Earlier this week, President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, igniting opprobrium and applause from around the world. How are we to think about this announcement? Is it a game changer or mere rhetoric? Does it derail any hope for peace or revitalize a stalled process? Reasonable people disagree on the matter, and I hope to learn from people of all sides in informing my own opinion. At the end of the day, it's crucial that regardless how we feel on this issue, we continue to speak peaceably with one another so that our disagreements don't tear us apart but rather ennoble and enrich us and our community.
Capital of Peace: Jerusalem and the Quest for Peace
With every service, we heed our tradition’s ancient call: שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6).
The destiny of Jerusalem—in Hebrew Yerushalayim—is to be an Ir Shalom, a city of peace. Tragically, this sacred city, holy to three ancient faiths, has far too often attracted conquest and violence. Our tradition has struggled to hold together two dynamic truths: that Jerusalem stands for everything virtuous and good while at the same time fostering throughout the ages tremendous suffering.
And so our sages have taught of the singularity of Jerusalem:
Ten portions of beauty are in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
Ten portions of suffering are in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
And so it is with wisdom, hypocrisy, and Torah:
Ten portions of wisdom are in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
Ten portions of hypocrisy are in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
Ten portions of Torah are in the world—nine in Jerusalem and one in the rest of the world.
The good and the bad intermix, vying for the soul of Jerusalem. We pray that the worldly Jerusalem--Yerushalayim shel matah—can achieve the spiritual ideal of the heavenly Jerusalem--Yerushalayim shel ma’alah.
But even here, our tradition is conflicted. On the one hand, we envision an ideal Jerusalem that stands for the peace and security of the Jewish people, at last free from generations of violence.
But on the other hand, Judaism has also taught that Jerusalem is a symbol of peace for all humankind, a haven of purity and piety not only for Israel but for the entire world.
So which is it? Does Judaism want Jerusalem to be a global city, a beacon of international collaboration? Or does our tradition envision a secure fortress for Jews alone, an ancient inheritance from an everlasting covenant?
The answer, of course, is all of the above. We yearn for Jerusalem to be both exclusively Jewish and expansively universal. Sadly, these two dreams compete with one another, both in our religious imagination as well as in our political reality.
As I’m sure many of you have heard, Jerusalem has been much in the news this past week. Breaking from decades of precedent, President Trump announced on Wednesday that the United States would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would begin preparation to relocate the American embassy there. He said:
Officially, the President is enforcing the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which passed by overwhelming majorities in Congress. This act, which came into effect in November of 1995, only four days after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, instructed the United States embassy to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem upon formal acknowledgement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city. Presidents have demurred on this responsibility, citing national security risks, for the past twenty-two years, though the Congress has continued to uphold its intention as recently as six months ago.
Now, that intention is reality. The American president has acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a fact that has been evident since the founding of the state in 1948 and which has been the position of the Israeli government since its inception. Moreover, the president has begun preparations for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, a process which could take as long as four years.
Mah nishtanah? What difference does it make?
Well, if the American embassy does indeed move to Jerusalem, it will be the only one. Currently, no nation has an embassy there, though as many as sixteen have held their diplomatic headquarters there over the past fifty years. International law recognizes Jerusalem as “corpus separatum,” an area that technically belongs to no state, with the hopes that an eventual peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will settle the matter of which land belongs to whom. America’s change in policy reflects a shift in the international dynamic whereby the United States seems to be more closely aligning its position with that of the government of Israel.
Understandably, this news has raised a lot of questions in America and abroad. Is it good or bad or simply rhetorical? Will it derail peace initiatives or reinvigorate them? Who are the winners, who are the losers, and what are the stakes?
This evening, I’d like to share a sampling of some answers to these questions that might inform our own opinions. As our textual tradition shows, there’s more than one way to think about Jerusalem, and this current issue is no different. I’ll try to lay out two major interpretations of the president’s actions. The first is that America’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital hurts our chances for peace and therefore is a mistake. The second is that this decision disrupts a stalled peace process and has the potential to inspire a breakthrough in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.
First, a statement that should come as no surprise. According to Tal Schneider, the Diplomatic and Political Correspondent for Globes Business Newspaper:
At the same time, she also points out that many Palestinians felt exactly the opposite. Jerusalem is a deeply divided city, and this policy shift has the potential to intensify the tension in the area. This symbolic action from the United States can be interpreted as American approval of Israel’s positions and a disavowal of Palestinian ones. It removes the veneer of impartiality America has endeavored to uphold in negotiations between the two parties.
That’s exactly how Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas feels. He declared President Trump’s announcement an abandonment of America’s role as an honest broker of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. He said:
Saed Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, agreed. He sees the move as a death knell to the decades-old peace process that has always focused on the foundational principle of “two states for two people.” He said:
This view is echoed nearly unanimously by political and religious leaders around the world: America’s actions seem to violate the principles of diplomatic engagement, which have for decades insisted on a negotiated two-state solution to the current situation.
This is also the official position of the Reform Movement, which worries that President Trump’s announcement derails the possibility of peace negotiations.
That’s also why Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, opposed the move. She said:
These voices represent the opposition to the move. And as Rabbi Jacobs predicted, there has indeed been some violence at organized demonstrations. Thousands of protestors have responded to a call from Hamas to ignite a “day of rage.” Fortunately, however, the widespread violence that was feared never materialized, and Jerusalem entered Shabbat fairly quietly earlier today. The peace within Jerusalem has been credited to the Israeli police forces, which worked hard to ensure smooth access to both Muslim and Jewish prayer within the city.
We may take heart that protests were within a reasonable limit over the past couple days. Hopefully, Israelis and Palestinians alike will find a way to come together despite—or even because of—this change in policy. Indeed, according to several observers, President Trump’s announcement may actually bring us closer to peace.
This is because, at the end of the day, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, regardless of international recognition. Even Jewish groups that oppose the president’s action hasten to affirm their agreement on this matter. Jerusalem is and should be the capital of the Jewish State.
So, when the president says it out loud, he does little to affect the so-called “facts on the ground.” Practically, nothing has changed, and avenues remain open for East Jerusalem to remain the capital of a future Palestinian state. This is the position of the American Jewish Committee, a long-time advocate for the two-state solution, as outlined in their official statement:
Former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro agrees. He has outlined how this move could advance rather than disrupt peace negotiations:
In other words, this was a decisive move to be sure, but a move nonetheless in the interests of peace. It demonstrated America’s commitment to the issue and called the hand of both the Israelis and the Palestinians, urging them to move swiftly on a final deal.
Currently, envoys from the Trump administration—including Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Dina Powell, and David Friedman—are working on a closely-guarded peace plan. Perhaps this change of events is part of a broader strategy.
As well, it could be the position of the Trump administration that the two-state solution as it was envisioned nearly twenty-five years ago is dead. If so, many would agree with them. With several peace deals already brokered—and with none of them agreed to—many have concluded that a new paradigm will be necessary moving forward.
That’s how Jonathan Tobin, an editor at Commentary magazine, feels. He suggests that American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a necessary step in loosening the grip that anti-peace extremists hold on the Palestinian people. He wrote:
Thus, whether one is interested in a classically-imagined two-state solution or a different approach altogether, it is possible that the president’s recent announcement could advance either agenda. It might be a step in the direction of true peace.
People I admire hold both of these views. Some claim with credibility that President Trump has turned the clock back on Middle East peace. Others argue with equal fervor that this is a major victory for Israel and, eventually, for the Palestinians. It’s impossible to know for sure who’s right and who’s wrong.
The President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, is a model for how to hold the uncertainty of the current moment. He is concerned that America has lost its position as an honest broker of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. At the same, time, however, Rabbi Jacobs said that:
Within our community, within our own families, people will undoubtedly have their own reasoned opinions about the current situation. And, of course, many of us will continue to raise insightful questions in the weeks and months ahead.
It is crucial throughout this entire discussion that we recall a pivotal lesson from this week’s Torah portion. Here’s how the parashah begins:
As we know, Joseph’s brothers later sell him into slavery, and he, in turn, will test and humiliate them until they finally reconcile. And all because they were not able to speak peaceably together.
We must be able to remain in loving relationship with one another, even across intense divides. The issues of peace within Israel are essential and should remain at the top of our list of priorities. But they cannot overcome our willingness to embrace one another through our differences. Our Torah insists that we can disagree without turning against one another.
May this be our prayer this Shabbat – that we can conduct ourselves with dignity and compassion as we debate these critical issues.
May we renew our eternal commitment to peace within Jerusalem and among Jerusalem and her neighbors.
And may we be at peace with all who share our love of peace—even if we disagree on how to get there. For as the Midrash says, “Great is peace, for contained within it is every blessing.”
 Avot d’Rabbi Natan B48
 Midrash Tehillim on Psalm 122:3.
 Exodus Rabbah 23:10.
 Zohar, Parashat Lech Lecha, 44a.
 See the text of the Jerusalem Embassy Act at https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-104publ45/html/PLAW-104publ45.htm.
 On June 5, 2017, the Senate passed a non-binding resolution that “reaffirms the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 as United States law, and calls upon the President and all United States officials to abide by its provisions” by a margin of 90-0. This resolution also “reaffirms that it is the longstanding, bipartisan policy of the United States Government that the permanent status of Jerusalem remains a matter to be decided between the parties through final status negotiations towards a two-state solution.” Text available: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-resolution/176/text.
 Shared on a call with rabbinic supporters of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
 Vayikra Rabbah 9:9.
“To be effective, the preacher's message must be alive; it must alarm, arouse, challenge; it must be God's present voice to a particular people.”