The demonstrations and killings in the wake of the United States moving its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem reminds us again of the power of symbolism: People are willing to put themselves in harm’s way and other people are willing to kill them for a symbol, in this case the symbolism of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move encourages extreme Zionists, enrages Palestinians and rankles most other countries.
But the embassy move doesn’t change a thing in the Middle East.
It doesn’t alter the situation on the ground and it shouldn’t disturb the dynamics of any negotiations. Why should Jerusalem be off the table now in discussions of a peaceful settlement, be it a two-state solution or something else? It was so easy to move the U.S. embassy. All it took was money. Why can’t a future deal require the United States to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv, or elsewhere? It’s even possible that one day this new U.S. facility could be the U.S. embassy in a democratic Palestinian state that is allied with its neighbor, Israel? A peacenik can always dream…
Trump’s lunacy does have both immediate and long-term consequences. Short-term, it increases tensions and violence in Israeli and the occupied territory. Trumpty-Dumpty and his advisors must have known that the opening ceremonies would kindle demonstrations. But did they know that Israel would react with such brutality? Only among American evangelicals and hardliners in both Israel and the United States will the Israeli reaction to the demonstrations not seem blood-thirsty. Sixty-one dead and about 2,700 injured by a superior force that as of this writing reports no injuries or deaths is what the Latins used to say was res ipsa loquitur, a thing that proves itself. What it demonstrates is that the Israelis could have figured out a way to deal with the protesters and rioters without killing anyone, inflicting minimum injury. Fire hoses. Loud acoustics. Reinforcement of the fence. There are lots of ways to deal with protesters short of firing bullets and teargas.
The long-term implication of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is that it provides further proof that the other nations of the world can no longer trust the United States to abide by treaties and that the United States has little interest in collective decision-making on issues of global import. Trump has already walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, and raised tariffs that threaten to start a trade war. Now he has ignored the United Nations agreement not to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel until a peace agreement is reached. U.S. credibility is at an all-time low among our allies.
And for what? A symbolic move about a symbol.
As a secular Jew in diaspora, I am befuddled by the big deal that Jews make about the symbolic import of the city of Jerusalem. I’ve never been there, but I have seen ancient Neolithic, Greek, Roman, Carthaginian and Islamic ruins and experienced the expansive swell of religious joy and connection with past civilizations and peoples, the oneness with humanity, or a portion of it, that comes from knowing that values, ideas and artifacts persist in time. And yes, I did feel a special, Jewish tug when viewing the old synagogues of Prague and Spain. I get it.
But let’s consider the real symbolism of Jerusalem. It is called King David’s city, the city that King David conquered and made his capital, the city that King Solomon grew, the city of the temple of the Kings.
Kings. Royalty. The idea that certain people have a divine right that is passed down by birth, a right to command others, to mess with the lives of others by forming armies, fighting wars, deciding who should pay what taxes, and building monuments, often to their own glory. Royalty is the most autocratic and least democratic system of government. Royalty is the ultimate expression of racism: my blood is so much better than your blood that I’m always in charge. One could make a case that the kings weakened ancient Israel to the point that the Babylonians could take over the country. Why would Jews want to have anything to do with royalty? Most Jews everywhere in the world today believe in representational democracy and reject the very concept of kingship and royalty, yet worship Jerusalem, forgetting that the city is not just a symbol of Judaism, but of Jewish royalism.
True enough, both holy temples were located in Jerusalem, but the first was fruit of the evil seed of royalty. Remember, too, that the temple was the place of animal sacrifice, a practice that Jews gave up centuries ago. There are remarkable and religiously uplifting antiquities all over the state of Israel.
Giving up the obsolete is something Jews are used to doing. We replaced animal sacrifice with prayer centuries ago. Most branches of the Jewish religion have gradually ended or are in the process of ending the many sexist elements in ancient and medieval Jewish religion and custom. We’ve made changes to the liturgy—prayers and melodies. Isn’t it about time that we turn our back on the concept of royalty and thereby de-mythify Jerusalem? If I were involved in the negotiations, I would be willing to trade political control of Jerusalem in return for a real lasting peace that included economic cooperation with a Palestinian state, as long as Jews were allowed to visit and live in Jerusalem. Hell, yes.
The equations sometimes produced by symbolic actions like moving an embassy are as macabre as they are tragic. Ask yourself, if it were your children, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends and neighbors, how many dead would be worth the symbolism? It shouldn’t be difficult to understand that Palestinians feel the same way. Of course, to believers in royalty, some people are worth more than others. The essence of royalty—as conceived of and practiced throughout recorded history—is that the better people can sacrifice or kill the lower orders. That military representatives of “the chosen people” should kill and maim so many as an almost necessary aftermath to Trump’s Jerusalem symbolism is the ultimate expression of the obscenity that is the concept of kingship.