and long. And I agree with David Makovsky, who used a baseball analogy to describe a suggested path to negotiations. We have failed, he said, when we swing for the fences instead of hitting a solid single. Let’s start, not by trying to solve everything at once, but by dealing with the gut issues first – the ones that hit people in the kishkes. For the Palestinians it’s about land, and guaranteeing them a fair layout of the West bank. For the Israelis, it’s security, both now and in the future. What are the Palestinians teaching their children about Israel and the Jews? What is the message they send by providing lifetime incomes to the families of terrorists?
The president was right that the two sides need to step up to the plate and deal honestly and realistically. The United States cannot – and never has been able to – impose a solution. But if our acknowledgement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can shake some sense into them, it is a step in the right direction.
The Psalmist (Psalm 126: 4-6) also wrote of the joy of returning from exile in Babylon all those centuries ago:
Bring back our captivity, O Lord, like the streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.
Let this be the image of the city of David, the city of peace, the city of redemption. Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will. As we say together: Amen.
©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin