If I Recognize Thee, O Jerusalem
Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he would begin the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In doing so, the president won the praise of many in the Orthodox Jewish and Evangelical Christian communities in the United States, as well as Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
In addition to being applauded by Israel and its leaders, Trump’s announcement was also welcomed by the Czech Republic, which has vowed to follow suit and relocate its embassy in Israel as well. Previous U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had promised to do the same, but never followed through. Trump’s campaign promise, however, might just have a different fate.
In making this announcement, the president used very vague terminology. He did not say “West Jerusalem,” nor did he say “a united Jerusalem.” He simply said “Jerusalem.” This use of ambiguity was done on purpose, so as not to prejudge the outcome of the conflict.
Had Trump said “West Jerusalem,” it would have implied that in a final agreement, Israel would have to surrender its sovereignty over Jewish sites like the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, or the Jewish neighborhoods of Gilo, Ramat Shlomo, and Pisgat Ze’ev. Had he said “a united Jerusalem,” it would have implied that in a final agreement, a future Palestinian state would not be allowed sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods such as Shuafat, Silwan, and Wadi Joz. By simply saying “Jerusalem,” President Trump is allowing Israelis and Palestinians to define the meaning of “Jerusalem” by working together in future peace negotiations to decide the city’s final borders.
Many view Trump’s decision as wrong, controversial, and alarming. Others view it as courageous, heroic, and prophetic. I disagree with both these notions. In my view, this decision simply recognizes reality; no more, and no less. It recognizes the reality that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel, religiously, historically, and legally. It recognizes the reality that Jerusalem has never been the capital of any other nation other than the nation of Israel.
Religiously, Jerusalem is the city where our patriarchs prayed, where our prophets preached, where our kings ruled, and where our temples stood.
In daily prayer services, we say: “Blessed are You Who Rebuilds Jerusalem.” At Jewish weddings, we sing: “If I forget thee, o Jerusalem.” And at Passover seders, we proclaim: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the focal point of nearly all Jewish fast days. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in the Hebrew Bible, and it is the direction of prayer for all Jews around the world. The Talmud teaches that of the ten measures of beauty that descended upon the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem.
Historically, of all the peoples who conquered and ruled Jerusalem, only one of them made it their capital:
- Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years. Yet he never made Jerusalem his capital, but instead chose to keep his capital in Babylon.
- Titus conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years. Yet he never made Jerusalem his capital, but instead chose to keep his capital in Rome.
- The Ottomans conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years. Yet they never made Jerusalem their capital, but instead chose to keep their capital in Constantinople.
- The British conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years. Yet they never made Jerusalem their capital, but instead chose to keep their capital in London.
- The Jordanians conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years. Yet they never made Jerusalem their capital, but instead chose to keep their capital in Amman.
The Jewish people also conquered Jerusalem and ruled over it for many years, both under the ancient Kingdom of Israel and under the modern State of Israel. And in both cases they made Jerusalem their capital for all of eternity.
Legally, Jerusalem was promised to the Jewish people under the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which was ratified and approved by a majority vote in the League of Nations.
The western half of Jerusalem was won over by Israel in 1949 and the eastern half was won over by Israel in 1967, both in legal wars of self-defense. In implementing the Jerusalem Annexation Act of 1980, passed by the Israeli Knesset, Jerusalem was formally incorporated into greater Israel, and all of its Arab residents were given the legal right to receive full citizenship.
Under Israeli rule, all faiths worship freely in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, passed by the U.S. Congress, requires the United States to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The six-month waiver included in that law only permits delays moving the embassy; it does not allow for delaying the formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
While there is religious, historical, and legal evidence that clearly supports the president’s decision, it still is only a unilateral declaration. Without any subsequent physical action, this unilateral declaration can easily be overturned by a future U.S. president whose administration might not recognize this reality.
On the other hand, physical relocation of the embassy would be much harder for a future administration to overturn. This is mainly because relocating an embassy back to Tel Aviv would be costly, as there is no federal budget allocation for this. Furthermore, it would also be deemed illegal under the Jerusalem Embassy Act.
The president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a step in the right direction. If President Trump is serious about this decision, he should immediately match his words with actions. One idea would be to allow U.S. citizens to list “Jerusalem, Israel” on their passports, rather than just “Jerusalem.”
While an actual embassy building will take some time to be built, the president can begin the process of relocation today. He can begin by having the U.S. ambassador and his staff work from a temporary office in one of the U.S. Government’s four existing buildings in Jerusalem. Due to lack of space, the rest of the embassy staff would remain behind in Tel Aviv until construction is completed.
Moving the ambassador’s office to Jerusalem, rather than the full embassy itself, would be a strong first step in this lengthy process. Certainly, the full relocation should be scheduled for completion no later than November 3, 2020, when the president is up for re-election. On that date, he will be held accountable for any promises on which he failed to deliver.
As of today, the president has not fully fulfilled his promise. But his recognition of reality is a good start.