The irony of the Trump Jerusalem decision is that we are told it “recognizes reality.” Ironic because “recognizing reality” is perhaps the single most essential thing that the American Jewish community has been entirely unwilling to do about Israel and Palestine in the last few decades. I’ve been wrestling with that a lot over the last week, and it has taken me back to Jerusalem itself.
Back to one of the most important and lasting experiences I’ve had as a parent: our family visit to Jerusalem in January 2016. Jerusalem is quite literally my favorite place in the world. Bar none. To share this place with our boys, whose entire education was then (and still is, for one of them) through Jewish day schools, was overwhelming and wonderful.
We arrived in Jerusalem, and they immediately started asking about when we would visit the Kotel and explore the Old City and other places they’ve grown up being connected to at school and synagogue. And I could take them down the back alleys and to see pieces of our past, as Jews and as humans, that never get old and always remain vibrant and relevant. Their experience was not muted or undermined because of the disputed status of Jerusalem. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
The unresolved status of the city allowed for questions and the recognition of how much more Jerusalem is than the Kotel, the shards of our ancestors, and the propaganda, which is what many in the American Jewish community are now actually reducing it to in the wake of the Trump decision.
Rather, the questions they had about East Jerusalem allowed me to use our time on the Ramparts Walk to talk to them about demolitions and displacement in Silwan. To force them to see the scattered Israeli flags across various neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, so they could understand what it meant for the settlement movement, much of it underwritten by other American Jews, to be displacing Palestinians. It enabled me to discuss Sheikh Jarrah, to highlight the true meaning and devastation of The Separation Wall (another step that we were once told, like the Trump move on Jerusalem, did not preclude anything in the future; that, of course, has proved untrue). I could even make sure they stopped and paid attention in the parts of the Muslim Quarter where they saw the Israeli flags and could realize these weren’t randomly placed for tourists.
I could tell them about Israeli heroes like Danny Seidemann and many others who fight through organizations like Ir Amim every day for peace in the actual place, not the idealized version many in our community would prefer to focus on.
That is, the fact that Jerusalem was unresolved and subject to negotiation forced my boys to not simply recognize the reality they (and many others) already know and feel to their core — that Jerusalem is central to them as Jews and is central to the State of Israel — but also the reality of what they did not know. The reality of life in the actual place, not just for Jews, but for Palestinians in the city and beyond. The reality of why, today, there is not peace. Not why there was not peace in 1948, 1967, or any other time. Not excuses or explanations. But the truth about today.
As a result, it opened up their questions about the rest of Israel and the rest of Palestine (and yes, taught them that I may not be the most fun travel companion ever).
Those discussions with my kids came rushing back to me last week in the wake of Trump’s decision (and the Congressional one made many years ago that set the table for him) and reminded me of what I had told my boys. That, when things are unresolved and you are truly trying to find a way forward, you need to recognize more than one story, one reality. You do not need to prioritize that reality over yours or deny your own, but neither are you free to simply tell someone else to “get over” the fact that their reality is not being respected or accepted. Seeing the reality of Jerusalem taught my boys those lessons; last week denied it.
So, I cannot now teach my boys now to just “recognize reality” and accept that Jerusalem is resolved as Israel’s capital, with nothing more to it. How to answer their questions about the people of Jerusalem? About the rest of what they saw and learned about the people in Israel and Palestine?
What to do then?
The answer seems clear — to recognize the other elements of reality. Rather than solely continue to debate the question of Jerusalem, let’s make doubly sure not to cede the bigger question of what reality we recognize.
For each conversation parents have with their kids about why it is simply reality to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, spend the time to also learn about and recognize:
- The reality that some still deny, i.e. that there is even an Occupation
- The reality that most Palestinians cannot visit Jerusalem because of the restrictions that Israel has imposed on crossing between the West Bank and Jerusalem (and that nearly all Gazans are prevented from leaving);
- The reality that Palestinians in Jerusalem have their land expropriated, their homes demolished, ans their residency permits revoked on a routine basis;
- The reality that the settlements are quickly making Palestinian self-determination impossible, and that settlements activity is dramatically increasing and expanding, as is settler violence against Palestinians;
- The reality that Israeli soldiers continue to commit human rights abuses against Palestinians and face, in general, few to no repercussions;
- The reality that Israeli democracy is threatened every day by a government eroding the institutions designed to protect it, including civil society.
- The reality that the American Jewish community has focused on denying, excusing, or rationalizing all of this, and so much more. So much that IfNotNow created a campaign called “You Never Told Me,” and the videos from that site should be a part of this process of “recognizing reality”.
In sum, if we are going to recognize the reality of one side in the push to peace, we must teach our children about the other elements of reality, so they understand why this conflict continues. I hope every American Jewish parent talking to their children about Jerusalem will also be willing to do this.
Because we are often willing to do it about our own reality. In the summer, I was also able to talk to my kids again about the Kotel and Israeli government’s refusal to recognize its own deal with respect to prayer other than ultra-Orthodox approaches (this podcast from “Can We Talk” is a great entry point). About the reality that many Jews there would actually deny the meaning and values of our Judaism and how we express it through prayer. That they would have hurled rocks and epithets during my son’s Bar Mitzvah if we held it in Jerusalem, when at one moment, there were six women in the front of the synagogue: Rabbi, both Gabbais, Leyner, and both Aliyahs.
Many in the American Jewish community are not willing to stand by and recognize that reality in Jerusalem because it denies their values as Jews.
Neither am I. But I am also not willing to teach them to recognize this political reality either because it denies, not only the reality of millions of Palestinians, but also their values as Jews. Jews who love the reality of the meaning and depth of Jerusalem, not its reality as a political pawn.
I only hope they will have the opportunity to teach their children the same, in a more peaceful Jerusalem.