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Trump, Jerusalem, and the Jews

Was it cheap politics or historical concern and fellow-feeling that motivated the president to declare his allegiance to the millennial capital?

Bernard-Henri Lévy
December 19, 2017
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2017.Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump holds up a signed proclamation after he delivered a statement on Jerusalem from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on December 6, 2017.Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Obviously, Jerusalem is and always has been the capital of Israel.

And there is something not merely absurd but shocking in the planetary outcry that followed the recognition of that obvious fact by the United States.

That being so, why do I feel uneasy? Two weeks after an announcement that I, among many others, had been expecting for years, what is the source of the apprehension I feel?

First, there is Trump. I detect in his move too much of the wise guy backed into a corner by a series of setbacks who thinks he’s found the master stroke to cap off the first year of his term. Friend of the Jews, right? Protector and patron saint of Israel? Sorry, but I don’t buy it. I absolutely do not believe that Donald Trump is motivated by a feeling of sacred union between Israel and the United States or, to use the words of America’s pilgrim fathers, between the old and the new Jerusalem. I cannot conceive of Trump’s soul being in any way open to recognition of Jewish uniqueness, to celebration of the paradoxes of Talmudic thought, or to the taste for adventure that underpinned the fervent, lyrical, and heroic acts of the lay pioneers of Zionism. Nor do I believe that the neo-evangelists who seem to constitute the most reliable segments of his base have the slightest idea of the essence of this state named by poets, built by dreamers, and inhabited even now by a people whose national story is sown with rational miracles, starstruck expectations, and logical fervor.

And so?

So history teaches us that an abstract, insincere gesture of friendship not wedded to an idea or to truth, devoid of the deep recognition and love that is known in Hebrew as Ahavat Yisrael, is not worth much in the end. Worse, it has shown us that, through the alchemizations of political fevers of which the Jewish people have repeatedly had to bear the brunt, there is a very good chance that the latest gesture of friendship will turn soon enough into its opposite.

And, second, there is the precariousness of Israel. I love this country. I know (a little) and admire (infinitely) its bold, brash, and beautiful adventure. I love its reluctant universalism. I love that those who live there can cover their heads or choose not to, that they read Appelfeld, Yehoshua, and Amos Oz or, alternatively, the luminous Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman, who died on Dec. 12 at the age of 104 and who persuaded my friend Benny Lévy to leave his beloved France—in all of them, yes, I love the certitude that they are working for humanity and engaging the rest of the world through their innovations, research, and study. And, of course, I love Jerusalem. I love that multimillennial city, the city of Jacob and Melchisedek, king of Salem, the city of Hillel and Shammai, the city of Jesus, the city of the rabbis driven out by Rome and who wander through its disaster.

But look, I also know how uncertain all that is. I know that in it lies a unique blend of poetry, nobility, and suspended catastrophe. And I know that this blend, this mixture, is extraordinarily fragile, as extraordinarily fragile—and strong, in its historical paradox, in its ambition to shelter a people within a double wall of stone and words—as the little state of Israel. And I do not believe that a throw of the political dice or a hand of political poker—in other words, that an act of diplomatic recognition poorly thought through, unaccompanied by negotiation, and detached from any effort toward a comprehensive and just peace, can possibly advance what still seems to me to be the essential goal: the legitimacy of Israel, alongside a future Palestinian state, in the land where, for centuries, the memory of its people, their yearning, and their prayers destined it to be but where, today, it remains achingly vulnerable.

I think as I write of the men who, almost 70 years ago—so soon after the horror—reinvented, guns in hand, the “Jewish state.”

I think of the survivors of the Europe of Vienna and Berlin who said “never again” as they plunged into the harshness of the dusty, palm-strewn desert.

I think of the half-starved refugees from the ghettoes and yeshivas of Poland and Lithuania who made themselves into builders of cities.

I think of the former dhimmis who flocked from neighboring Arab countries, seeing in the new homeland the chance of a haven from, a recourse against, the eternal recurrence of persecution.

I think of the new immigrants who are fleeing, in these early decades of the 21st century, the lost territories of the European republics.

I think of this young country, still so isolated, struggling with its solitude day by day, step by step, with the same subtle mixture of faith, strength, and cunning that enabled Jacob to get the better of Esau.

Was Trump thinking of any of this when he laid his little hands on the Jerusalem issue?

Was he thinking of the children of Israel, who have had no more than a single lifetime to catch their breath and gain strength after centuries of exile?

It is about them—the children of Israel—that I am thinking this morning.

It is for these children’s fate, who breathe the air of the holy stone and whose breath is precious to me, that I tremble in these days of the waning year.

How much better it would have been to play the trump card of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as part of a larger effort in pursuit of the true peace that alone can guarantee the inalienable right of the children of Israel to a secure existence.

But the president of the United States was unconcerned with any of this. He was making a political move. He obviously was not trying to make history.

Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, premiered nationwide on May 5, 2023.