By: Shoshy Ciment, David Rubinstein and Ben Strachman  | 

Jewish Studies Professor Condemns Trump’s Jerusalem Move, Draws Criticism

Jess Olson, Associate Professor for Jewish History, signed a statement of dismay at President Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem. As of December 25, 177 Jewish Studies academics from various institutions had signed the statement. Olson, who received his doctorate from Stanford University and has published on early Zionism, among other topics, was the only signatory from Yeshiva University.

The statement emphasized the “religious and thus emotional” significance of Jerusalem to Jews, Muslims, and Christians and cited B’Tselem’s documentation of “systematic inequalities” that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank endure. B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, describes itself as working “to end Israel’s occupation.”

In an email to The Commentator, Olson stated that he signed the statement because “the decision by the Trump administration has likely inflicted a mortal injury to the possibility” of a fair and peaceful agreement between Israel and Palestinians. Olson sees himself as a “Zionist who desires in my deepest core a future of real, permanent peace and prosperity for Israel,” which he is convinced can only be achieved by negotiating a settlement with the Palestinian people.

For Olson, Trump’s statement on Jerusalem “has likely put the dream of the world community’s support of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital even farther out of reach. And whatever the motives for this decision, at the very least it has the appearance of a decision made in haste, with inadequate consideration of the broader implications.”

“As we have seen,” Olson added, “this has had the immediate and real effect of violence and bloodshed, with the promise of more to come.”

Olson emphasized that he believes unequivocally “that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel... it is not only the seat of Israel’s government, but rightfully the place which represents the deepest spiritual and historical aspirations and identity of our people.” Olson wrote, “in a perfect world, recognition of this fact by the world community would come as a matter of course, not be a matter for debate.”

The professor said that the decision to sign the petition was his alone, which he made based upon his “internal convictions.”

“I did not have any expectations, nor was I motivated in any way by a response one way or the other to my signature from my colleagues,” he said. “I encountered the petition independently, read its contents, and felt that the issue and the statement was important enough for me to add my signature.”

While Olson remarked that he usually avoids offering a public opinion on Israeli politics, he felt that the situation was different this time.

“I did so this time because I fear for the future of our beloved State of Israel,” he explained. “That, in my opinion, is very much resonant with my identity as a historian of Zionism, as a Zionist, and with the multifaceted intellectual history of Zionist thought itself.”

Dr. Aaron Koller, Chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva College, of which Olson is a faculty member, welcomed Olson’s action. “I absolutely support Dr. Olson's right to sign the statement,” Koller wrote in an email. “On every campus and in every community, there are—and ought to be—different learned opinions, and certainly this is fundamental to higher education: our students must be exposed to different defensible views, and therefore be encouraged to think through issues deeply in order to reach their own views.”

When asked why he did not himself sign the statement, Koller stated that he believes President Trump’s motivations were “questionable at best” and there could potentially be negative consequences from the move, though he was pleased to see Israel gain recognition from a world power.

“Once the president announced it, the proper reaction, in my view, was a muted statement of thanks coupled with an expression of hope for more serious progress in the future,” he said. “This balance was elusive, and as you saw, different Jewish groups and thinkers responded in different ways.”

Olson’s endorsement of the statement drew criticism from The Coalition for Jewish Values, a Maryland-based organization led, among others, by graduates of some YU schools. On the “About Us” page of the group’s website, the coalition criticizes “American liberal Jewish movements” and “left-wing idealogues”  and describes itself as advocating “for classical Jewish ideas and standards in matters of American public policy.”

In a December 14 letter to Dr. Berman, six rabbis, the officers of the group, claimed that the statement “misportrays propaganda” as fact. They requested “that Yeshiva University publicly disavow this repugnant statement” and referred “Professor Olson's endorsement to the appropriate faculty committee for review.”

President Ari Berman was featured in a video praising Trump’s move but Yeshiva University has not yet made a public response to the CJV’s letter.

“It is shameful that Yeshiva University Administration remains mute while their Associate Professor Jess Olson lobbies to disassociate Jerusalem from the Jewish people,” said Richard Allen, the founder, the Jewish watchdog group that organized a protest at the Center for Jewish History in October. “There is no will to publicly defend Zionism within the school.”

He added, “This is a wake up call for YU students to organize against this feckless YU administration.”