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.
The essay title “Jerusalem for Dummies” has been taken (go here) but I thought it was sufficiently descriptive so I appropriated it. There are of course any number of places where one can read about the history of Jerusalem and its various twists and turns with respect to legal standing, cultural icon, religious center, and capital. But below is a brief overview that helps place Trump’s announcement in context. You can listen again to Trump here: Trump’s bold statement about Jerusalem and the Jews.
Historically, Jerusalem was a small town on the outskirts of the Ottoman Empire. It was mostly significant for religious reasons as water and natural resources were scarce and not particularly strategically located. But as time went on Jerusalem became symbolically more important and a tense mixture of politics and religion. One of the nearby hills in Jerusalem was called “Zion” and it became the term to refer to the entire area and the base of the word Zionism which is the modern movement calling for the reestablishment of the Jewish people and state.
Still, Jerusalem was never automatically assumed to be “Jewish” because of its significance for both Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is significant to the three Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. There is no denying the significance and importance of these religious sites and whatever ends up happening Jerusalem must ensure access to these holy places.
The Zionist leaders were mostly secular and were unsure about the significance of Jerusalem Or, shall we say, they were uncomfortable with the power of the religious connection to Jerusalem and did not want a future Jewish state to be overly religious.
It is significant that when the United Nations divided Palestine into two states (one Arab, one Jewish) in 1947, it left Jerusalem out of this equation. Jerusalem and its surroundings were designated as a separate territory to be overseen by an international body. Many Jews were unsure about this but were satisfied with relinquishing Jerusalem in order to establish the state. But when the Arabs rejected the plan to divide Palestine and attacked Israel Jews considered themselves no longer bound by the UN partition plan and moved in on Jerusalem militarily. At the end of the war of independence Israel had taken the Western part of the city, the Jordanians the Eastern part including the old city and significant religious sites. By now the significance of Jerusalem was increasingly apparent and Jews fixated their identities more on Jerusalem. The city was divided by the new state of Israel and Jordan.
Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital after annexing West Jerusalem. The Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and there were two capitals up until the Six-Day War in 1967. For 19 years, 1948-1967, tensions between Israel and the Arab world remained and no progress was made on the status of Jerusalem or its unification. The city was not recognized as either Israeli or Jordanian. During the Six-Day War Israel captured East Jerusalem along with a few neighborhoods that were not historically in Jerusalem. Israel has moved all of its government offices to Jerusalem including the Knesset and has consolidated their presence in the city.
Israel’s position is that they are not bound by the UN partition plan or the original partition of Palestine because they acquired Western Jerusalem while defending themselves. The two sides have hardened their position as Israel would now never give up Jerusalem as its capital and the Palestinians maintain a belief in their rights to the city also. Very little progress has ever been made on the status of Jerusalem and the city remains confused according to international law as well as the contradicting claims of each side.
For these reasons official recognition of Jerusalem has been moot for most countries. But Donald Trump changed all that.
There is currently a court case in the United States about to be heard by the Supreme Court pertaining to Menachem Zivotofsky who was born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem – Western Jerusalem. As reported in the Wall Street Journal on October 31, 2014 Menachem’s parents are US citizens but when they went to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to apply for his passport they listed his place of birth as “Israel.” The consular officials said no. The case is currently under consideration and interestingly is a major issue in foreign policy. Let’s explain with a little background first.
Jerusalem from 1517 was part of the Ottoman Empire up until the First World War. It was an international city mostly of interest because of its religious sites traced to the Abrahamic religions. After World War I Jerusalem was part of the British mandate and in 1948 the United Nations partitioned Palestine and Jerusalem was declared a “separate body” with special political status. After the establishment of the State of Israel Jordan controlled East Jerusalem and Israel maintained control in West Jerusalem. Jerusalem was divided for 19 years and after the 1967 war, Israel retook the old city and declared Jerusalem united.
Status of International Law
UN resolution 181 in 1947 declared Jerusalem a “separate entity,” and would be managed on the bases outlined in the United Nations Proposal 181 which concerned the partition of Palestine. Israel has always considered the partition proposal null and void because the Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked the new state of Israel. Consequently, separating Jerusalem out as a separate entity was unjustified. Israel was again attacked in 1967 and as result of their victory in the Six-Day War Jerusalem was reunified, or reclaimed by Israelis, as a Jewish city. Since 1967 all residents including Arabs were offered Israeli citizenship, although most of them declined. The Palestinians argue that in violation of United Nations principles Israel acquired land by military means and the unification of Jerusalem was illegal.
Israel in 1980 declared Jerusalem as its eternal capital and made the argument that such claims are rooted in 3000 years of history citing King David, biblical events, the structure of Jewish prayer which turns toward Jerusalem three times a day, as well as the foregrounding of Jerusalem in the thoughts and liturgies of Jews everywhere.
Still, the Palestinian Authority claims all of East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount and maintains that West Jerusalem and its final status can only result from negotiated agreements between the two sides.
So What Is to Become of young Menachem Zivotofsky?
The United States prefers Jerusalem to remain an international city with final status to be the result of negotiations. It does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel according to international law. The United States position is specific in that it supported the partition plan but not UN control of Jerusalem. The US also objected to all unilateral action, including moving its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, that made decisions for Jerusalem outside the boundaries of negotiated agreements.
US foreign policy became entangled in this issue when Congress passed a law in 2002 that directed the State Department to allow US citizens born in Jerusalem to identify “Israel” as their place of birth. This allowed people like Mr. Zivotofsky to self identify. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to implement the rule claiming their exclusive powers in foreign policy and avoiding antagonizing the Arab world by maintaining the international standing definition of Jerusalem.
As of now, Jerusalem remains a potentially contentious definitional issue with much of the world automatically associating it with Israel and other parts of the world refusing. It has found its way into a political battle between Congress and the presidency with respect to who is most authoritative when it comes to directing the nation’s foreign affairs. Can the executive branch just ignore Congress, and can Congress direct legislation over the head of the President. These are the matters influencing the Supreme Court decision while Menachem Zivotofsky waits to see where he was born.