At last count, I have visited Jerusalem about 45 times in my life — not counting the full year that I lived and studied there in preparation for the rabbinate.
This is what each visit confirms for me:
- Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world. It is where I feel God’s Presence most acutely.
- If the entire world can be compared to an eye, then Jerusalem is the iris of the eye.
- “Ten measures of beauty descended on the world. Jerusalem took nine of them; the entire world got only one.” (Talmud)
Moreover, for the Jew, Jerusalem sits at the very center of Jewish liturgical and historical hopes. When we take the Torah out of the Ark during services, we affirm that “the Torah goes forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” We end the Passover Seder with the dream: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
That said, I am not in favor of moving the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
I say this precisely because of my deep love for the land and state of Israel, and my deep love for the city of Jerusalem.
Here is why.
While it is true that Jerusalem plays a major role in defining a Jewish sense of space, we cannot expect that those theological truths are exportable. My spiritual truth does not necessarily define someone else’s reality.
The same thing is true with history. Of course, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – by history and by right.
But, while historical right has a role in the present conversation, it cannot override that conversation.
This past week in the Forward, Peter Beinart reports:
Last week, according to Haaretz, the Israeli army, police and internal security service all “presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior ministers with scenarios of worsening violence should incoming President Donald Trump announce the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” Mohammed al-Momani, media affairs minister for the government of Jordan, which provides invaluable anti-terror assistance to both Israel and the United States, warned that moving the embassy would have “catastrophic consequences.” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said moving the embassy, and annexing West Bank settlements, will spark “chaos, lawlessness and extremism.”
Consider Yehoshafat Harkabi’s book, The Bar Kochba Syndome: Risk and Realism in International Politics. Harkabi, who died in 1994, had served as the chief of military intelligence for Israel. In this book, he analyzed the disastrous Bar Kochba (sometimes spelled Bar Kokhba) revolt in 132 CE.
Jews, spurred on by the messianic pretensions of Bar Kochba, and the support he got from the great sage Akiba, launched a rebellion against Rome. They lost, and Jewish independence was crushed. And how does that apply to the state of Israel? Harkabi wrote:
A great state may behave contrary to world public opinion, but this is not the case for the State of Israel, a tiny nation at the core of much international interest. An occasional clash with world public opinion, well and good — but let it not be continuous. Israel must strive, with all its power, to be in the right as viewed by the world.
Some of you will say: “Why stop with the embassy? If buildings or physical spaces are so unimportant to you, then why not surrender the Western Wall as well?”
To which I would say: The Western Wall is central to Jewish consciousness. The embassy is not. It is not even central to American consciousness. It is an administrative center.
Some of you will say: “You care more about Palestinian reactions than about Israeli and Jewish ideals!”
To which I would say: I believe in those ideas and ideals. I pray them.
But, we must measure predictable results of our actions. If moving the embassy to Jerusalem will increase the possibility of terrorism, then Israel and her supporters must consider that consequence. (Not to mention the possibility of terror against American embassies in other places.)
To fail to do so is to repeat the error of Bar Kochba’s followers — to put messianic ideals over political realities.
Because, here is the reality that we live with.
The Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, is in the plural form.
There is not one Jerusalem — there are two.
There is the Yerushalayim shel maalah – the heavenly, ideal Jerusalem.
And there is the Yerushalayim shel matah – the earthly, real Jerusalem.
We do not yet live in the heavenly Jerusalem, where all of our ideals can be realized.
In an ideal world, I would want the US Embassy to be located in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. That fact must be above dispute.
But in the earthly Jerusalem, we weigh the relative merits and value of a building, however symbolic, against human flesh and blood.
In that as-yet unredeemed world, I will vote for human safety — all the time.