May 31, 2018 by IJV
By Brian Klug
On 6 December 2017 Donald Trump announced from the White House that “it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”. He added: “This is nothing more, or less, than a recognition of reality.”
Really? The reality is that since the end of the British Mandate both the legal and political status of Jerusalem have been contested; the international community has rejected Israel’s unilateral claim to the entire city as an integral part of its territory; neither the UN nor any other intergovernmental body (as far as I know) has accepted that East Jerusalem is within Israel’s borders; and Israel remains in illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, which includes East Jerusalem. To which we might add this: as a “final status” issue, the Jerusalem question belongs squarely on the negotiating table. That, in short, is the reality.
When Trump made his announcement, which reality exactly did he mean? Clearly, not the one I have just summarised. He must have had an alternative reality in a parallel universe in mind. I don’t know where: Trumpland, Mar-a-Lago, wherever. In reality, his reality is no reality.
In itself, however, Trump’s announcement is all too real and has affected the political reality on the ground. Not the legal reality in the eyes of the international community: two weeks later, at an emergency special session, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution declaring “null and void” any “decisions and actions” which affect “the character, status or demographic composition” of Jerusalem, while fourteen out of the fifteen members of the Security Council voted in favour of a similar resolution (vetoed by the US). But, in Israel, despite pockets of dissent, Trump’s announcement was welcomed across the political spectrum. Stav Shaffir, a Labour member of the Knesset, said: “The embassy move is something that every Israeli is happy about. There is no left and right distinction on that. For us, Jerusalem is our capital – it’s not something that is in doubt, it’s just a fact.” Thus, Trump’s announcement has reinforced the confidence with which Israel digs in its heels over the Jerusalem question.
What Shaffir does with the word “fact” is reminiscent of what Trump does with the word “reality.” The word “fact” was bandied about quite a bit by Israeli supporters of Trump’s decision. Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, said in December that the US had “simply stated a fact” in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, adding: “Jerusalem is the holiest place on earth for the Jewish people. This is a fact that simply cannot be refuted …” Hold on there, Danny. One fact at a time, please. If the latter is a “fact” it is not exactly a fact in the same sense in which it is a fact that a city is or is not the capital of a country. For one thing, who do you mean by “the Jewish people” and what do you mean by “holiest place on earth”? Besides, what bearing does this “fact” have on the alleged “fact” about Jerusalem’s legal status? To be fair, I interrupted Danon. Here, without pausing for breath, is what he went on to explain: “… King David declared Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish people 3,000 years ago.” Is that a fact? Or does Daniel Carmon, Israel’s ambassador to India, get it right when he says, “It is a fact that Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for five thousand years.” Considering that, according to the Jewish calendar, it was only 778 years earlier that the world was created, that’s a truly astounding fact, as facts go. But which is it? 3,000 or 5,000? Well, let’s not quibble over a mere couple of millennia. The “fact” on which both Danon and Carmon (and countless others) agree is this: Jerusalem is “the capital of the Jewish people” and has been for yonks.
But, in fact, this fact is no fact. If there were a fact lurking under the surface, it would be a fact about the content of certain biblical books – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – where the saga of King David is told. Even then, the biblical story gives no succour to the idea that the realm which David established lasted any length of time. After his grandson Rehoboam ascended the throne sixty or so years later (according to the biblical story), the kingdom split into two, north and south; and that was that. That was the end of David’s united kingdom. In any case, biblical books are not historical works – not even if some historical events are reflected in them. And, even if they are, their bearing on the political status of Jerusalem in 2018 is, to put it mildly, dubious – as is the bearing of the Iliad on the political status of Hisarlik, once known as Ilium or Troy. Furthermore, it makes no sense to speak about Jerusalem as “the capital of the Jewish people”. Peoples don’t have capitals; states do. The so-called fact is not just false; it is, quite literally, fantastic.
But, in the corridors of the Knesset (and not only there), Trump’s announcement on 6 December was heard as recognition of the “fact” that Jerusalem is “the capital of the Jewish people” and has been for (at least) 3,000 years. He has reinforced the intransigence of the Israeli government (and of Israeli politicians generally) over the status of Jerusalem – not only because he weighed in as the powerful US President but because the resonances of his words went deeper than reality, deep into the fantastic depths where fantastic so-called facts are fashioned. For it was not Haifa nor Tel Aviv that Trump recognised but Jerusalem: Jerusalem or Zion, the submerged volcano that is perpetually erupting, whose fantastic “facts” come bubbling up to the surface and harden into the discourse of political Zionism.
What becomes of Zion when it is transformed into political Zionism? Of Jerusalem when it is no longer “a port city on the shore of eternity” (Yehuda Amichai) but a possession taken by military force? When Zion metamorphoses from poetic trope to capital city, “the capital city of the Jewish people”? What happens is that Zion atrophies into a trophy, which must not, at any human cost to the Palestinian people, be surrendered. What happens is that liturgy is stretched on the rack of ideology. And the Messiah enters the city riding on the back of an IDF bulldozer rather than the donkey in the irenic vision of the prophet Zechariah, when “the warrior’s bow shall be banished” (9:9-10).
What happens is that vision is trumped by reality: the reality of dispossession.
St Benet’s Hall
University of Oxford
* Adapted from the 2018 Hilda B Silverman Memorial lecture, ‘“If I forget Thee, O Jerusalem”: The Use and Abuse of Jewish Memory’, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, 4 May 2018.
 Speech available on the website of the White House.
 JTA, 21 December, 2017.
 Mondoweiss, 7 March, 2018.
 JTA, 21 December, 2017.
 Indian Express, December 17, 2017.
 Compare Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 238.