Of Embassies in Jerusalem
Jerusalem continues its long tradition of political energy, religious intensity, and misunderstanding. Having just returned from a couple of months in Jerusalem (a little work, a little play), my sense of the political history and tensions continues to evolve. For example, I’m increasingly convinced that the contrasting narratives between Israelis and Palestinians – that is, contrasting historical narratives for starters – is so fundamental to the issues that I believe both sides should share the study of history in as intense a manner as possible with the goal of coming to some convergence.
It’s easy enough to cite clear contrasting examples of how the reality of history lives in the language of the two sides. Even the simple distinction between Israeli “Independence Day” and the “Nakba” speaks to the incommensurability the two sides struggle with. We saw this today acted out in the dedication ceremony of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. One side is celebrating the life of the state, and dressed as if it were Derby day, and the other side is dying because of it.
Let’s try a little history and see where reasoning our way forward gets us. We will try to stay as close to the facts as possible: The United Nations partition plan in 1947 designated Jerusalem and its holy sites as Corpus Separatum. This means it was a separate international entity under the auspices of the United Nations and not under the control of either side. So there is clear recognition that Jerusalem was special and should be the subject of negotiations and agreements between the two sides. After the war of ‘48 East Jerusalem came under Jordanian control. There was no mention of West Jerusalem, but Ben-Gurion declared Jerusalem a fundamental part of Jewish history. The centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people is not a difficult argument to make, but this does not deny that other people lived there and were displaced by the war. The Central Bureau of Statistics reports that 62% of Jerusalem a Jewish.
But Israel was attacked in 1967 and maintains that war and such attacks disqualify previous agreements such as the agreement to consider Jerusalem Corpus Separatum. This is typically true but modern international law seeks to maintain a strong moral force by refusing to recognize countries that acquire land through violence. This is a point of contention between those who argue that Israel has a right to East Jerusalem and conquered pre-1967 territory. After the 1967 war Israel began building large Jewish neighborhoods on land that had been designated as “occupied” and not legitimately acquired. This is an extension of the point above concerning how property is acquired legitimately during times of political conflict and war.
Israel then did two things that have been the source of problems and criticism. Their justification remains a matter of perspective depending on how you believe the land was acquired – legitimately or not. The first thing Israel did was invoke a complex system of citizenship and national identity. This has led to the unfortunate and unjustified apartheid claim, which causes more problems than it solves. The second thing Israel did was remove about 70,000 Palestinians from their homes which again continues to burn deeply into Palestinian consciousness. It has been the chief focal point around claims of “return” in the entire discourse of longing for a lost and cheated land.
The Palestinians argue that Israel has violated international law, and the Israelis claim that international law no longer applies. Thus, we have the historical loggerhead. Moving the embassy must satisfy historical differences and maintain the two-state solution. It should be clear that the Embassy in West Jerusalem does not preclude a future Palestinian Embassy in East Jerusalem. If and when the day comes that these two historic enemies come to terms it is possible for both of them to have capitals in Jerusalem.