Jerusalem: Complicated realities

January 30th, 2018

U.S. decides — The world reacts

On December 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would move its embassy to the city from its current location in Tel Aviv. This decision marks a departure from nearly 70 years of foreign policy held not only by the United States but also by almost 160 nations with whom Israel has diplomatic relations. Until Trump’s announcement, none had formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (though Russia recognized West Jerusalem as such in April).

Trump said his decision was “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, stating “there is no peace that doesn’t include Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel.”

Much of the world, however, didn’t see the announcement so positively. Many leaders expressed concern that the U.S. decision would irreparably harm the hope of a two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called it a “provocation” and a “crime” and said the United States “can no longer function as a diplomatic sponsor and mediator.” Leaders in Middle East nations, both friendly and hostile to the United States, said the decision would destabilize the region. In Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Lebanon, Turkey and Iran, thousands protested. Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas — the militant Islamist group that gained control of Gaza in 2007 — called for a new intifada (armed uprising) against Israel. Rockets fired from the Gaza Strip provoked retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. This response was unsurprising since Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and is considered a terrorist organization by both the United States and Israel.

In Europe, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief diplomat, said the announcement “has the potential to send us backwards to even darker times than the ones we are already living in.” British prime minister Theresa May called the decision “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace.” Finally, the United Nations General Assembly voted 128–9 (with 35 abstentions) to approve a strongly worded but symbolic resolution declaring the decision “null and void.”

Jerusalem’s complicated realities

Trump announced that his decision was “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Granted, Israel’s government is headquartered in Jerusalem, but Trump’s speech didn’t acknowledge how that reality came to be or how complicated other realities within Jerusalem remain.

Although Israel regards the city of Jerusalem as “complete and united,” the international community does not. International law deems East Jerusalem occupied territory. “The legal term does not imply anything further about whether Israel’s occupation is ‘legal’ or ‘illegal,’ or good or bad,” wrote University of Sydney law professor Ben Saul in 2014 in The Guardian. “It simply refers to the fact of control.” East Jerusalem has held this status since 1967, after the end of the Six-Day War.

Nor does the experience of East Jerusalem’s more than 300,000 Palestinian residents — 37 percent of the city’s population, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics — point to a “complete and united” city. These residents “live a strange half-existence,” according to the BBC, “rarely in direct conflict with Israel, but resolutely clinging on to their Palestinian identity and cause. Allowed special Israeli residency permits, they enjoy advantages over those in the occupied West Bank — but many feel their future in the city is not guaranteed.”

One factor driving this uncertainty is the number of Jewish settlers, some 200,000, living in East Jerusalem. “Palestinians have long claimed that the expansion of settlements is a way for Israel to de facto seize the land,” writes CNN correspondent Oren Liebermann, “and that Israel is creating ‘facts on the ground’ that will be very difficult to undo.” 

Additionally, many Palestinian residents lack access to city services. For instance, only 59 percent of Jerusalem’s Palestinians are connected to the city’s official water grid, Al Jazeera News reported in December. Service shortages like this one exacerbate poverty in East Jerusalem. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, citing the National Insurance Institute poverty report, says 76 percent of East Jerusalem residents, including 83.4 percent of its children, live below the poverty line.

Another factor in the unique status of Jerusalem is the West Bank Barrier, the fortified fence-wall combination running 420 miles long and reaching as high as 26 feet, which Israel started building in 2002 in response to the intifada that erupted when peace negotiations broke down. This barrier runs through Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem, cutting off 140,000 residents from the rest of the city and from nearby Palestinian communities in the West Bank. “Trump’s proposal doesn’t acknowledge the dual nature of Jerusalem and that status of its Arab residents,” writes David B. Green in Haaretz. “It also ignores the international community’s consistent refusal to unilaterally recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem until Israel and the Palestinians come to an agreement on sharing the city and the land.”

Fulfillment of prophecy or call to peacemaking?

In making this announcement, Trump is fulfilling a campaign promise. His pledge to move the American embassy received applause when he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as a candidate. According to Los Angeles Times White House reporter Noah Bierman, Trump’s promise especially appealed to “the voters Trump sees as his base, who include a strong majority of evangelical Christians.”

“Evangelicals realize there is no country on the face of the earth more pro-American than Israel,” writes CNN political commentator Alice Stewart. “As a Christian, I’m pleased to see a president willing to keep his promises by taking a stand to honor the birthplace of Christianity.”

According to Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution, many Christians in the United States feel strongly about Jerusalem because of what they see as its future significance. “Israel’s birth [in 1948] and expansion convinced [these] Evangelicals that they were witnessing the application of God’s will,” she writes. They believed modern Israel was “fulfilling God’s promises to Abraham. For some, it also meant that the countdown to the Apocalypse and the return of Christ on Earth had started.”

Some members of the Trump administration, as well as some of his advisers and high-profile supporters, speak openly about their religious reasons for supporting Israel. An article in the January/February 2018 The Atlantic recounts that while in Congress, now-Vice President Mike Pence told Congressional Quarterly, “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith. In the Bible, God promises Abraham, ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’ ”

Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, is the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest pro-Israel advocacy organization in the United States. Hagee also points to Genesis 12:3. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement,” he told CUFI in 2014, “and it has not changed.” Hagee, who discussed international issues in the Oval Office with the president last spring, claims to have told him that recognizing Jerusalem in 2017 would be “biblical timing of absolute precision.” On the Christian Broadcasting Network, Hagee said, “Israel is God’s stopwatch for everything that happens to every nation, including America, from now until the rapture of the church and beyond.”

Of course, not all Christians, or even all evangelicals, interpret the Bible or the news in this way. “Numerous evangelicals like me . . . worry about moving the U.S. embassy,” writes the Reverend Dr. Gary Burge, a New Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, in The Atlantic. “For us, peacemaking and the pursuit of justice are very high virtues. . . . We anchor our thinking not in the Old Testament’s land-based promises, but in the gospel, where the tribal or local theologies about Israel become global and universal, welcoming all people from every tribe and every land into a divine promise of blessing.”

The name Jerusalem derives from shalom, Hebrew for “peace,” but questions about the so-called City of Peace’s status remain contentious. Three millennia of complicated and consequential history, politics and religion in Jerusalem make its future difficult to see with certainty and impossible to consider without controversy.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus