Fairy Tales about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel

Fairy tales about why the United States had not already recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and why the Embassy is not already there.

The Knesset meets in Jerusalem.  The Prime Minister’s offices and residence are located in Jerusalem.  All parts of the national government reside in Jerusalem. So why does the United States – and other world governments – pretend that the capital of Israel is in Tel Aviv?

Pundits readily explain why: The status of Jerusalem must remain indeterminate until the Palestinian Authority and Israel together decide this issue.  We do not want to prejudge the thorny issue.  Let the parties figure this out without our interference.

This seems persuasive, but the United States did not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital back in 1948, when there were no negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinians Authority did not exist.  Israel controlled the Western half of Jerusalem then, the new city, and quickly established the seat of government there, but the United States pretended that the government sat in Tel Aviv.  The old city, the Eastern half, belonged to the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan, without any protest from the United States.

Another seemingly persuasive explanation has to do with timing.  We should recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but not just now, when delicate negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel have just begun, or just blown up, or just might start again soon.   Since these negotiations always exist in the state of failing or the state of potentially starting again, though we should recognize reality, the proper time to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is never.

In fact, the United States has not just refused to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  The United States has refused to recognize any part of Jerusalem as part of Israel.  The passport of a United States citizen born in Western Jerusalem does not have a country on his passport, but only the name of the city.  Representatives of the Government of the United States, when they travel to Jerusalem, do not show the flag of the United States. That would amount to recognizing Israeli sovereignty.

So why has the United States Government refused to recognize any part of Jerusalem as part of Israel?

In the Partition plan of 1947, the United Nations envisioned dividing Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with Jerusalem governed by neither (General Assembly resolution 181; reiterated in later resolutions 194 and 303).  The UN would govern. Jerusalem would remain a “corporus seperatum,” a separate entity, unlike any other city in the world.

So the United States never recognized Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem.

The UN resolutions explicitly defended this unique status of Jerusalem because it has a sacred place in three world religions.  I suspect that the religious feelings of Muslims or of Jews did not figure much into the UN resolution.  No Muslim country recognized the capital of Israel in Tel Aviv, either.  Jews generally supported Jewish control of Jerusalem.

Before the UN came onto the picture, when the Ottoman Empire ruled Jerusalem, various European countries carved out enclaves for themselves. Even today Jerusalem has a Russian Compound and a German Colony and other such spaces because of Christian sensibilities about ruling in the Holy City.

Most offensive to Christian sensibilities was the prospect of Jewish sovereignty.  Saint Augustine explained that Jews must survive as testimony to the truth of the Bible, but Jews must survive as a powerless people.  As long as Jews do not recognize Jesus as their savior, Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land could never return.  The Church certainly did not want to recognize Jewish rule over Jerusalem.

The Partition Plan in theory kept the Holy City from that outcome, though in practice Jordan annexed East Jerusalem, and Israel controlled West Jerusalem.  When, in 1967, the Jordanians joined other Arab armies in attacking Israel, the outcome of the fighting left Israel in control of East Jerusalem.

Despite facts on the ground, until the President’s announcement yesterday, the United States still recognized the status of Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum.”

Naturally, the Pope opposed this development.  The Vatican did not even recognize the state of Israel at all until 1993.

Another plausible explanation for continuing not to recognize Israeli sovereignty: the predictable upsurge in violence.   Pundits predict acts of violence against innocent Americans or against American interests around the world.  Muslim leaders may prove unable or unwilling to suppress attacks; some leaders have hinted that they will encourage or incite attacks.  Perhaps the United States should never announce policy decisions without getting permission from our most violent adversaries.  No, really, the people who actually commit acts of violence bear direct responsibility their acts.

Our policy of not recognizing Israeli sovereignty over even West Jerusalem has an unmistakable symbolic value quite as dangerous as any threats of terrorism.  Try this thought experiment: under what circumstances do you imagine an Israeli government ceding West Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority?

What did you come up with?

I didn’t either.

No potential concessions come to mind; I see only a military defeat of enormous proportions.  Refusing to recognize the Israeli presence in Jerusalem amounts to anticipating that military defeat.  Keeping the US embassy in Tel Aviv says to the Arab world that we consider Israeli presence in Jerusalem a temporary irritant, that we too await the destruction of much of Israel, and that we encourage the Arab world not to accommodate itself to the presence of Israel.

Keeping the US embassy in Tel Aviv makes the same statement to the Israeli people.

Cain said to Abel his brother and it was when they were in the field that Cain got up on Abel his brother and killed him (Gen. 4:8). Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi . . . About what were they disputing? This one said “In my borders the Temple will be built,” and the other one said “In my borders the Temple will be built.”  . . . and through that, Cain got up on Abel his brother and killed him.  (Genesis Rabbah 22:8)

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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