By Evan Drukker-Schardl
We Americans can be forgiven for complaining about the political whiplash that has bombarded our news cycle in recent months. We dealt with a disorganized White House plagued by scandals and investigations, over inflated reports of the nuclear war threat from North Korea, protests against immigration, taxes, healthcare issues, and even a government shutdown. It was thus comforting to land in Israel the day after Christmas, and spend three weeks half a world away from newspapers concerning Donald Trump’s Twitter activity. Israel-Palestine has its own energetic, fast-changing political scene as well. But during my time in the region, one issue stood out as particularly contentious – the Trump administration’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Many of those I spoke with in the United States were not alarmed at this sudden move. After all, it is just a statement. Who cares where the embassy is? The declaration quickly escaped the American media spotlight, as Americans decided that it was a meaningless, even positive, symbolic gesture that had little real-world impact. In Israel-Palestine, however, many thought differently.
I spent my first week in Israel, studying in Jerusalem with a group of American Jewish college students. As part of the program, we took a tour of Jerusalem, focusing on the history of the modern State of Israel. My tour guide lived in an outpost in the West Bank, which, although governed by the Israeli martial law, remains an illegal Israeli settlement. She praised the administration’s decision, observing that Jerusalem was, in fact, the seat of the government, and that it has served as Israel’s capital since 1948. According to her, the refusal of the international community to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s permanent capital showed global hatred of Israel. She pointed to the rhetoric of the United Nations, the European Union, and especially the Arab countries to show that the world wants to harm Israel through lies, hatred,and boycotts. She said Trump, unlike others, has the strength to show Israel the support it deserves.
Similarly, many Israelis believe they are victims of unjust and unwarranted international attention and condemnation. They point to the number of resolutions about Israel in the UN compared to others in the world and to the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. The fact that no country would place its embassy in the city that was clearly Israel’s capital was further evidence of this anti-Israel bias. The fiery man on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, the soldiers on my Birthright trip, and even the folks on the street who offered their two cents believed Donald Trump had recognized an obvious fact and rectified the decades of wrongs that the international community committed against Israel. The President’s move was thus seen as a step towards justice.
Not all Israelis shared my first tour guide’s view. My second tour guide believed that, although Jerusalem was the capital, Trump’s decision will hurt in the long term by undermining Israel’s legitimacy. At the airport, I met a man who claimed that the declaration was not Trump’s to make. He wanted Israelis and Palestinians to agree on the status of Jerusalem. He argued that Trump’s decision was unilateral, and would hurt legitimate Palestinian claims over the city.
They also viewed international recognition of Israel’s claim over Jerusalem as critical to the nation’s future. Different people saw different threats–marginalization among other nations or the status quo with regard to the occupation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who lauded Trump’s declaration believed it to be a delegitimization of Israel around the world. Others thought that, by “siding” with Israel, Trump himself was inadvertently delegitimizing Israel. They claimed that it would exacerbate and prolong the Palestinian occupation, risking more conflict and encouraging the Israeli left’s worst fear: the annexation of the West Bank.
On the Palestinian side, the tune was very different. First of all, the programs I participated in allowed little opportunity to discuss politics with Palestinians. It is hard to do that at all as an American Jew traveling in Israel-Palestine. With this in mind, I took a trip to Ramallah with a friend of mine. The first person we encountered was a representative at the tourism office across from the bus station we got off. When we told him we came from America, he joked, “You’re welcome here, but don’t bring Trump along!”
We then walked through the streets. Propaganda lined the streets from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Dominating an entire city square was a poster that read, “Jerusalem is the Eternal Capital of Palestine.” Others featured martyrs from recent years, calling for the release of Palestinian freedom fighters from Israeli prisons.
To hear the Palestinian narrative of the area’s history, we also visited the Yasser Arafat tomb and museum. The museum paints a picture of Jerusalem’s history quite differently from the way the Israelis do. The museum tells of the violent attacks and the loss of their homeland. Arafat himself grew up in the Moroccan Quarter of Jerusalem, since demolished to make way for the plaza now sitting before the Western Wall. For families like Arafat’s, Jerusalem seems to symbolize the homes that they lost in the name of the progress of Zionist colonization.
Today, the ruins of the village of Lifta sit below the main road that runs from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Travelers who climb the hill into New City can look down and see Lifta’s abandoned buildings. In 1948, as the Haganah approached Jerusalem and news reached Lifta of the massacre of its neighboring village, residents fled from Lifta for the safety of the Jordanian lines. Some accounts report that Jewish militias threatened to massacre the people of Lifta if they did not leave. Others say that the Irgun bombed the town. In either case, the people of Lifta, like many other Palestinian Arabs at the time of the Nakba, found themselves faced with a terrible choice: leave home or risk the murder of your entire family.
For many Palestinians, Trump’s Jerusalem declaration matters because families are now less likely to return to the places they still consider home. It entrenches and normalizes an illegitimate and colonial state occupying the home they long to return to. The United States holds enormous sway over the lives of Palestinians. Decisions Washington makes can have life-or-death repercussions in Palestine. When Donald Trump “takes Jerusalem off the table” for future negotiations, and decides it is to remain Israeli, he reminds the Palestinian people once again their future is not theirs to control.
From a distance, the political maneuvering that happens every day in the Knesset, in Congress, and at the United Nations can seem inconsequential. However, the power struggles that play out in words have tangible impacts in a tense, dynamic place, where every inch of border matters.
Americans need to remember the example of Ariel Sharon, who visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He was surrounded by armed riot police, shortly after the Camp David Summit in 2000. The Second Intifada broke out in response. Thousands of Palestinians rallied in the streets. Groups such as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade orchestrated suicide bombings and other attacks. The violence lasted for four years. In Israel-Palestine, symbolic gestures do not remain symbolic.
The Jerusalem decision is no different. The weekend after my visit to Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered an impassioned, two-and-a-half-hour speech, in which he called on the Palestinian Authority to rescind its recognition of Israel and refuse to recognize the United States as a mediator in future negotiations. The Likud Party voted to support annexation of the West Bank, and the government has moved forward on partial demolitions of Palestinian communities in military-controlled areas in the territory. Trump’s move won him cheap political points and a brief distraction from the laundry list of scandals surrounding the White House.
To us Americans, Trump’s Jerusalem declaration was simply a blip in the news cycle. To Israelis and Palestinians, however, it was a pivotal moment in history.