Why Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital hurts both Jews and Palestinians

Everybody’s wrong.
Everybody’s wrong.
Image: Reuters/Amit Shabi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Jerusalem is at the same time the most international and the least cosmopolitan city in the world,” Avishai Margalit, an Israeli philosopher and life-long resident of Jerusalem, approvingly reports the words of his friend, philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser.

Though people of various backgrounds and nationalities live in Jerusalem, Jerusalem is “sectarian in the extreme,” says Margalit, with many sects living “side by side, not together. They are each shut up in their own quarters and courtyards, sometimes behind walls and locked gates.”

In Jerusalem, diversity is neither a principle nor an ideal, but a reality to contend with. It is a city of mutually exclusive symbols and visions, all muddled together in one barely coherent, hardly sustainable mix.

We should bear this fact in mind if we are to understand the significance of US president Donald Trump’s plan to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. At first, these actions may seem unremarkable. Jerusalem has been under Israel’s complete control for over 50 years; it is considered the capital of Israel by the vast majority of Israelis; and it is the home of the Knesset (the Israeli parliament,) the Israeli government, and the Israeli supreme court.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a disputed city. The eastern part of the city was conquered by Israel from Jordan in 1967; surrounding areas were annexed to Jerusalem by Israel in the years that followed. In 2015, more than a third of Jerusalem’s residents were Palestinian.

It is also significant that 75.4% of Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents live below the poverty line and nearly all of them are not Israeli citizens, but hold a permanent residence status. In fact, since 1967 and until 2015, Israel has revoked the residency status of 14,416 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

While Palestinians have long aspired that East Jerusalem be the capital of a future Palestinian state, Israel openly promotes what it views as Jewish interests in Jerusalem. The fact that Jerusalem is disputed in these ways explains why international embassies and consulates are in Tel-Aviv. The international community made a deliberate effort to avoid symbolic and explicit statements about the status of Jerusalem. This has allowed for at least a façade of impartiality and, if nothing else, expressed some measure of respect toward the aspirations and commitments of both sides to the dispute.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital puts an end to this ambiguity. Through this act, the US is declaring that it is done being impartial and that it no longer recognizes Palestinian national ambitions. A US-made fire cracker is being thrown at Jerusalem, and as always, the city is drenched in gasoline.

Some welcome this occasion. Yesterday, in a NYT op-ed titled, “Of Course Jerusalem Is Israel’s Capital,” Shmuel Rosner compared Trump’s actions to Harry Truman’s support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, in which the international community formally adopted a plan for a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. While the 1947 UN resolution was a cause of celebration for the Zionist movement, says Rosner, “it was not the decisive factor in Israel’s birth. More crucial was the reality on the ground.”

By the time the UN resolution came around, the local Jewish community was already sufficiently large and organized to stand its own, according to Rosner. So while Rosner welcomes the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem as a sign of support, he claims this is merely a “recognition of reality,” pulling the old “Who needs it?! (Give it here!)”

Truman’s support of the 1947 UN resolution shares another feature with Trump’s present move. In both cases an action is decided upon despite the predictable violence that it will bring about. It is this predictable violence that Rosner seeks to justify, as he ends his op-ed with this sinister reminder: “If violence is the result of [the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital], we will all regret it. But it is worth remembering that Truman’s recognition of Israel was also met with violence — and it is still remembered as a great American moment.” The violence that will follow Trump’s declaration, Rosner suggests, will be worth it.

But will it be? What does anyone stand to gain from a US declaration that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital? Given that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital for all intents and purposes, what can Trump’s gesture really achieve to justify violence and undermine the actual security and stability of Jews in Israel?

In 1947, there were many stateless Jews in Mandatory Palestine and no Jewish state. The UN resolution meant that the international community officially viewed the Jewish community in Palestine as entitled to a country of their own and that the British Mandate in Palestine is nearing its end.

The Partition Plan offered Jews hope of independence and security. It was not by any means sufficient to secure the founding of the state of Israel, but it was instrumental to this end. The war that broke out immediately after the UN resolution was justified by these aspirations: its stated goal was a national home for the Jewish people.

If anything, the situation today is a mirror image of the situation in 1947. To declare Jerusalem Israel’s capital is to effectively deny Palestinian hope of political independence. Herein lies the implicit justification for the “regrettable violence”: the denial of Palestinians’ national ambitions.

The goal of security and independence for the Jewish people has been demoted; Jewish sovereignty over the land has taken its place. Let it burn, for it is ours and ours alone, seems to be the position of those who want a declaration at the cost of violence.

This is not how the many sects of Jerusalem have managed to live side by side. Instead, it seems to me that Jerusalem’s actual residents have at least this in common: They love the city more than they wish to shape it in their image.