Trump and Jerusalem: Why it matters

What the world calls Jerusalem matters because the truth matters.

December 4, 2017 21:42
A SIGN calls on US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

A SIGN calls on US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In a famous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard is captured by members of an alien race who torture him for information on Federation battle plans. As he interrogates Picard about defense strategies and military maneuvers, the lead torturer repeatedly asks a seemingly innocuous question: “How many lights do you see?” Each time Picard answers, accurately, that there are four lights in the room, and each time he is beaten and told that there are five. If he will only admit this truth, the torture will stop.

Picard being Picard, he holds firm, defiantly shouting a final “There. Are. FOUR. Lights!” as he returns to his ship. But he admits later that had the rescuers not arrived, he would have broken: not only was he prepared to agree that there were five lights, by the end, he actually saw five.

Had Picard given in from the start, he might have spared himself some pain without any obvious cost. Declaring that there were five lights rather than four wouldn’t have endangered the battle plans. It wouldn’t even have changed the number of lights. But Picard and his torturer both understood that a person who begins by compromising on one truth will end by compromising everything else as well. Worse, he will lose sight of the difference between the truth he once knew and the lie he let stand in its stead. Are there four lights, or five? Admit the legitimacy of the question, and even an objective certainty becomes just another subject for debate.

This week, according to reports, US President Donald Trump plans to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is not the first time within my memory an American politician has considered the move; many presidential candidates have promised to recognize Jerusalem’s status, and George W. Bush repeatedly claimed to be on the cusp of moving the embassy during his presidency. This time, however, I am reading the news not from New Jersey or Boston, but from my apartment in Jerusalem, where I moved four months ago.

In some respects, I’ve never felt more American than I have in these past few months. Despite the national identity card in my wallet and the passport application open in my browser, when I use the word “Israeli,” it is very rarely to refer to any group that includes me. “Israelis” are those who were born, or at least grew up here. They can pronounce their guttural Hebrew letters, and know how to negotiate with shopkeepers and government bureaucrats alike. They have served in the army, and were raised knowing that they, and their children after them, would one day do so.

If moving here did not make me an Israeli, neither did living in America leave me detached from Israel and her concerns. When a non-Jewish friend from the US recently asked me how strong the expat community here was, I instinctively revolted at the word. In Israel, I might consider myself an American, or an Anglo, or an olah, but “expatriate” connotes a foreignness that I don’t feel, and didn’t feel long before I thought of moving here. Israel has always been to me, if not a home, then a homeland. I cared deeply about Israel a year ago, as I care deeply about Israel today.

Yet still, something has changed. Reading about the possibility of Trump’s recognition, I keenly feel, for the first time, that I have more of a stake in these events than American Jews. If Trump does formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I am likely, in the coming weeks, to inhabit a Jerusalem more volatile, more dangerous, than the one I’ve just begun to know. Perhaps this will make me feel more Israeli. Perhaps it will rather solidify my difference: are real Israelis, too, planning to keep a warier eye on their surroundings, and think twice about where they walk? I pray that I don’t have to learn the answers to these questions anytime soon, but I can’t deny, any longer, that I will have to, someday.

In another sense, what Trump says about the status of Jerusalem should matter less to me than it once did. Perhaps Trump will recognize Jerusalem, and perhaps he won’t; perhaps he will move the embassy, and perhaps not; perhaps a later administration will reverse the decision, or maybe they’ll leave well enough alone. Either way, I will wake up in a Jerusalem apartment, and mangle my Hebrew; take the bus past the Knesset on my way to work, and turn, when I pray, toward not some vague East, but a familiar neighborhood not so distant from my own.

Yet still it matters. I am a very new Jerusalemite. But we are fast reaching a time when none but the very oldest will remember a world in which Jerusalem was not the capital city of their country. I learned that I had gotten the job that brought me here on the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. Neighborhoods like mine, which have been in Israeli hands since the War of Independence, have now been part of the capital city of the modern State of Israel for 70 years.

What the world calls Jerusalem matters because the truth matters. The story of how a country – any country – comes to be is always complicated and rarely free of ugliness. Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will not preclude future negotiations that recognize both Israeli and Palestinian claims to the city. But if an honest negotiation is ever going to take place, it has to be predicated on the understanding that the past 50, and 70, and 2,000 years cannot be erased.

Jerusalem has been the political capital of the State of Israel for the better part of a century, and the spiritual center of the people of Israel for over two millennia. For anyone to deny it is an absurdity. To ask any Jewish citizen of Israel to deny it is an obscenity.

If Trump declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel this week, I will be afraid. If he doesn’t, nothing will have changed. Denial would soothe my fears, and cost me nothing.

Even so, there are four lights.

The writer is a lecturer in the Department of English Literature and Linguistics at Bar-Ilan University.

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