‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem’: Thoughts on a Long Overdue Step

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.” (Psalms 137:5-6, JPS translation)

As the diplomatic world and the various strands of the punditocracy have obsessed over President Trump’s recent announcement that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin the process of relocating the American embassy, I have been pondering the importance of the Psalmist’s pledge, first made by the rivers of Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE.  During the years of exile that followed that destruction, the Jewish people held fast to the memory of Jerusalem.  Seventy years after that trauma, the Persian Emperor Cyrus permitted Jews to return to the Holy City and to rebuild the Temple.  They proceeded to hold onto the city, under Persian, Greek and Roman domination, until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

From the time of that event and through the centuries of exile that followed, Jews have clung tenaciously to the memory of Jerusalem.  We have faced it in prayer and made the hope for its restoration the conclusion of the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur Ne’eilah (concluding) service.  For centuries, every Jewish bridegroom has broken a glass under the chuppah (wedding canopy), a tradition that began as a concrete manifestation of the commitment to “keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”

The Jewish connection to Jerusalem cannot be measured solely by the raw population numbers at any particular point in time.  There were periods of history when the foreign power controlling Jerusalem prohibited Jews from living there.  Whenever they could, however, Jews continued to make Jerusalem their home.  When the great sage Ramban (Nachmanides) arrived in Jerusalem in 1267, he found but a single Jew living there.  He chose to remain there, however, and the community he built created the nucleus of what is today the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

I have long viewed the single Jew whom the Ramban found when he arrived in Jerusalem as an appropriate symbol of the Jewish relationship to the Holy City.  Even at its low point, that Jew’s presence proclaims, the city was not completely Judenrein.  Even in the depths of the Middle Ages, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem was never abandoned. In any event, the restoration of Jewish population in Jerusalem began with the Ramban’s arrival and continued into modern times.

Given this history, it is hardly surprising that the modern State of Israel, in 1950, before the dust of its war of independence had settled, formally declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.  What is worth pondering is why the nations of the world, with a few honorable exceptions (Netherlands, Costa Rica & El Salvador are the ones that come to mind) did not promptly recognize Jerusalem as the capital and instead chose to locate their embassies in Tel Aviv.  To hear the denizens of the punditocracy pontificate in the weeks since Trump’s announcement, one might have thought that the failure to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — though I can’t think offhand of any other country that has been denied the right to select its own capital — was an attempt by the international community to promote peace negotiations with the Arabs or limit Israel’s activity in the eastern part of the city.

But of course any such supposition would be wholly anachronistic.  In 1950, there were no peace negotiations to promote; it would be another 27 years before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader willing to discuss the possibility of peace with Israel.  As to East Jerusalem, in 1950 it was firmly under Jordanian control, and it remained so until 1967, when Israel repulsed a Jordanian attack during the Six Day War and ended up in control of the entire West Bank, including  East Jerusalem.  And let’s not forget that while Israel since 1967 has allowed free access to the holy places of all faiths in Jerusalem, Jews were denied access to their holy sites, including the Kotel during the nineteen years that the Jordanians ruled the Old City.

So if none of the excuses being offered by the pundits applied to the situation in 1950, why didn’t any of the major powers locate an embassy in Jerusalem at any time during the nineteen years before Israel took control of East Jerusalem?  The simplest answer is the one that the late Leon Uris put into the mouth of Abraham Cady, the hero of his book QB VII:

The kingdom of heaven is concerned with righteousness alone.  The kingdoms of the earth run on oil.

That sums it up pretty well. The power of the Arab oil weapon has been reduced of late by a combination of technology and geology, but in the 1960s and 1970s it threatened to give the Arabs a stranglehold over the economies of the West.  Its potency reached its zenith in 1973, when Arab pressure finally forced the few small countries that had maintained their embassies in Jerusalem to relocate.

Of course, oil wasn’t the only factor in the systematic attempt to delegitimize Israel’s right to Jerusalem.  Cold-war competition for the hearts and minds of Third World peoples played a role, as did the instinctive tendency of diplomats to cling to the status quo.  Nor can we discount the role played by good old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

Whatever the reasons for the initial non-recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that policy has lost whatever validity it may have had.  Those who have criticized President Trump’s decision in the days since it was announced have made essentially two arguments: that it will impede the “peace process” and that it will lead to anti-Israeli and anti-American violence in the region.  Neither of these arguments can withstand serious scrutiny.

The notion that President Trump’s decision will complicate the peace process is based on the fallacy that there is a peace process to complicate.  No one who understands the reality on the ground can seriously believe that there is some magic formula that no one has yet figured out that can bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians at any time in the foreseeable future.  President Trump — or whoever wrote the speech he read announcing this change in policy — had a point when he paraphrased Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”.  No, I can’t see any way that the American action will help the peace process either, as some of Trump’s defenders suggested.  I simply don’t believe it will make much difference one way or the other.

As to the notion that Trump’s decision will lead to anti-American violence, I have not noticed any reluctance on the part of Islamic terrorists to resort to violence for any reason or none.  They may use the American decision as a pretext, but there is no reason to believe that it is the real motivation.  Terrorism, by and large, is opportunity-driven and is not dependent on a specific motivational trigger. Moreover, as far as I know, there gas not been any escalation of terrorist violence since the announcement.

Even if I believed that American recognition of Jerusalem will cause an increase in terrorist violence in the short term, that would still not be an adequate reason to forgo recognition.  If the most powerful nation on earth can be dissuaded by terrorist violence from taking diplomatic actions that its leaders believe to be right, then the world is in even more trouble than I thought.

The one criticism of Trump’s decision that may have some validity involves not the act itself but its timing.  From a moral perspective, the  United States should have recognized Jerusalem and moved its embassy there a long time ago.  Four previous Presidents had promised to do so and had ignored their promises after taking office. Congress passed a law requiring such a move more than twenty years ago, but it left the President an escape hatch that all subsequent Presidents have chosen to take advantage of.  Trump could easily have followed suit, justifying his inaction by the need to focus on more urgent foreign policy concerns.  There was, after all no particular urgency impelling Trump to act now.  Even the Israeli government, though it has always favored the move in principle, did not make it a priority.

Why President Trump acted when he did has been the subject of much speculation.  Some point to the influence of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and/or of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor.  Others credit Trump’s desire to please his evangelical base.  Yet others point to his need to distract voters from the growing Russian scandals.

There’s no way to be sure what motivated Trump to take this step.  I doubt that he himself knows, and I’m sure he couldn’t articulate it in a coherent way.  Whatever his motives, he did the right thing in this instance, and those of us who support Israel should acknowledge that. Doing the right thing in this instance does not make him a good President; it just makes him a terrible President who, at least on one occasion, made a correct decision.

I cannot agree with those who claim that  President Trump acted courageously in making this decision.  Courage requires a determination to proceed in the face of a known risk.  Someone who does not appreciate or comprehend the nature of a risk is not brave for taking it.

Those of us who support Israel but want to keep this decision in perspective need to avoid two common errors: one, common among the President’s supporters, which might be summed up as Trump-did-the-right-thing-so-he-must-be-good; and the other, which I’ve heard from his critics, might be summed up as Trump-did-it-so-it-must-be-wrong.

Neither proposition is tenable. I have no problem giving Trump credit for whatever good he does, but it doesn’t negate all the bad things he’s done.  As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The second error may be more insidious.  Some of those who have been critical of almost everything Trump has done have responded to this decision with reflexive criticism.  The recognition of Jerusalem and the imperative of moving the embassy have long received strong bi-partisan support.  Some of those who have been most vocal in opposition to Trump, however, now seem to be grouping this policy change as one of Trump’s mistakes.  There are, however enough mistakes to criticize without having to pretend that Trump is wrong in one of the rare occasions on which he is right.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle that those of us who are both Zionists and Democrats need to overcome is how to prioritize in those cases in which honesty compels us to admit that the Democratic candidate — the one with whose domestic policies we most closely identify — is less favorable to Israel than his or her opponent.  There is no easy answer to that dilemma, and there is, unfortunately, reason to fear that we may, in the years ahead, face it with greater frequency.  I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what it isn’t.  We cannot solve this dilemma by pretending that it doesn’t exist, or by deluding ourselves into believing that the more pro-Israel candidate isn’t really more pro-Israel or that the domestic policies we disfavor really aren’t that bad.

Nor can we solve it by pretending that Israel is our only concern.  We are obligated never to forget Jerusalem, but that is not our only obligation.  We are also bound by prophetic injunction to

seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf, for in its prosperity you shall prosper.  (Jer. 29:7)

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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