Try to tune-out the spiritual arias soaring in your mind’s ear when considering why the U.S. Embassy in Israel will relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Monday.
It’s not moving because it makes practical or routine diplomatic sense, or even, heaven forbid, is the morally right thing to do. It’s moving because the United States’ government has decided to stick its Judeo-Christian thumb in the Muslim eye.
This preference stems from historical realities that are, if not as old as the hills of Galilee are not much younger. Semite peoples — Hebrews and Arabs among them — long ago jointly settled the Middle East region, including what we today call “The Holy Land.” Hebrews ultimately coalesced around a religion derived from the prophets Abraham and Moses (Judaism), and Arabs embraced the religion of Islam also derived from Abraham, and from (non-divine) Jesus, plus, finally, in desolate Arabia, Muhammad. The emergence of Christianity, the third great Abrahamic, monotheistic faith, was sandwiched in time between the other two.
To more fully comprehend the fractured meaning of Monday’s U.S. Embassy opening in Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, some historical review is necessary.
In a nutshell, after the three religions were fully formed, what generally occurred is everyone reviled the Jews, while Christians and Muslims despised, distrusted and almost continuously battled each other over long centuries. Most infamous among these conflicts were the Crusades, a series of European Christian aggressions against Muslims mostly to conquer or reconquer Jerusalem as each faith intermittently dominated the city both ultimately considered sacred.
So, why do each of these three dominant religions so revere Jerusalem?
Since the 10th century BC, Jews have considered Jerusalem their ancestral homeland and spiritual capital, and they viewed it as, literally, the center of the world in the classical era. When outside of Jerusalem, observant Jews are still obliged to pray facing the city. Jerusalem’s uber-sacred Temple Mount is considered by Jews to be the site where their prophet Abraham was ordered by God — who rescinded the command at the last moment — to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The Judaic temple in Jerusalem established by King David in antiquity was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, when its Jewish inhabitants were exiled into bondage in Mesopotamia. The event was seen by Jews as part of a prophesy that would culminate with their eventual triumphant return to Jerusalem.
For Christians, Jerusalem’s prime importance lies in its connections to Jesus’ life, but its significance is also cited in the Old Testament. Jerusalem is where Jesus reportedly was brought from time to time as a child, later preached to the poor as an adult, and in the end was crucified — and where he ascended bodily into heaven, according to the Bible.
The city’s venerable Church of the Holy Sepulchure is located over what Christians believe is the tomb where the prophet was buried.
Islam’s most beloved prophet, Muhammad, initially tried to develop his new religious ideas from biblical Abrahamic notions shared by what he termed “people of the book” — meaning Christians and Jews. He declared himself to be the final prophet in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
In the beginning of his spiritual journey, he directed adherents to face Jerusalem while praying, but after a series of snubs by Jewish authorities in his area, he began telling the Muslim faithful to instead pray toward Mecca, his birthplace and site of Arabia’s pre-Islamic sacred Kabah shrine.
For Muslims, Jerusalem is sacred because they believe previous Islamic prophets were associated with it, and because their holy book, the Quran, says Muhammad on his final night in 610 AD traveled on a magical steed to Jerusalem, where he then ascended to paradise. The city’s Dome of the Rock shrine is believed to be where the prophet rose to Allah (God).Complicating Jerusalem’s already extremely complex history is the fact that the Temple Mount remains an enormously sacred symbol for all three Abrahamic religions. By itself, this should engender caution and respect with any political decisions regarding the city and these faiths. But adding to the complexity is Zionist Jewish success in creating a Jewish state — and obtaining European and American political concurrence for their sovereign coup —several years after the end of World War II. At the expense of Palestinians.
The inherent problem now is that to create a Jewish homeland, in effect an apartheid state, many, many Palestinian Arabs were aggressively forced out. Americans today, unfairly, view Israel as a just fait accompli, despite much evidence that Zionists routinely weren’t the good guys. It’s an American delusion. This clear-eyed article by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, herself a Jew, explains this bias and how an epiphany cured her:
“For me, it happened over several visits to the West Bank. I’d inherited, without really thinking about it, a set of default liberal Zionist beliefs about Israel as the good guy in its confrontation with the Palestinians, whose hostility I understood to be atavistic and irrational. This view collapsed the first time I walked down Shuhada Street in Hebron, in a part of the city where more than 30,000 Palestinians live under Israeli military control for the benefit of 1,000 or so Israeli settlers. Palestinians whose homes are on Shuhada Street aren’t allowed to walk out their own front doors, because the street, constantly patrolled by Israeli troops, is reserved for Jews.”
Palestinians displaced by the new Israeli state lost their homes and properties secured over many generations to make way for the new Jewish state in 1948, creating an agonized, deeply resentful diaspora that continues today. Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and other refugee areas adjacent to Israel today are the epicenters of Arab grievances against what they consider the continuing illegal and unjust Israeli occupation of their lands.
They have a case. But the Israel government has long loathed and refused to return “taken” land for a future Palestinian state, much less allow part of Jerusalem to be used for a Palestinian capital. To the Israelis, their sense of the region’s history trumps all others. Note that 9/11 did not incumbate in a vacuum. To Muslims, the United States has long been the principle financier and protector of Israel, and thus is intimately complicit in its sins.
This is why Israel has long encouraged the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem, providing political gravitas and a powerful symbol of American acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist. It also symbolizes America’s support of the Jewish state over Arab interests. The valid complaints of Palestinians, however, have led previous American presidents, rationally, to balk at such a one-sided, prejudicial move of such symbolic importance to multiple peoples.
But current U.S. President Donald Trump, a man of clear Crusader militarist impulses (if not religious ones), has decided to flex American muscles in clueless defiance of valid and equal Palestinian claims against Israel. He simply likes to self-identify with bullying, intractable strongmen like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He’s also pandering to Jewish voters at home.
Yet, make no mistake. Although the move has political overtones, its undertones are all religious, alarming echoes from a long, contentious, bloody past between Judeo-Christians and Muslims, although the Jews were usually considered minor partners in the triumvirate.
This will not end well. There will be blood, as there already has been. Forty Palestinians protesters were killed in recent skirmishes with police as the embassy move-in approaches.
Oh, and Monday’s timing is anything but neutral. It is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state, which Palestinians, with excellent reason, continue to reject as illegal.
Shalom (peace). Spare me.