For better and probably for worse, I am a Facebook user. I have a ridiculously large number of friends, including a few that I’ve never met and, embarrassingly, people I knew 30 years ago whom I don’t remember but who remember me. I have friends in Indonesia and Israel, but for the most part, about half of my friends live in Australia and the rest in the United States. On Thursday, there was a clear split between the two groups: Australian friends had painted their Facebook feeds rainbow colours and were crowing about the extraordinary vote in Parliament. The image of those four, barely visible MPs hunkered down on the “no” side of the House is now etched pretty indelibly on my brain. But the American, Israeli and even Indonesian side of my feed was all about Jerusalem.
Moshe Manakha, a proud Jewish leader living a humble life as an English teacher in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, posted, “To Trump who bravely recoqnises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to his act of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: From the bottom of my heart I salute you.” My high school classmate Nigel Spier (yes, I do remember him!), living a modern Orthodox life in Florida, wrote, “I don’t need or want the least credible, most socially reprehensible, morally corrupt president ever to pronounce that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to exploit my people for the sake of the evangelical vote and to distract from his money laundering scandals. As the saying goes…”with friends like that…” For a bit more guidance, I looked to my rabbinical school classmate Sue Fendrick, who sometimes seems to spend all of her time posting and reposting on Facebook. She included this quote from Fordham School of Law professor Jed Shugarman: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel today is not accidental timing. It is a political act to stabilize the Christian evangelical base in the middle of disastrous Russia conspiracy news (especially Flynn and Deutsche Bank), and also to bolster Roy Moore. It is a pure wag-the-dog, but worse: create a foreign policy crisis to distract, but also to mobilize religious zealotry.”
Outside of Facebook, the commentaries raged as well. On ABC’s Breakfast program, Palestinian representative Mustafa Barghouti declared that Trump should not have recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because it was the capital of Palestine. His wording was extremely unhelpful, but explained in a few words why Trump’s move was so incendiary. Long-time Middle East observer Thomas Friedman wrote a column for The New York Times entitled “Trump, Israel, and the Art of the Giveaway”–riffing on Donald Trump’s huge bestseller The Art of the Deal. Friedman wrote that never had a world leader given away so much in return for so little. He wrote, “Every Israeli government since its founding has craved United States recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every United States government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now. Today, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?” Friedman went on to discuss how Trump should have first demanded of the Israelis that they stop building settlements outside of the two areas in the West Bank already generally understood to be land that will be ceded to Israel in a final peace deal. After all, the more Jewish settlements are built in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, the further away we drift from a two-state solution. Mustafa Barghouti noted that the United States can no longer claim to be an impartial mediator working towards a two-state solution. President Trump’s unilateral and unprovoked endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital takes America out of the bargaining process, and that is really a shame. Who else can step in who will take act with impartiality towards Israel but also give the Palestinians a fair deal?
Of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as anyone who has visited the country knows. It has been the capital of Israel since 1948. The Knesset was built in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. Foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, but most countries have a residence for their ambassadors in Jerusalem to save them the constant commute. And of course for the last 69 years, and especially since 1967, subsequent Israeli governments have lobbied the international community to recognise the reality. So you would expect me to rejoice at this endorsement.
But I do not. I worry, along with my friends living in Israel, that the American announcement may lead to renewed violence and terrorist attacks in Israel and beyond. Our gates are closed today for just this reason. But yielding to threats of terrorism is not a good enough reason. My greatest concern is that President Trump’s announcement plays directly into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who is himself currently the target of a number of very serious corruption charges. I know that Mr. Netanyahu has a lot of fans, but I am not one of them. I fear that his government, which is now in its ninth year, is coming perilously close through a variety of policies towards passing the point of no return both for the peace process and for the future of Israel as a democracy. Netanyahu does need the United States to obey its every whim and command. It needs the United States to look at the challenges facing Israel as well as the Palestinians and provide much-needed balance. That no longer appears possible.
If you’ve been coming to Beit Shalom for a while, you’ll know that I almost never speak about Israel. The topic divides Jews in a way that no other issue does, and for me Shabbat is not about division. Today I am seeking to state my opinion so that no one will make assumptions about my views because I am a rabbi and care about Israel. In Judaism we have a concept called Shalom Bayit–peace in the home. The idea is that family harmony is so important that nearly any concession is acceptable in the cause of peace. I would argue that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is even more precious because it touches so many lives. I see the events of this last week as an obstacle to that peace, and I am deeply concerned. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat, and the same for those we love in Israel.