Today the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and began the process of transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to that city. Considering principles and values as well prudential considerations of the volatile region’s political realities, how ought Christians to evaluate recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
Local Christian leaders have already weighed in, and they’re not bullish. Yet as a Christian, it’s hard not to see Jerusalem as the historic capital of the Jewish people. Christians and Muslims care deeply about the city, yes, but every archaeological textbook demonstrates that Jews were there first. Jews have maintained a continuous presence there for three thousand years, and Jews outside the Holy Land have been praying toward Jerusalem every day, three times a day, for two thousand years. No other people or nation has ever made Jerusalem its capital. Even the Jordanians, who seized the city in 1948 during a war of aggression, did not bother to move their capital from Amman. Nor did they bother to designate Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian people.
Historically and culturally, then, the Jewish people seem to have a strong claim. But that doesn’t mean that Trump should designate Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Weighty considerations of security, diplomacy, and law must be taken into account, even by Christians who feel strongly about the Holy City.
There are three main arguments against Trump’s plan:
“It is illegal under international law.”
All the intricacies of international law as they affect the Jerusalem’s status cannot be discussed here. Suffice it to say that nothing is clear, much less definitive. What is the status of a city taken from the Ottoman Empire by British forces in 1917, made part of an innovative international “mandate” system governed by the new League of Nations in 1922, designated as “corpus separatum” by a non-binding vote of the United Nations General Assembly in 1947, seized by an Arab state in a war of aggression in 1948, taken back by Israel in 1967 after Jordanian soldiers began shelling Jewish neighborhoods, proclaimed the capital of Israel in 1980, and subsequently proclaimed the capital of a future Palestinian state?
The strongest argument against Jerusalem as Israel’s capital stems from a combination of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for Israel to withdraw from territories acquired in the Six-Day War, and a sentence in Article 49(6) of the Geneva Convention that forbids an occupying power to transfer its civilian population into occupied areas. But there are numerous counterarguments. Ultimately, the legal arguments go round and round, and reasonable people disagree over the precise legal status of Jerusalem today.
There is no open-and-shut legal case for why Jerusalem cannot be considered the capital of Israel. But law is not the most important consideration here. Security is. And every Christian should take the threat to human life very seriously.
“It will spark unrest and violence across the Middle East.”
Responding to this argument without snark is hard. This statement is like saying that throwing mud at a demolition derby will make things dirty. We live in the most violent and dangerous period of modern Middle Eastern history with an ongoing brutal Islamic civil war, so why saying what everyone knows to be true—that Americans believe Jerusalem is Israel’s capital—will somehow make things worse is difficult to imagine.
Indeed, the Jerusalem announcement may make angry people angrier, hateful people more hateful, and violent people more violent. But that is an uncompelling reason why the US should not move forward. Trump’s decision may enrage people, but a diplomatic decision deserves a diplomatic response. Taking human life because an embassy moves will ultimately be on those who kill, not on him. We must not feed into that kind of pathology.
Of course, predictions of Armageddon could be completely overblown. Israel already controls Jerusalem and claims it as its capital, and everyone knows the US supports the Jewish state’s right to exist and defend itself. In this light, Trump’s decision is actually underwhelming. It is symbolic. Measuring it against the Middle East’s current crises, one gets a sense of how small an issue this is—or should be.
“It will undermine the peace process.”
Opponents of Trump’s announcement claim it dooms any peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. But the peace process has been stuck at zero, or worse, for at least a decade.
Supporters argue that recognizing Jerusalem actually increases peace prospects because it shows Palestinians they cannot drive a wedge between us and the Israelis, which will lead to more realistic and more productive negotiations. I’m not sure I buy that. I suppose it’s possible.
More realistically, the Palestinian street, Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and Organization of Islamic Conference will all be angry. But their anger will only be marginally greater than their previous half-century of anger, and nothing will noticeably change. Ultimately, negotiations will either happen or not happen, but not because of the embassy move. They will happen or not happen because of the parties’ desires.
Moreover, recognition of Jerusalem does not preclude a future recognition of Jerusalem as the simultaneous capital of a Palestinian state. It’s possible and has been discussed.
American policymakers should take seriously any potential threat to human life. Christians, too, should be cautious and concerned about exacerbating violence that affects real people. Prudence matters. Principles must always be pursued in light of realities on the ground.
But principles do matter. Respect for our citizens’ bipartisan will, loyalty to our allies, concern for religious liberty, reverence for history, and opposition to those who would deny Jerusalem’s Jewish connection—absent any clear and present danger to the republic—these are the ideas that should guide us. A Christian may not feel this move is particularly urgent, but there is no reason why he or she should feel it is inherently wrong.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of The Philos Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and a JD and MA (Middle Eastern History) from Syracuse University. A formerly enlisted Marine and a 2012- 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, commander-in-chief of the Israeli Defense Force, at the Israeli Defense Forces military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 18, 2015. DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen.