My Word: Jerusalem, speech acts and history

Giving in to threats of terror is less likely to bring about a true peace than placing the American Embassy in west Jerusalem.

December 7, 2017 22:45
My Word: Jerusalem, speech acts and history

The walls of Jerusalem’s Old City are illuminated with symbols of the Hanukka holiday.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Seeing is believing, and sometimes saying is doing. Many years ago, when I was studying socio-linguistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the staple of all communications courses came up: speech acts.

Every country, or at least every language, has its own examples to illustrate speech act theory, which holds that in some instances an expression is in itself an action. In English, saying the word “sorry” in itself constitutes an apology, for example. Studying in Hebrew, the class was given a different example: the words of a groom under the wedding canopy as he slips the ring on the bride’s finger: “Harei at mekudeshet li betaba’at zu kedat Moshe V’yisrael. Behold you are consecrated unto me with this ring in accordance with the law of Moses and [the people of] Israel.”

The much-anticipated address by US President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognized the centrality of Jerusalem to the State of Israel. But as far as Israel and the Jewish people are concerned, Jerusalem’s status is not defined by a speech or even by the act of moving the embassy.

During the wedding ceremony the words of Jeremiah are sung, asking God to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and “Yet again there shall be heard in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride.”

Psalm 137 is recited: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”

The highlight of the ceremony for most guests comes at the end when the groom stamps on a glass in another act recalling the destruction of the Temple, something that should not be forgotten even on such a joyous occasion. Only after the sound of broken glass is heard do the guests shout out their congratulations: Mazal tov! Wherever a Jewish wedding is held, Jerusalem is kept in mind.

It is also recalled in daily prayers and holiday services.

“Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt” is called out after the festive meal at the end of the Passover Seder and before the fast is broken at the end of the Yom Kippur prayers.

Muslims turn to Mecca to pray, even if it means turning their backs on the Dome of the Rock.

Jews face Jerusalem to pray. Jerusalemites face the direction of the Temple Mount.

In short, it’s hard to underestimate the centrality of Jerusalem in the Jewish religion and tradition.

Or at least it should be.

In the build-up to the president’s address, reports of the ongoing travesty at the United Nations regarding the city’s status were overlooked. But only last week, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly negated Israeli and Jewish ties to Jerusalem in six anti-Israel resolutions. The vote was 151 in favor and six against, with nine abstentions. Thank you Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and the US for standing up for what should be obvious and voting with Israel against the resolution.

Trump notwithstanding, and despite the admirable stand of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, the General Assembly is expected to approve another 10 anti-Israel resolutions by the end of the year.

But still there is something different about this year in Jerusalem.

On December 23, 2016, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2334. It passed in a 14-0 vote by dint of the US abstention.

Consider it Barack Obama’s parting shot at Israel. Among the most problematic elements of the resolution is its implied recognition of Palestinian rights to all parts of Jerusalem from the 1949 armistice line. This would give the Palestinians control of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, among other places.

Speech acts aren’t the only words that count. The UN’s refusal to even use the term “Temple Mount” for the site where the two ancient Temples stood, important also in Christian tradition and history, using instead the Arabic Haram al-Sharif, is in itself telling. Damning, in fact.

As I have written in the past, we shouldn’t be relying on Trump or any other foreign leader to determine our future. It is up to Israel to determine its own policy and redlines. That’s an integral part of sovereignty. But no other country in the world is denied the right to determine where its capital should be.

Consider the protestations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ottoman rule in Jerusalem ended 100 years ago this month. Erdogan doesn’t have the right to say whether or not Jerusalem is the Israeli capital, just the same as the Israeli government cannot say that Istanbul, not Ankara, should be the Turkish capital.

Incidentally, although the Turks controlled Jerusalem for 400 years, they never found a reason to turn it into the regional capital. Neither did the Jordanians, who took over from the British in defiance of the UN Partition Plan.

The Palestinians who now claim ownership were never a ruling power.

No matter what they say or do. They have a parliament based in Ramallah.

Their self-declared state is already recognized by more than 135 countries.

It’s elections they’re lacking.

And it’s not Israel that is preventing them from having a democratic vote; Palestinian Authority and Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas is scared, with good reason, that Hamas might win and take over the West Bank in as bloody a fashion as it took over Gaza in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

Ahead of the presidential declaration, I was asked about the likely wave of terror that would follow. While Jews talk of “lifting Jerusalem above our joy,” the Palestinians prefer to talk about Days of Rage.

Israel learned long ago, and the rest of the world is sadly having to catch up, that the Palestinians and their jihadi supporters do not need an excuse to attack. The Islamist religious war does not center on the status of Jerusalem and “settlements.”

Palestinian media and schools are filled with talk of martyrdom. Not so much a speech act as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Giving in to threats of terror is less likely to bring about a true peace than placing the American Embassy in west Jerusalem.

Playing a will-he-won’t-he game with Trump, I was struck by the way the world waited with bated breath (was it fear?) to learn of the US president’s decision regarding the relocation of the US Embassy.

It is only one building.

That Israel considers Jerusalem its capital is reflected not only in its prayers and dreams but with very concrete facts on the ground. As Trump noted, the Israeli parliament, President’s Residence, Prime Minister’s Office and Residence, Supreme Court and most ministries are based in Jerusalem. Their presence means more than words.

This time of year there is an even more powerful symbol of Jewish ties to Jerusalem. Ties that have survived the test of time. A lot of time. Thousands of years.

Next week, Jews celebrate Hanukka.

The eight-day holiday marks the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE after it was defiled by the Syrian- based Seleucids during the Hellenistic period when they tried to impose Greek-oriented culture and customs on the population. The revolt led by Hasmonean priest Mattathias and later by his son, Judah the Maccabee, culminated in the purification the Temple, when according to tradition the single cruse of uncontaminated olive oil to light the seven- branched menorah miraculously lasted eight days.

Jews everywhere still light an increasing number of candles every night of the holiday, give gifts, and eat oily food in celebration and commemoration of that joyous event.

These acts speak louder even than the words of Trump, however welcome.

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