“The grandeur of Jerusalem is also its problem.” — Umberto Eco
I well recall the first time I saw Jerusalem. It was 1978, the 30th year since the creation of the State of Israel, the year before the Camp David accords. I was on a bus with fellow students, en route from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea. We did not stop in Jerusalem on that three-day outing, but I knew I would be back.
Weeks later I got on an inter-city bus from Tel Aviv, an hour away, where I was enrolled in the Overseas Program at Tel Aviv University, and at the age of 20 visited the Old City on my own, diving into its vivid sights and sounds and feeling remarkably at home, immediately, in that exotic place.
In the months to come I would see Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and stand and watch life go by outside Damascus Gate and other entries to the old city, shop in the vast and labyrinthine shuk (market) in the old city, where shopkeepers would invite a young American student to sit for tea.
My friend Michael and I would search out the best cafes for pastries and for hummus and falafel — staples as vital to Israeli culture as hamburgers and fries to ours (and a whole lot healthier.)
I sat on separate occasions and heard the same admonition from an Orthodox Jew and Muslim — that the Christian churches’ use of images and idols was as an abomination to the holy city.
I would go to Jerusalem for the funeral of former Prime Minister Golda Meir, for day trips or overnights in any of the numerous hostels around the city. I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Temple on the Mount, the Western Wall, and Church of All Nations on the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the Garden of Gethsemane. That place stood out for me and I went there repeatedly to walk in the manicured olive grove and to admire the church mosaics that spoke to the city’s place in the world.
“Jerusalem is a festival and a lamentation. Its song is a sigh across the ages, a delicate, robust, mournful psalm at the great junction of spiritual cultures.” — David K. Shipler
Every time I went, I felt energized and amazed. So in a way it comes as no surprise that President Donald Trump, having never visited there, would feel it is his place to move the symbol of American government in Israel, the embassy, from Tel Aviv where it has always been, to Jerusalem.
But the move is a mistake. I say that without the space to delve into the painful and complex history of the Middle East, of relations (if that is the right word) between Israel and the Palestine Authority, and the long and labored involvement of the American government in trying to forge some sort of peace agreement between Jews and Arabs.
I was in Israel in 1978-79, the year Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the historic peace treaty between the two countries. It was an amazing time to be in Israel, one of the few one-year periods in Israel when virtually no violence occurred, and we all felt a palpable hope that things would change. We knew it would be slow, and here a generation later not much has changed. Thanks to the extensive system of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Israeli wall separating it from portions of the West Bank, and the virtual isolation of Gaza, I regret to say there is less hope.
That year, we also took a student excursion to Gaza Strip, then under Israeli control, spending a weekend at a Jewish agricultural settlement and swimming in the pristine beaches near Gaza City. We also saw the overcrowding of Gaza City up close. The impoverished slice of land was relatively nurtured at the time by the State of Israel, but that is far from the case now.
And at this writing, Gaza seems to be ablaze — or at least in a pall of smoke from burning tires, and wracked by the tragic killings of 60 Gazans and injuries to hundreds more, as that part of the world reacts to the move of that American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Far be it from me to pin any blame on the violence, but how could anyone — Israelis or Americans — have expected violence not to occur? The Trump administration has ignored the deep and volatile sensitivity of the region, falling in love with “making history” in a place where the bloody open scars of history already-made have no balm or bandage, let alone cure.
And our government has sliced another wound, knowingly, and in the face of fading and futile efforts to find a peaceful solution in the middle east. Slapping a plaque on the American consulate in Jerusalem and calling it an embassy was a caustically symbolic move that will only cause further outrage and set the cause of peace back decades. It is, in fact, a slap in the face of the people of Palestine.
Further, the timing of the May 14 embassy ceremony is a case of gross insensitivity or ignorance of history, or both: May 15 is the annual Nakba Day, when Arabs remember the events of 1948-49, and the impacts of the creation of the State of Israel on the people of Palestine: the exodus of 700,000 Arabs from their homes. The reasons, causes and actions in this are as complex as any case of human suffering, the 1948 Arab governments’ role included, but suffice it to say Nakba is a valid and recognized occasion, and should be respected by the American government.
As a Tel Aviv student, I would often visit the U.S. Embassy on the Tel Aviv waterfront. We would go there for two main reasons: to sneak past the Marine guards to the “employees-only” café for genuine American-style cheeseburgers, something hard to find in Israel, and to use the library. The Tel Aviv University libraries were excellent, but embassy library had numerous books that were helpful in our Middle East affairs classes, and it was just a cool feeling to go to the embassy to hang out.
We could read there, but we could not check out any books. Only Israeli citizens, at the time, were allowed to check out books from the U.S. Embassy library. As students we understood the logic of that.
So when Trump calls the embassy move “a big day for America” and American ambassador David Friedman says on May 14 that the move was done “for Americans,” I have to disagree. Yes, the embassy in any country is there, foremost, for Americans, but not just for Americans. It is an outpost, an ambassador with four walls, and above all (sovereign real estate status aside) a guest of that country. Americans are guests in Israel or any other country, and the spirit and service of the embassy should reflect that.
Was moving the embassy to Jerusalem a “great day” for Israelis or Palestinians? No. It was a statement from the U.S. government that politics and ego come before a genuine desire for long-term peace Palestine and a city holy to many religions, a place that means “City of Peace.”