Rabbis, leaders react to Trump’s announcement with mix of joy, fear

Rabbis, leaders react to Trump’s announcement with mix of joy, fear

‘Deal-maker’ could jeopardize U.S. role in peace talks

Pres. Trump signs a proclamation in the White House that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images 
Pres. Trump signs a proclamation in the White House that the U.S. will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images 

At Daniel Kurtzer’s 1982 confirmation hearing to become ambassador to Israel, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) asked whether he was ready to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Kurtzer replied, “I am whenever the president instructs me to do so. But before that instruction comes I would argue against the policy.”

Some 25 years later, Kurtzer — now the S. Daniel Abraham professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — remains a strong opponent of the move. 

In a conversation two hours before President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and authorization of the embassy move, Kurtzer told NJJN, “there is a real complication for the U.S. role as an honest broker” in peace talks. 

He noted that no other nation has its embassy in Jerusalem and that, with the exception of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and Czech President Milos Zeman), no world leader has endorsed the move. To Kurtzer, it means that the Trump administration “will isolate itself” from allies. 

“The United States is doing something unilaterally that is only in favor of Israel and its interests,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

Other academics in northern New Jersey weighed in on the significance and motivation behind
Trump’s move.  

Jonathan Golden, director of Drew University’s Center on Religion, Culture & Conflict in Madison, expressed ambivalence. “Jerusalem is and should be the place of the eternal Jewish people, but there are ways to have done this that could have been more thoughtful and magnanimous.”

He said Trump “could have signaled that he was willing to consider Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state to reassure people this wasn’t just a land grab. It was a missed opportunity to advance peace.”

The dean of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange viewed the announcement as fulfillment of a campaign promise that Trump made to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March 2016, that, unlike presidents before him, he would actually live up to the congressional mandate to relocate the embassy.

“It is something President Trump has promised and he has delivered on his promise,” Andrea Bartoli told NJJN.

Bartoli said the president did so because he is “less concerned about the U.S. per se and more about his own contribution,” calling the action “a personalization of politics.”

Trump seeks to be the linchpin in a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “His whole life has been about deal-making, and I think he thinks this is the way he can get a deal,” said Bartoli. 

A canvas of rabbis in the Greater MetroWest area found support for the presidential announcement, but some worried that it could trigger fighting and bloodshed.

Rabbi Avi Friedman of the Conservative Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit JCC said in an email that his “joy” over the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was tempered by “fear that this declaration would be used as a justification for violence against Israel and Jews.

Like Friedman, Reform Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange called it an “on the one hand…but on the other hand” dilemma.

“I believe any foreign embassy should be in the capital of the host country,” Cohen wrote in an email. But, he added, “it could make peace an even more distant hope, spark a new round of violence and further isolate Israel.”

Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of the Reform Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills endorsed the president’s announcement. But in an email to NJJN, Gewirtz added that “my support for this announcement does not mean that I (and all of us) shouldn’t acknowledge the reality of the national yearnings of the Palestinian People… When that times comes, we must support the rights of our neighbors and their claim to a piece of East Jerusalem.” 

Most mainstream Jewish organizations, including some highly critical of Trump’s policies in the past, endorsed the announcement. 

“By stating the truth of Jerusalem’s status as the capital of the State of Israel, President Trump has asserted U.S. global leadership towards ending a longstanding, senseless anomaly,” said David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), in a statement on the AJC website. 

Even as the Anti-Defamation League “welcomed” the announcement, a statement on its website said, “This important and long overdue step should not preclude the imperative of peace negotiations — including discussions over the final status of Jerusalem.” 

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella agency for Jewish community relations councils, supported the president, stating that Israel, “like all countries, has the right to determine the location of its capital.” It also supported “the administration’s commitment to the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”

In a statement AIPAC, one of the nation’s most powerful lobbying groups, called Trump’s actions “an important, historic step for which we are grateful. We urge the president to quickly relocate our embassy to Israel’s capital.” 

But J Street, a liberal advocacy group self-described as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” was emphatically opposed. 

In an email, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, wrote that “ultimately, this move will not help Israel. Instead, it’s the kind of reckless policy that results from the far right getting to define what it means to be pro-Israel. And it’s got to stop.”

Mark Bane, president of the Orthodox Union, commended the president “for doing what is not just the right thing to do, but what is actually the common-sense thing to do — to have America’s embassy in the chosen capital city of a close ally, the State of Israel.”

Even as it “applauded” the announced move, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism questioned “the purpose of the recognition at this time.” 

The Reform and Reconstructionist bodies were critical of the chief executive. 

The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association said on its website it was concerned that “this abrupt disruption of the diplomatic status quo … may lead to dangerous unintended consequences, including renewed escalations of violence and terrorism.”

President Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism said in a statement “… 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 a peace process.” 

He added that Jerusalem must be viewed as “a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.”

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