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Why Jerusalem matters: The Jewish, Christian and Muslim points of view

POSTED: December 11, 2017 10:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

President Donald Trump announced Wednesday that he'd instructed the State Department to begin the process of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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President Donald Trump took a step into the unknown last week, promising new policies toward Israel with little indication of how he plans to deal with the consequences.

"The strategy is not clear. We are waiting with great anticipation," said Rabbi David Saperstein, former State Department ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and a longtime leader in the American Jewish community.

Trump on Wednesday recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and announced his support for moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. His declaration disrupted a decades-long effort to resolve Israel and Palestine's completing claims to the city, which is home to sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

"Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel's capital," he said at the White House on Nov. 6. "This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It's something that has to be done."

The announcement fulfilled a campaign promise and thrilled many of Trump's top supporters, including evangelical Christians and politically conservative Jews. But it also broke international precedent and sparked violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.

"When events like this happen, it causes a lot of instability and a lot of uncertainty. That's always a dangerous business in the Middle East," said Michael Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University.

Here's an overview of the political and religious significance of Trump's decision.

Why is it controversial to say Jerusalem is Israel's capital?

Political control over Jerusalem is hotly contested because of the city's religious significance. It's home to major Jewish, Muslim and Christian landmarks.

"At the center of Jerusalem, in an area about twice the size of the Mall in Washington sit three major holy sites: the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in the world for Muslims; the Western Wall, part of the holiest site in the world for Jews; and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the place where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected," The Washington Post reported.

The United Nation's original plan for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, finalized in 1947, called for Jerusalem to be independent and overseen by international leaders. But this never panned out, as it was less than a year before extensive fighting led to the city being split. Israel took control of the western side, and Jordan the eastern side.

Today, Israel and Palestine both claim Jerusalem as their capital. Competing interests in the city are at the center of debates over how to ensure peace between the two countries, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, to The New York Times.

"Jerusalem has always been the most delicate issue in every discussion about peace," he said.

For this reason, countries around the world have been careful in how they approach Jerusalem, declining to refer to it as Israel's capital. There are currently 86 foreign embassies, including America's, in Tel Aviv and none in Jerusalem, according to CNN.

"Being a city that is sacred to three major faith groups and a city which two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, claim as a capital, it's not surprising it would be a focus in terms of foreign policy and foreign diplomacy," Rabbi Saperstein said.

Why does Jerusalem matter to Jews?

Israelis, and most Jews around the world, feel that Jerusalem has belonged to them since before the rise of modern states, Rabbi Saperstein said.

"It's been the capital of Israel in the hearts and minds of the Jewish community since King David, for 3,000 years," he said.

The Hebrew scriptures, known by Christians as the Bible's Old Testament, tell of King David conquering Jerusalem and then settling there with his people. His son, King Solomon, built a long-awaited temple for the community there, which was later destroyed and then rebuilt and then destroyed again.

"Jerusalem and the temple remain central to traditional Jewish thought and prayer. Around the world, Jews pray facing Jerusalem. Jewish rabbinical teachings hold that when the Messiah comes, the temple will be rebuilt," The Washington Post reported.

These deep ties to the city complicate efforts to negotiate boundaries and control, said Barnett, who previously taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a visiting scholar in Tel Aviv.

"To Israel, (Jerusalem) is not simply its capital. It's its soul," he said.

Why does Jerusalem matter to Muslims?

The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem also has religious roots, since Muslims are spiritually linked to the city's history and landmarks.

"It's recognized in Islam as a holy site. It connects Muslims with Abraham and other prophets," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Notre Dame. Some Muslims, like Jews and Christians, take pilgrimages to the city.

Muslims faced Jerusalem to pray for more than a decade after their religion's founding in the early seventh century. They believe Muhammad was later called by God to switch the prayer direction to Mecca.

Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, built where Jews believe the Israelite temples once stood, marks the site where Muslims say Muhammad ascended to heaven.

"For more than 1,300 years, there have been Muslim shrines in Jerusalem," The Washington Post reported.

Why does Jerusalem matter to Christians?

Like Jews and Muslims, Christians believe Jerusalem is scripturally significant. They not only recognize its ties to Old Testament stories, but also believe Jesus Christ walked its streets.

Jerusalem is "the place where Jesus preached, died and was resurrected," The Washington Post reported. It's now "a major pilgrimage site for Christians from around the world."

Some Christians, and particularly those from theologically conservative denominations, believe that promoting Jewish control over the city will help bring about the Second Coming of Jesus, a conclusion drawn from the Bible's more apocalyptic elements, said Gary Burge, a New Testament professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"The more conservative you are, the more Jerusalem matters," he said.

More than 8 in 10 white evangelical Protestants (82 percent) believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people, compared to 47 percent of white mainline Protestants, Pew Research Center reported in 2013.

Did people of faith celebrate Trump's decision?

Trump's Jerusalem announcement was met with mixed reactions from religious leaders. Some worried that he was disrupting the Middle East peace process, while others thanked him for acknowledging the Jewish claim to the city.

"We have been following, with concern, the reports about the possibility of changing how the United States understands and deals with the status of Jerusalem," read a letter from Orthodox Christian patriarchs and other Christian leaders in Jerusalem. "We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division."

Pope Francis spoke about the city during his general audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square. He called for respect for the "status quo," urging Trump to focus on peace, without mentioning the U.S. president by name.

"My thoughts go to Jerusalem," the pope said.

Members of the president's evangelical advisory board, who many believe were instrumental in bringing about Trump's decision, praised the news.

"Promise made. Promise kept," said Paula White, Trump's favorite spiritual resource and senior pastor of New Destiny Christian Center, according to Religion News Service. "Evangelicals are ecstatic, for Israel is to us a sacred place and the Jewish people are our dearest friends.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Muslim Relations, spoke for many Muslims when he decried the president's disrespect for Islam.

"President Trump is casting aside America’s role as a mediator in the Middle East conflict, harming our Muslim allies and our nation’s strategic foreign policy interests, offending the religious sensibilities of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and empowering political and religious extremists of all stripes at home and abroad," he said in a statement.

Even Jewish leaders did not speak with one voice, as The New York Times reported. Many Orthodox and Conservative Jewish leaders rejoiced, while some Reform Jewish rabbis expressed fear about the future peace negotiations.

"I think there are divisions about how and when to implement" this change, Rabbi Saperstein said. "But almost every Jew I know believes Jerusalem is the capital of Israel."

How did world leaders react?

Global political leaders offered a more unified response than members of the clergy. Trump was almost universally condemned as recklessly endangering citizens in the region and was asked to reverse his decision.

"This announcement runs counter to common sense," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Friday, according to Reuters.

"It is clear that in the framework of negotiating a two-state solution the status of Jerusalem also needs to be dealt with," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "In that context, we disagree with the decision yesterday."

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Washington Post that "the U.S. administration must reverse this unjust decision."

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine, condemned Trump's announcement during a televised speech, according to USA Today. He described the policy shift as "a declaration of withdrawal from the role (the U.S.) has played in the peace process."

But Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, applauded Trump's decision, calling it "an important step toward peace."

Why is the U.S. involved in the peace process?

U.S. leaders have been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for decades, using the country's close relationship with Israel to push for established borders and stability in the Middle East. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a White House senior adviser, oversees these efforts for the current administration.

Although it may be wishful thinking, many foreign policy experts have felt that solving the conflict over Jerusalem is key to ending clashes between Israel and Palestine and bringing about a new era of peace in the Middle East, Barnett said.

Such an achievement is an "illusive prize" for U.S. presidents, he added, which may also motivate expending time, energy and money on the situation.

"If you can somehow nail the Israeli-Palestinian settlement issue, you'll go down in history. It almost wouldn't matter what else you do," he said.

How does Trump differ from other presidents on Israel?

Trump is not the first president to sympathize with Israel. In general, the country has enjoyed increasing U.S. support since the 1980s, with policymakers from both parties encouraging movement of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Barnett said.

In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. It requires the president to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem "unless, citing national security concerns, he signs a waiver, which has to be renewed every six months," The New York Times reported.

Trump's predecessors held back from acknowledging Jerusalem as its capital and planning an embassy move due to fear of retaliation, Barnett said. Especially since 9/11, Americans have worried that adopting new policies toward Israel would embolden Islamic extremists in the Middle East.

"There have been pressures (to move the embassy), but every president (since 1995) has resisted those pressures on the grounds that it wouldn't be consistent with U.S. national interests," he said.

Trump signed the waiver in June, citing logistical issues involved in moving an embassy. He also signed the waiver this month, since it will take longer than six months for the State Department to arrange the embassy's move to Jerusalem.

What prompted the Jerusalem announcement?

Barnett said he was surprised by the timing of Trump's decision, since it's not the end-of-year achievement most Americans expected or even wanted. Unlike tax reform or repealing Obamacare, few voters have a direct stake in the country's stance toward Israel.

However, Trump's actions fulfilled a campaign promise to some of his key supporters, including politically conservative Jews, major Republican donors and evangelical Christians, according to political analysts.

"The decision reflects the influence of powerful allies in Trump's inner circle, including Vice President Mike Pence and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, men determined to coach Trump on the issue and its importance to conservative Jews and evangelical Christians," the Associated Press reported.

Johnnie Moore, a spokesman for Trump's evangelical advisory board, told Reuters that the status of Jerusalem and the location of the U.S. embassy in Israel came up repeatedly since the president took office in January.

"I've sat in many meetings with evangelicals in the White House since the administration began, and I can tell you this issue came up again and again and again," he said.

As Burge noted, evangelical Christians have long been concerned with the fate of Israel. However, Trump's support for their views likely made old teachings even more popular.

"This interest has always been there, but Trump inflamed it," Burge said.

Around 1 in 4 U.S. adults with evangelicals beliefs (24 percent) say they support the existence, security and prosperity of Israel no matter what leaders there do, according to a new LifeWay Research survey. Eight in 10 say the re-establishment of the country after World War II was a "fulfillment of biblical prophecy."

"When it comes to the welfare of Israel, some evangelicals find their mandate in the Bible easily," Burge said.

Members of this faith group are actually more likely than the average American Jew to say God gave the country to Jews, Pew reported in 2013. They're also more likely to say that the U.S. should do more to help Israel.

"Among Jews, 54 percent say American support of the Jewish state is 'about right,' while 31 percent say the U.S. is not supportive enough. By contrast, more white evangelical Protestants say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (46 percent) than say support is about right (31 percent)," Pew reported.

Why did Trump's decision take people by surprise?

Trump has been open about his intentions to move the embassy, but, until this month, many experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict expected the move to be coupled with a formal peace plan. For example, the president could have waited to make the announcement until after Israel agreed to share the city with Palestinians.

Trump's announcement was "divorced, frankly, of any positive interaction between the sides," said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor, to the Deseret News.

If the U.S. embassy really is moved in the near future, Trump will have lost an important bargaining chip in efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders around the same table, Barnett said.

"At a time where supposedly there is interest from the Trump administration in engaging a two-state solution, it doesn't seem to make sense," he said.

The president's decision appears to condone Israel's control of Jerusalem, ignoring Muslims' claims to sacred sites within its borders, Moosa said.

"This step will embolden Israel," he said. "What Trump has done is moved the dial in the direction of a one-state solution."

Trump's announcement unsettled Jerusalem, sparking protests and violence.

"Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, demonstrators in the Gaza Strip burned U.S. flags and pictures of President Donald Trump, and a top Palestinian official said Vice President Mike Pence would not be welcome in the West Bank," Time reported.

Foreign policy experts had warned of an outcry, and they say current conflict may only be a taste of what would happen if the embassy moved.

Trump's announcement undoubtedly complicated the peace process, but it didn't close the door on it, Rabbi Saperstein said. The president was careful to acknowledge that the city's boundaries still need to be discussed, although he didn't reference Palestinian interest in East Jerusalem.

"That keeps on the table a number of options," he said.

A variety of media outlets said the Trump administration expects outrage in the region to cool off before peace talks continue next year.
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