Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem (recognizing Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel) is going to give rise to violence. This morning a former student asked me to explain why the embassy’s position was so significant. What follows is my response to the question. Hopefully, it will help some make better sense out of what is going on.
The first thing to understand about the place of Jerusalem in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that the city has a mixture of sacred and secular significance for all groups involved.
In part, arguments about Jerusalem are about territory (the secular concern), but in part they are about deeper issues of identity, religion, etc.
So, imagine that you set a table outside and one of your neighbors took the table. The robbery would be bad enough, but it’s just a table, so you could just get another one, right?
But now imagine that the table had been in your family for generations; that your great grandmother had carved her initials with the initials of your great grandfather under the table while they were dating, etc.
The table now takes on a different kind of significance. It is not easily replaceable or exchangeable.
For everyone involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Jerusalem is like your long time family table times a billion.
When goods take on this kind of value, we don’t just worry about physical ownership, but also about symbolism.
So, imagine that the family table belonged to a mother who had two children. Both of her children want the table. When the mother dies, both show up to divide up their mother’s goods. One of the children starts piling her things on the table. Even though there has been no claim about taking the table, the issue is so raw that even placing the goods on the table could easily give rise to a fight about the table.
Jerusalem is like this. Israel claims it as their capital, and Palestine claims that part of the city will be their capital. Israel currently controls all of it except the temple mount (which is the most holy site for both groups). Everyone watches everyone else for any sign that they are moving in a way that symbolizes greater ownership.
To this, we should add the tensions that come about because of other points in the conflict: Israeli’s stealing other Palestinian lands, Palestinians firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, etc. But for present purposes, these issues only aggravate the frustration and distrust that is already at stake in looking at Jerusalem.
Why does the US make a difference?
Well, the US basically props up the Israeli government. It has from very early on in the history of the modern nation. Billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States flow into Israel. And billions and billions more go in contracts to Israeli businesses.
Everyone else in the world is much more critical of Israel than the US is. After all, Israel is progressively stealing Palestinian land. So, if the US wanted Israel to change its policies, the US could place a GREAT deal of pressure on Israel to do so.
But the US has never ENTIRELY abandoned the Palestinians. We have always in theory stood for a negotiated conclusion to the conflict. Some agreement that would carve up the land so that Israel and Palestine could each have their own lands.
But if the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, this represents a change in stance. It is accepting all of Israel’s claims while accepting none of the Palestinian claims. It is a huge symbol saying that we no longer support a negotiated conclusion to the conflict (because we are resolving some of the issues that would have to be negotiated in any peace process).
Basically, we are the ones piling one child’s things on the table.
Without the US supporting a negotiated peace process, the Palestinians don’t have any good options. They could accept absolute defeat and try to live in a state of Apartheid, or they could return to more widespread violent resistance against Israel. Either way, they basically get decimated.
It is at this point that violence starts to look like a good option for large numbers of Palestinians, because their options are so bleak.
This is a location in the world where the United States most needs to manifest wisdom, care and a deep concern for the bending of history toward justice. Our current administration has no capability for any of this. We and the world will pay a dear price for our failure.