Parasha VaYeshev: O’ Jerusalem!

Our parasha for this week continues the story of Jacob. Of all of our Biblical ancestors, with the exception of David, Jacob leads the most tumultuous life. He struggles with his brother in the womb, deceives his father, steals the blessing reserved for the first born and must flee his home to escape the anger of his brother who has threatened to kill him. He is in turn deceived by his father-in-law, Laban, into working three times longer for his wife Rachel as he had agreed. He marries two sisters who are rivals with one another for his affection, takes their maidservants as wives as well, and sires 12 sons and a daughter. His daughter is kidnapped and raped and his sons’ violent response to that event make him fear for his own life and the lives of his loved ones.

Our Torah reading opens with the words, “Jacob settled in the land”. From the use of the word, “settled” the rabbis deduce that Jacob finally believed that, after all his troubles, he had finally found peace and tranquility in his life. The midrash has G-d criticizing Jacob for asking for too much.  “Isn’t it enough to know that the righteous will have tranquility in Messianic times? You expect peace and tranquility in this world as well?”   In fact, no sooner does Jacob “settle down” than his favorite son Joseph is sold into slavery and his much sought after tranquility is shattered.

Peace and tranquility is what the Jewish people have pursued for the longest of times. Israel was founded in 1948 with the hope that having a Jewish state for the Jewish people would normalize our condition and allow us to take our place among the family of nations.   We would abandon our status as “guests” in other people’s homelands and “settle down” in a home of our own – Israel. But like Jacob, our hoped for peace and tranquility has not materialized. In many parts of the world anti-Semitism – the irrational hatred of Jews – has simply been transformed into anti-Zionism – the irrational hatred of Israel.

That is not to say that there has not been progress made toward peace. In 1978 Israel signed a peace agreement with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. That peace turned out colder than had been hoped, but it constituted peace nonetheless, and it has held. In 1993 the Oslo accords were signed. Although the hoped for peace failed to fully materialize, the Oslo accords did lead to mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. This constituted another historically important step.  A year later Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty and each country opened its borders to the other. There were other serious efforts toward peace in 2000 and 2006, but the parties failed to reach an agreement.

One of the most contentious issues that is left “unsettled” is the status of Jerusalem. The UN partition plan of 1947 envisioned Jerusalem being a “corpus separatum”, Latin for “separated body”. This meant that Jerusalem would be placed under UN sovereignty as an international city. Ben Gurion and the provisional Jewish government accepted the plan – the Arabs, who rejected the idea of partitioning the land between a Jewish and an Arab state altogether – rejected the idea. After the War for Independence in 1948, Jordan ended up holding the Old City of Jerusalem. Israel ended up with the Western part of the city, which they declared their capital, with a “no-man’s land” dividing the Jordanian held side from the Israeli held side. Under Jordanian rule the Jewish population of the Old City, which at the time constituted a majority was expelled, synagogues in the Old City were blown up, Jewish sites desecrated, and Jews forbidden from entering.

Although the State of Israel declared the Western part of the city as their capital, the world never accepted it, holding to the UN Resolution that this area should be under international jurisdiction. That sentiment did not change when Israel captured the Old City in the 1967 war and declared the city as a united Jerusalem.

Still, in 1980 there were 13 countries with embassies in Jerusalem. They all fled Jerusalem for Tel Aviv when the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, passed what is called a Basic Law which is equivalent in our country to a Constitutional Amendment.  The Basic Law stated that the city of Jerusalem would be the “complete and united capital of Israel”.  Today there are no foreign embassies in Jerusalem. The international consensus now is that the future status of Jerusalem needs to be decided upon by Israel and the Palestinians.

This is precisely why President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is so controversial. The United States has broken with precedent by seeming to decide on the status of Jerusalem outside of the framework of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And while it may be emotionally satisfying for some to see the United States ratify Israel’s position on the status of Jerusalem, it is unclear how this in and of itself contributes to peace in the region. At best it has no effect in that it offers no blueprint as to how we may proceed along the long road towards peace.  At worst it inflames the passions of Muslims around the world and makes that road all the more difficult. It makes it more difficult for the United States to appear like an honest broker for peace.  It is also hard to understand how it promotes our country’s interests in the region or around the world.

A few hours after the President’s announcement American rabbis, including myself, received an Anti-Defamation League Security Warning saying that the announcement “is engendering strong reaction in the Middle East and there is potential for extreme reaction on the ground in the United States as well.” How does this enhance our security here in the United States?  In many ways it seems that the announcement has a very small “upside” and a very big “downside”.

Many early Zionists, most of whom were secular Jews, were ambivalent about having the capital of a modern Israel in Jerusalem. Herzl envisioned building a capital in the area of Haifa. A young David Ben Gurion was uneasy about Jerusalem and the city’s fraught religious history. Many of us today are discomfited by the lack of separation of “Church and State” in Israel. This intertwining of religion and politics is mirrored in Jerusalem, which is both the political capital of Israel and the religious capital of Jews around the world. That makes things very, very complicated. Like Jacob of yore, we hope that someday things will “settle down” and Israel can live in peace, tranquility and security with her neighbors –not only in Messianic times, but in this world of ours as well.

Shabbat Shalom