I hadn’t planned on another post so soon. But the news these past few days has, once more, cast the tiny nation of Israel front and center on the world stage, so I just can’t help myself.
The news: President Trump finally acted on his long-telegraphed campaign promise, to allow the US Embassy in Israel to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In so doing, he has upended 50 years of US foreign policy, and officially recognized Jerusalem as being the capital of Israel.
Most folks in Israel applauded loudly. At the same time, there was almost universal condemnation around the world. From China to Britain to Europe to Canada to Australia, what Trump did was variously described as “dangerous”, “reckless”, “inflammatory” and outright “wrong”. Like clockwork, an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council was convened to discuss this urgent matter, in priority to all the other urgent matters going on anywhere else on the planet.
And in the Muslim / Arab world, there have been demonstrations, protests, riots, and flag burnings. Alongside that, the rhetoric went into predictable overdrive. From Indonesia to Iran to the Palestinian territories, Trump’s action was decried. What he did was a “crime”, and “the gates of hell” have now been opened. There will be “days of rage”. Any hope of peace in the Middle East has been irretrievably smashed. This unilateral US action is going to “set the region aflame”.
Wow – that’s some big stuff. No wonder in the last few days quite a few people, usually non-Jewish friends and work colleagues, have asked what my opinion is. And, given the massive global reaction and ensuing media hyperventilation, those people are usually taken aback when I shrug my shoulders and say I really can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
That is not to say I am oblivious to the simmering conflicts in the Middle East and the potency of Trump’s decision – I of course get why so many people have got their knickers in a bunch over it. No, what I mean to say is that at a deeply personal level, when I put aside rhetoric and posturing and when I try to focus on the world as it really is, I can’t help but think that this is the ultimate storm in a teacup.
I was born in Jerusalem. My father grew up there. Almost all of my aunts, uncles and cousins still live there. So do a few of my closest friends. I spent months in Jerusalem as a teenager and young adult. When I was 15 I lived in the Old City of Jerusalem for three months on a school study tour. When visiting as an 18 year-old I used to sneak out with my cousins after Friday night’s Shabbat dinner, to go dancing at an underground nightclub in a Jerusalem outer suburb. Since then I have visited Jerusalem more times than I can count. I can find my way around the city blindfolded.
So in my mind Jerusalem is not a mythical holy place that exists only in the evening news. It is a real place, filled with real people, doing real things. And in this context, as a matter of simple fact, Jerusalem is for me the capital of the modern State of Israel, the country in which I was born.
It is not the capital of Israel because God gave it to the Jews in the Bible. Nor is it the capital of Israel because of any two-thousand-year old historic connection the Jewish people may have to the city. And it is not the capital of Israel to the exclusion to any other group of people who may also see Jerusalem as a sacred city, or perhaps even as their capital too, now or in the future.
No, it is actually a lot more boring than that. Jerusalem is (and at least as long as I have been alive, always has been) the capital of Israel because it does everything that a capital city should do.
Like when I once visited Israel and my Israeli passport expired while I was there. I had to go to Jerusalem, because that it where the office for renewing my passport was. Or like when I wanted to confirm my exemption from Israeli military service. Again, I had to go to Jerusalem, because that is where the Ministry dealing with that sort of thing is. Or like when I opened an Israeli branch for the investment firm I worked for – all meetings I ever held with Government and bureaucracy were held in Jerusalem, because that is where they are to be found.
The Israeli parliament meets in Jerusalem. The Israeli treasury is in Jerusalem. The Supreme Court of Israel sits in Jerusalem. The Israeli national archives are in Jerusalem. All of Israel’s main museums and cultural institutions are in Jerusalem. I could continue, but you get the point: whether people like it or not, it would be hard for anyone to deny that insofar as the nation of Israel is concerned, Jerusalem functions as its capital city.
But it is not just Israelis who treat the place as their capital. Everyone else who recognizes the existence of Israel does too. Ever since 1948, when Israel as a modern nation-state first came into being, anyone who accepts that Israel as a country has a right to exist has also implicitly accepted Jerusalem as the capital of that country. Even if for whatever reason they are unwilling to say it out loud.
If you are a foreign leader or dignitary visiting Israel, your first stop will be Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial) in Jerusalem. And after which, sure as eggs are eggs, almost everything you do will be in Jerusalem. If at any time you wanted to meet with David Ben-Gurion, or Golda Meir, or Yitzhak Rabin, or Shimon Peres, or Benjamin Netanyahu, or any other Israeli of note of the past 70 years – well then, chances are you would be doing that in Jerusalem. If you went to Israel for the funerals of either Rabin or Peres (leaders from 70 nations showed up for these), you were in Jerusalem.
Hell, when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and in 1977 became the first Arab leader to visit the country, he went to Jerusalem. Why? It’s not rocket science – he went to Jerusalem because he knew it is the capital of Israel, so that’s where he needed to go.
This tacit understanding extends well beyond the borders of Israel. Pick up any newspaper – if there is a story covering Israel it will reference Jerusalem in exactly the same way Washington is referenced in relation to the US, or Beijing is referenced in relation to China. Ask any school age child who likes geography: “What’s the capital of Israel?” Unless they live in a country that doesn’t recognize Israel’s existence, almost certainly their answer will be: “Jerusalem”.
Although even in those countries that don’t officially recognize Israel, my experience is that the attitude on the subject is pretty clear. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey. I have been to most of the “Stans” (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc), and I have been fortunate enough to have traveled to Dubai, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco. In these places I have interacted with folks from all walks of life: business-people, Government officials, hotel staff, taxi drivers, work colleagues and friends. I have never hidden my identity, or the fact that I am Jewish and half-Israeli. And usually, as a means of breaking the ice, I mention I was born in Jerusalem.
I get asked a lot of questions as a result. Everyone who has never been really wants to visit Jerusalem – why wouldn’t they, given they’ve heard so much about it. And most people I’ve met in the Muslim / Arab world (admittedly usually more moderate people who have come to terms with Israel’s existence) assume that one day Jerusalem will in some form or fashion be shared down the middle, and will become the capital of two places – Israel and Palestine. But not once that I can recall has anyone ever said that Jerusalem is not really the capital of Israel, or shouldn’t be talked of as such. It is kind of taken for granted that it is, because, well, it is.
Then I ask myself: will anything change as a result of this “earth-shattering” move by Trump? And again, I struggle to see what the big deal is. Tourists of all faiths will continue to go to Jerusalem, as ever before. The work of the Israeli Government will continue to take place in Jerusalem, as ever before. Foreign leaders and dignitaries and diplomats and bureaucrats will continue to visit Jerusalem, as ever before. NGOs will continue to operate from Jerusalem, as ever before.
And the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which has been there for decades, might be relocated to a bigger site, or its physical infrastructure expanded. But it too will go on, doing what it does, as ever before. In many respects all that will change is the sign on the front door. Where it once said “Consulate” it will now say “Embassy”.
A triviality, don’t you think, but one which brings us to the real heart of the matter: symbolism.
You see, this whole thing is, more than anything else, a case of symbolic gestures. A meaningless nothing in reality, but one that is so loaded with symbolism it has the ability to whip people all over the world into a mad frenzy of righteous indignation. Something I have previously written about: how in the Middle East small things of no real-world significance can nonetheless assume enormous meaning, and in so doing incite passions far greater than merited. Small things that really shouldn’t be anything other than small things, but which people with vested interests use to beat each other over the heads with.
To me, at least, that is kind of infuriating given all the other problems out there that need attention. Like in the Middle East alone, where aside from the Israeli-Palestinian situation there are civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and there are lunatics in Tehran intent on building atomic weapons. Further afield, there are people being sold into modern-day slavery in Africa, genocidal slaughters, and religious extremists of all sorts plotting and scheming to kill us all. Surely these are the kind of problems and issues we should be focused on, instead of mere words about the location of America’s administrative office in Israel, as uttered by an orange-colored man on a TV screen?
So my answer to those friends and colleagues who have asked me what I think about all this is simple. I don’t like Donald Trump, and have made no secret about it in the past. I think he is a dangerous idiot whose is doing things that could well fuck things up for the rest of us, for decades to come. So it kind of stuck in my throat – real bad – when I found myself nodding as he said: “Today, we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.”
Because for once, he was right – it should be obvious to any rational person that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. In the future it could well become the capital of Palestine too. But that doesn’t change the fact that today the city is in every respect the capital of the State of Israel. Everyone knows it to be that, and everyone treats it as such. So why not just call it that? Accepting the existence of the state of Israel but then not being willing to acknowledge the self-evident fact that Jerusalem is its capital city is to engage in double-speak and make-believe.
There are of course a whole bunch of other things I could say about this as well.
Why did Trump have to take this clearly provocative step right now? I don’t know – it could have waited, I guess. The timing seems as erratic and poorly thought through as just about everything else he does.
Will this make a lot of people pretty upset? Absolutely – mad as hell.
Will this make things more difficult for all those people working behind the scenes to get common sense to prevail in the region? For a while – yes.
Will this give fanatics and fundamentalists even more fuel with which to fire their hatred? Yes.
And are real people going to die in the protests and riots that their leaders will foment in response? Sadly, yes too.
All of which is frustrating, not to mention heartbreaking, because in the real world where real people live, nothing has actually happened. Apart from words, nothing has actually changed. Like I said at the start, I just can’t help thinking it is the ultimate storm in a teacup. One that I hope will blow over, real soon.