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On second thought
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On second thought

Reconsidering U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

How will I feel on May 14, 2018, when the United States, in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary, relocates its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? I’ve grappled with this question since December, when President Donald Trump announced U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention to move the embassy. 

I look at the move through a dual lens: First, I am a passionate, lifelong advocate of a secure, Jewish, and democratic Israel. More than just a supporter, I lived and worked in Israel for more than seven years, followed by a lengthy career in Jewish communal service, primarily devoted to building American governmental and public support for the Jewish state. 

Second, I’m also a firm believer in the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, existing side-by-side. While recognizing that the realization of this vision currently seems remote, in my writing and speaking I urge all sides to take concrete steps to preserve its future viability. I believe a two-state solution is the only pathway to peace. If Israel is unable to separate from the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, I am convinced its Jewish and democratic identity — as well as its security — will be in grave jeopardy. 

When confronting questions without clear-cut answers, I often look for insights from like-minded people. Although I am not a member of a Reform congregation, I was interested in seeing how the movement would respond to the change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, as I’ve often found the movement’s leadership in sync with my own thinking on Middle East issues. 

On Dec. 5, 2017, just after Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem and one day before the movement’s biennial began in Boston, Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs issued a statement on behalf of the movement’s many affiliates: “President Trump’s ill-timed, but expected, announcement affirms what the Reform Jewish Movement has long held: that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Yet while we share the president’s belief that the U.S. embassy should, at the right time, be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we cannot support his decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for the peace process.”    

But after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning the recognition, the movement issued another statement, the tone of which was far softer than the first. “President Trump affirmed an age-old dream of the Jewish people …Jerusalem is, in fact, the capital of Israel. That is how it should and must be.” His statement went on to praise U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley for “affirming
that American recognition of Jerusalem does not prejudge any final status issues including Jerusalem’s boundaries and does not preclude a two-state solution.” 

I sensed Jacobs felt conflicted, just as I was, wanting to rejoice over the president’s decision but fearing the impact it might have on long-term prospects for peace. 

Two December op-ed pieces by Reform leaders, both critical of the movement’s first statement, also contributed to my thinking. In Haaretz, former URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote that he agreed with Trump for three reasons: 

1) While Jerusalem is, and will remain, the capital of Israel regardless of U.S. policy, “it is comforting and gratifying when President Trump finally states what I know to be eternal and true.” Moreover, Yoffie expressed little sympathy for the Palestinians, whose leadership consistently has argued that Jews have no connection to Jerusalem.

2) Support for the president’s decision came not just from the Israeli right wing, but from across the political spectrum. 

3) The president’s position did nothing to preclude negotiations that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state that would also have its capital in some part of the city.  

In JTA, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, wrote, “The world’s superpower finally did the right thing, and we opposed it — not on the principle, but on the ‘timing.’ Two thousand years later and it is still not the right time? As if there is a peace process that the Palestinians are committed to and pursuing with conviction.” He also acknowledged that “we are committed to a two-state solution that will require territorial compromises from both sides, including in Jerusalem.” 

I recently contacted Yoffie and Hirsch, both longtime colleagues, to see if they still felt that way. They do, although Yoffie lamented “a major problem” —  the continued absence of a well-thought-out peace plan. 

I asked Hirsch whether, given his position in support of territorial compromise in Jerusalem, he would have welcomed some indication on Trump’s part that Palestinian interests in the city should be considered in future negotiations. “I probably would have welcomed that, too,” he told me.

For Reform Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, the location of the embassy is critical. “This is a bold step on the part of the president,” he told me during a phone call. “I’d give him an A-plus if he avoids politicizing the Jerusalem issue.” That said, “if he chooses to place our embassy in a clearly disputed part of the city, I’d give him a C-minus.” Placement of the embassy requires a “strategic approach,” Miller went on to say.

“Unfortunately, this president tends not to think strategically.”  

The views of these four leaders are not in alignment, but taken together, they helped me to accept the legitimacy of my ambivalence. 

I’m skeptical about the president’s judgment on many things, not the least on an issue as complicated and sensitive as the Israel-Palestine divide. He seems to believe that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy will contribute to the prospects for peace. Personally, I don’t see it, but I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong. 

So, upon further reflection, on May 14 I will join Israelis, Jews, and people around the world in celebrating this important milestone toward international recognition that Israel’s holiest city is also its capital. My joy will be tempered, however, because the ultimate prize — peace — remains more elusive than ever.

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