Trump’s Jerusalem Jeopardy: A Hackneyed “Holy” Hot Mess

America’s president did something stupid concerning Jerusalem. Cue predictably stupid reactions.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse December 11, 2017

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter@bfry1981) December 11th, 2017

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AMMAN — More often than not, the situation whenever the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are involved in discussing their near-identity-defining, almost sickly-beloved conflict rapidly becomes a contest to see who can deny reality the most vehemently. In this conflict, you learn quickly that if one side has a choice between quietly enjoying some advantage or rising opportunity on one side and rubbing it in the faces of their rivals at the cost of sabotaging their own blessing on the other, the latter is almost always the choice; this makes you realize that spite, as much as anything else, is a motivating factor among too many in this struggle.

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Typical Tribal Conflict… BUT GOD!

As a student, you read about this conflict and it fascinates you; as someone who has the opportunity to talk to the parties and live among them over an extended period of time, it depresses you and tires you out, even if you don’t have a vested interest in one side or another. You form a deeper respect for the suffering of both sides, even as you become exasperated by their stubbornness and unwillingness to acknowledge valid points made by the other side in a cycle of dehumanization that helps to explain the deadly and nasty nature of this conflict.

After enough time, you become good at asking people questions and getting them to talk, but this also results in your being accustomed to being usually disappointed in their answers. Occasionally, you hear voices of reason, then become even more depressed as you realize these are the minorities, often represented at pathetically low levels in the halls of political power, even when democratically elected.

Frequently, the more religious the individual, the less compromising they are in their views. And I have found that such people rarely consider things from the other perspective.

Should Jewish babies being born now in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Haifa suffer because of the sins and/or failures of their fathers and grandfathers? No more than Palestinian babies born in Jerusalem or Ramallah or Hebron should suffer for the sins and/or failures of their fathers and grandfathers. And if your answer to those questions involves you saying that yes, innocent children being born in situations totally beyond their control do indeed deserve to suffer under occupation, legal inequality, or the constant threat or “retributive” violence and you somehow justify this response by citing your God or His holy texts, then your God is not worthy of worship and esteem but should instead be cast off into the obscurity and irreverence that has been the fate of most of the capricious and cruel deities of millennia past.

I confess I am not among those who would describe themselves as the faithful, and it is with increasingly robust pride that I describe myself as such in the face of more and more encounters with otherwise kind and generous souls who, when animated by discussion of this or that holy place they are told is to be their rightful inheritance by some ancient book of yesteryear, can and do find specific verses from said text that they claim (and they are hardly alone) justify some sort of violence to either take back what is “theirs” or prevent sharing sovereignty over what they now control.

God “gave” you this land? Funny, why don’t you control it now, then? Is it not His will that you lost it? Why not reserve your hostility for the God that allowed this to happen, rather than the people who are now in possession of what is supposedly “yours,” for are not those people instruments of His Will? Or are you claiming that these people are somehow successfully opposing the Will of God and that your all-powerful God needs you, a band of lowly primates, to somehow aid him in seeing His Will through? Or do you who now possess such holy places look at the mass of outside-your-tribe humanity that surrounds you and are also laying claim to said holy places believe that your God put these people here for you to displace, keep out, or even kill in large numbers just to maintain exclusive sovereignty? Am I to respect a God that is so tribal that He favors your possession and not sharing such sacred holy sites, that this God truly cares whether you or some other primates that are nearly identical in blood and DNA control some speck of a vast planet that is merely a piece of dust in the wider universe?

The truth of the matter is that there is no respectably serious answer that can be provided by any of the faithful who believe in divinely sanctioned violence to either maintain or retake such and such location. Believe me, I’ve tried to find one by personally asking many on both sides of this conflict, and the range and originality of the answers such a crowd can give you are narrow and hackneyed in the extreme.

It was extremely unfair to the Jews when the Romans slaughtered and expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and its environs in the first and second centuries C.E. amid vigorous Jewish revolts, and it was also extremely unfair to the Arabs who would become known as Palestinians the way first Ottoman Turkish and then British European colonial overlords oppressed them and also allowed the long-exiled Jews to return to their ancient homeland in a manner that did not consider asking or consulting those local Arabs how they felt about the matter and then, in the case of the British, wearily presented it as a fait accompli to the United Nations in 1947-1949. Wars were fought and won and lost, and, as is so often the case with such things, there is no full rewind button, try though many may to find it or claim they have.

It is also worth asking: by what right did the ancient Jews (at least in the Biblical telling) massacre and/or displace those who were in what is now Israel/Palestine when they arrived thousands of years ago? By what right did the seventh-century Arab conquerors take the land from the East Roman (Byzantine) Greco-Romans? The same questions about taking land can be asked of many others, including the Romans, Ottomans, Turks, British, and those who would become Israelis; the answer is the same for each of them: they and/or their leaders wanted to and they had the power to do so.

The biggest myth of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is some sort of difficult to understand Gordian knot, singular among world conflicts in its uniqueness and intensity, inscrutable to all but those most studied in it or closest to it.

The reality is that the conflict is remarkably banal: two tribes want the same land and contest sites that are particularly holy to them. You know, like what happened many thousands of times in recorded history and innumerable times from prehistory when we were barely more than upright primates.

Perhaps most obnoxiously, both Israelis and Palestinians often speak as if they are the only people to have been in a predicament like theirs. While many people around the world are stuck in conflicts and occupations the world has long forgotten—Tibetans under the ChineseKashmiris, the long-suffering people of SomaliaHutus in Central Africa, and today’s ignored Yemenis—it seems even the slightest provocation involving anything Palestinian-Israeli generates front page news, drowning out other, more intense conflicts that have killed and displaced far more people in recent decades.

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Jerusalem Is NOT the Center of the World

Before Trump delivered his ill-advised speech on Jerusalem, it finally seemed as if things had hit a critical mass of a point where the world might finally start paying attention to Yemen in the wake of the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president turned rebel leader. Before that event threatened to further destabilize an already incredibly unstable situation, Yemen was suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern human history, a man-made one wrought by Saudi incompetence and global indifference, with about one million cases and getting worse, and was also facing a food crisis that has put Yemen on the brink of the worst famine in the world in decades, with some seven million people at risk. It was thought that Saleh’s death might bring some much-needed attention to the neglected conflict, but two days later, Trump gave his speech on Jerusalem, and now Yemen’s war is at most an afterthought (if that) in much of the Arab/Muslim world and in global headlines, just as it has been for most of the war’s duration. In Jordan, where I reside, I haven’t seen a single mention of Yemen recently in social media among any of my regional contacts except from those who are Yemeni.

There is only so much oxygen to be shared among major stories during any given news cycle, and the tiny sliver of land on the Eastern Mediterranean coast know as Israel/Palestine consumes far more than its fair share of what is available. I was chatting with one Palestinian-Jordanian friend recently and complained about the disproportionate attention the subject got, but in her mind it was totally justified: “Jerusalem is very important to Muslims,” she said. “So a place is more important than millions who are on the brink of starvation in Yemen?” I asked? “Yes, of course!” she replied. I would cite here a piece I wrote a while back about how, on balance, religion intensifies conflict, not de-escalates it; religion may or may not “poison everything,” to cite Christopher Hitchens, but it more often than not certainly poisons conflicts, and quite irrationally so.

I will not excuse the many and severe misdeeds of Israel when it comes to its treatment of Palestinians under its control (and I have written about them extensively before, though that is not to suggest that Palestinians are blameless, either), but especially when it comes to white Europeans (and especially those from countries with backgrounds of strong anti-Semitism and fascist governments and/or fascistic leanings), one really does have to wonder why—when surrounded by conflicts in which human rights are being abused, from Western Sahara to northern Cyprus to Belarus to Crimea to Darfur to Syria to the Kurds to the Uighurs to the Rohingya to North Korea—so many of these Europeans are so virulently, almost obsessively focused on the misdeeds of Israel when it comes to human rights violations; some won’t even mention the word Israel, as if it’s a dirty word, and a good number come at their own expense to protest or document abuses in Palestinian communities.  After nearly two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism dominating Europe, perhaps the idea—after a mere few decades of progress (and well under a century since the Holocaust was hardly a just a German, but a collective European crime)—that some level of residual anti-Semitism is a factor in current European views on Israel and Israelis, and the intensity and frequency of criticism of them, is hardly unreasonable.

America, of course, is more complicated: it has the largest Jewish population in the world (even including Israel) and a far larger population of extreme white Christian Evangelicals who literally believe that the Jews must control all of the Biblical “Holy Land” in order for Jesus to return, prejudicing them wholly against the Palestinians in favor of Israeli Jews, even more so than American Jews. And among major powers, it is the nation most supportive of Israel, one of only a few nations around the world that don’t view Israel negatively.

I’ve seen a number of Europeans express solidarity with the Palestinians by posting a Facebook profile photo frame showing the Dome of the Rock and with Arabic stating “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine,” almost as if to also deny that it is Israel’s capital. Is it so awful to post that Jerusalem is the capital of BOTH Israel AND Palestine? Few people I talked to here in Jordan wanted to admit that Israel has any claim to Jerusalem (Jordan controlled East Jerusalem until 1967, when Israel drove the Jordanians out), still fewer that it could or should be Israel’s capital. While more Israeli Jews had mixed views when I’ve spoken with them in the past, the ones that felt Jerusalem could be divided and shared were generally a minority of disillusioned hippies not well-represented in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament; those who were more mainstream politically—and therefore more empowered—were far less keen on the idea of a shared Jerusalem, let alone Palestine as a state.

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The Reality of Jerusalem

The obvious (if painful for some) reality is that Israel has controlled much of Jerusalem since 1948 and all of it since 1967, something which ISIS (of all groups) surprisingly and ironically pointed out after Trump’s speech. This reality means that, for all intents and purposes, Jerusalem has been the de facto capital of Israel’s state (a state recognized today by 158 nations, the vast majority of the world) since 1948, officially so in Israel’s view though unofficially so to the rest of the world. Because of the sensitive nature of the unresolved status of Jerusalem between two parties in conflict, the United States and the rest of the world have avoided recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s (or Palestine’s) capital. Yes, it practically is Israel’s capital, and everybody knows it, but Trump’s public acceptance of it violated basic principles of neutrality, and even while changing virtually nothing on the ground, it enraged millions of Arabs and Muslims worldwide.

If the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims were smart, they would abstain from any sort of violent reaction to a speech that changes nothing on the ground for anyone except people who work at or need the U.S. Embassy as it moves from one city to another. They could unite on a focused, organized plan to engage the world community now that sympathy is more intensely with them after Trump’s incompetent oration needlessly kicked a hornet’s nest. In fact, Trump’s address needlessly weakened U.S. standing and credibility on this issue, enough that it might even be possible for the Palestinians to achieve some results even if they bypass America.

Yet instead, mass protests and beginnings of violence are the response. Young men rush towards nervous Israeli and sometimes trigger-happy troops, throwing rocks. The only tangible result of such acts will be destruction, injury, and death, and fatalities have already occurred. Not a wise move at all or one that will accomplish anything or have any effect on the status of Jerusalem or how Trump feels about his decision. Such acts are the surest way to lose a moral high ground that has been handed to them on a silver platter by President Trump and may prevent more positive measures that would help advance the Palestinian cause on the part of the rest of the international community. The protesters’ chants offer no hint that they could share Jerusalem or historic Palestine with Israel. 

As for Israel, having received a major boost and gift from America, it would be in a perfect position to reach out to Palestinians with a real offer of compromise, buttressed from a newly stronger position after action by their closest ally. Instead, per usual, Israel seems content to play their hand to their maximum advantage and to the Palestinians’ maximum disadvantage, as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments are wont to do.

Too many on both sides talk as if the city will be their exclusive sovereign domain. Jerusalem is the de facto practical capital for Israel while simultaneously being the symbolic capital of Palestine in the heart of virtually every Palestinian. It is also the emotional heart and soul of Israel for most Israelis and a practical capital for Palestinians, more of whom live there than in any Palestinian city except for Gaza City and with Jerusalem as the heart of Palestinian spiritual life. Too many on both sides want to deny these realities, living in a fantasy world where such practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns can be ignored in pursuit of total victory. Trump’s blunder is an opportunity for both sides to move closer to compromise, but, as can be expected in this conflict, it has only hardened positions and made compromise that much harder. Sure, blame Trump, but Israelis and Palestinians are reacting in just the ways that can compound Trump’s folly, rather than mitigate it.

The Arab and Jewish residents of Jerusalem, while hardly brothers, demonstrate a functional coexistence to any who visit, as they have for me repeatedly. If only a clear majority of Palestinians and Israelis could build on this spirit, rather than once again throw practicality to the wind, one could begin to feel hope. Trump’s stupidity should not be an excuse for stupidity from either Israelis or Palestinians, yet these types of conflicts often fall into predictable, repetitive, unproductive patterns, and that, sadly, is the case here with Jerusalem, the shared capital of Israel and Palestine, whether officially recognized as such or not.

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© 2017 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

See related article by same author: Victory in Alabama May Run Through Jerusalem: Moore Likely at Heart of Trump Decision

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