Rabbi Craig Axler
I have been asked by many friends about my thoughts on President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement this week, and wanted to chime in to the many voices posing all kinds of reactions.
First, and foremost, there is no doubt in my mind that Jerusalem is (and always was) the capital of the State of Israel, as well as being the heart of the Jewish people for thousands of years. I make a deliberate point of telling the congregation at various points in the service “we direct our hearts, our bodies, our prayers towards Jerusalem” every time we pray — just as we have for nearly two thousand years.
I spent two separate and INCREDIBLY influential years living in and around Jerusalem — my junior year of college on Kibbutz Tzora and studying at HUC just outside the walls of the Old City; and my first year of rabbinic studies, living in the neighborhood of Rehavia and studying at HUC. This past summer, our family spent more than half of our vacation living in and WALKING (boy, did we walk!!!) the streets of our beloved city. It was a joy to share the beauty and complexity of this city with my children — a city that is like no other.
For me, the import of the President’s statement is in acknowledging that which was already common knowledge — that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital city, and that appropriately, the US Embassy belongs there in the western side of the city — an area which is (or at least ought to be) beyond any reasonable person or nation’s debating solidly a part of the State of Israel. Of particular importance, I found, was the President’s affirmation of America’s commitment to a two-state solution — and making explicitly clear that the borders of those states, as well as the borders of Jerusalem, will be part of a negotiated final status — one which can only occur with willing parties and peaceful relations. I pray that this day comes soon — and I hope you join me in that prayer.
I have been most persuaded by the writing of the immediate-past US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro — who served in the post from 2011-2017. Just after leaving from his post, he outlined an excellent path for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem here. And yesterday, he wrote persuasively in HaAretz about the need to use this moment to put forward a revived peace process towards the two state solution. My hope and prayer is that is precisely what the next moves are — and that they yield success.
As a progressive Zionist, my vision for Israel is that of Israel’s Declaration of Independence — a Jewish and Democratic State. While recently teaching this founding document I was struck by just how accurate a picture it paints — the Israel we dream of, and the Israel that nearly 70 years of Israeli leaders and ordinary citizens have been sacrificing and working to build every day, and will continue to work towards. In part, it reads:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
My prayers are also for peace and calm in the region and in the world — even in the midst of reports of violent reactions to this statement in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere. Recent reports of clashes and violence are troubling — and even more troubling is the notion that this violence comes in response to official calls from leadership to take to the streets in violent opposition. My colleague and friend, Rabbi Fred Guttman puts it very succinctly: “It is so disappointing that the Palestinian leadership has called for violent ‘days of rage’ in response to this announcement. But consider this. Earlier this year, UNESCO declared that there is no Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Can one imagine that in response to this declaration, the Israeli government would have called for a violent ‘day of rage?’ I think not. It is shocking that much of the world seems to expect and normalize violent acts of terrorism in response to this decision and seems to be willing to be held hostage by such threats.”
Joined with my prayers for calm to prevail are also the continuing hope that future generations of Israelis and Palestinians will know and build dignified co-existence, and that co-existence can grow into mutual benefit and the formation of a more whole, more peaceful world.
Rabbi Craig Axler