One of the people around the table couldn’t control herself and erupted in laughter. I couldn’t blame her. The story I was telling the group of mostly Americans earlier this week seemed to compare President Donald Trump with Alexander the Great — a comparison worthy of a good chuckle.
Still, the point was made. And it was made because of my need to explain to this group of non-Israelis why Israelis would care that a faraway foreign leader is recognizing Jerusalem as the nation’s capital.
The story is from the Talmud, and whether it actually happened is unclear. It appears in several sources, among them Josephus, the first-century Jewish scholar. But the details aren’t always the same, and in fact, many historians believe that Alexander the Great never set foot in the Holy Land.
But according to the Talmud in tractate Yoma (69a), Alexander gave permission for the Samaritans to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and the high priest, Shimon HaTzaddik, was informed. “What did he do? He donned the priestly vestments and wrapped himself in the priestly vestments. And the nobles of the Jewish People were with him, with torches of fire in their hands.”
This band of Jewish leaders walked all that night until it reached the armies of Alexander and the Samaritans. When dawn arrived, Alexander asked the Samaritans: Who are these people? The Samaritans said to him: These are Jews who rebelled against you. The sun shone and the two camps met each other. And then, when Alexander saw Shimon HaTzaddik, he “descended from his chariot and bowed before him.”
His escorts, no doubt puzzled, asked him: “Should an important king such as you bow to this Jew?” His answer: I do so because “the image of this man’s face is victorious before me on my battlefields.” That is to say: In past battles, he has seen Shimon’s face and only now does he realize that this is the face of a real person, the high priest of the Jews. Naturally, Alexander, after this encounter, did not destroy the Temple. In some versions — but not this one — he even came to Jerusalem to bring an offering in the Temple.
How is this story relevant to modern Israel and modern Jerusalem? In fact, it is relevant. The Jews were always a relatively minor people who lived in the shadows of great empires. Thus, they craved recognition. They needed the great rulers of the great empires to accept or even embrace them as a worthy people.
Trump’s recognition was a psychological re-enactment of something the Jewish people always seek: the approval of the great empire.
Cyrus of Persia was one such ruler of an empire — and he let the Jews go back to their land and rebuild their Temple. With Alexander, the historical facts are not as clear, yet the myth is in place. Here is another great king, the leader of another great empire, recognizing the uniqueness of Jewish Jerusalem.
Hence the burst of laughter. President Trump — the great Donald — is no Alexander. Not even close. And yet, he is the leader of the great empire of this era. In this sense, his recognition of Jerusalem echoes Alexander’s true — or imaginary — moment of realization.
We can explain why Trump’s recognition is an important political move, and we see that it has repercussions and consequences, and we follow the chain of events ignited by his speech. But first and foremost, Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a psychological re-enactment of something the Jewish people always have sought: the approval of the great empire.
This is especially worth mentioning during the week of Hanukkah, a holiday marking the clash between the Jews and an empire. When Hellenistic culture threatened to erase the culture of the Jews, when that empire showed little respect to the ways of the Jews, the inevitable result was war. In the Hasmonean dynasty’s case, a triumphant war. But there have been many wars that the Jews haven’t won. So for them, the best war is often the one that can be avoided.
Indeed, the essence of America’s friendship with Israel is war prevention. When the U.S. is on Israel’s side, Israel’s enemies know that battling Israel is going to be difficult and costly. They know that their initial goal — to eradicate the Zionist project — cannot be successful.
A recognition of Israel’s capital is also a reaffirmation of the alliance. It is a signal to the countries around Israel that we still have the American shield above our heads. Contrary to what some pundits would have you believe, this shield — including Trump’s manifestation of it by his Jerusalem declaration — is a receipt for reducing violence.
The U.S. stands with Israel. The U.S. is mighty. Hence, there is no point in making war with Israel over, say, Jerusalem.
Thus, we are left with little wars. Demonstrations by frustrated Palestinians or Arab Israelis, whose leadership again failed to restrain the Arab public. The occasional terror attack — on Dec. 11, a security guard was stabbed and badly hurt by a Palestinian. But by the time this story went to press on Dec. 12, the response to Trump’s speech was less than overwhelming.
There was verbal hostility, especially from the autocratic bully ruling Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Erdogan’s threats and complaints, stating: “I am not used to receiving lectures about morality from the leader who bombs Kurdish villagers in his native Turkey, who jails journalists, who helps Iran go around international sanctions.” Netanyahu has information about attempts by Turkey to strengthen Islamic institutions in Jerusalem, and hence, his denouncing Turkey is not only about words.
Beyond the expected and tired words of condemnation, there was not much of a dramatic response to report. The fact that Israel’s prime minister traveled to Europe as scheduled this week — to receive the usual lectures from the leaders of France and other nations — is telling: Had he thought that Israel is under grave threat of severe retaliation because of Trump’s announcement, he probably would have canceled the trip. Had he thought that the visit would be intolerably hostile, he easily could have found an excuse to postpone the trip.
There was no need to do that. To anyone worried about how Jerusalem’s new status might affect the stalled peace process, Netanyahu had his answer ready: “The sooner the Palestinians come to grips with this reality, the sooner we will move toward peace.”
Will they come to grips with reality? The Palestinians have a history of rejectionist sentiments, but their options are limited. A great desire for violence does seem to exist among the masses, and the leadership is stuck. The threat to boycott a peace process led by the U.S. is hollow. There are not many alternatives to such a process. The threat exists of the Palestinian Authority moving toward a Hamas-like approach — but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas knows better than anyone that when Hamas takes over, there is no room left for other Palestinian factions.
In fact, Trump’s decision to detach his statement from an active peace process has its own logic. Israel conducted many rounds of the peace process of the past under the assumption that a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem is part of the ultimate deal. Some Israeli leaders, such as Ehud Barak at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and Ehud Olmert after the Annapolis (Md.) Conference in 2007, were more prone to acknowledge this intention publicly. Other prime ministers, such as Netanyahu, would deny such an assumption, because they believe Israel shouldn’t tip its hand before all issues are resolved. But even in the last round of negotiations, initiated and run by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, all three parties understood that a compromise involving Jerusalem was on the table. They understood that the Palestinians also will have a capital called Jerusalem.
Consider the main components of the pragmatic political debate over the future of Jerusalem. There are two main issues to be resolved: One is where the border separating Israel from a Palestinian entity (a state, or a semi-state) will be located. The second is what’s going to happen with the holy sites, the Western Wall, Temple Mount, the Old City, Mount of Olives, etc.
The essence of America’s friendship with Israel is war prevention. When the U.S. is on Israel’s side, Israel’s enemies know that battling Israel is going to be difficult and costly.
Trump didn’t resolve these two issues. He didn’t even hint at how these two issues are to be resolved. He kept the door open for a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem; he kept the door open for all arrangements that preserve the rights of adherents to all faiths to practice their religion in Jerusalem.
But he did provoke the Palestinians. The Palestinians invested a lot of effort in recent years in their attempt to undercut the historic claim of the Jewish people on Israel and Jerusalem. Trump provoked them to accept reality, to accept the underlying assumption according to which Jerusalem is and will remain Israel’s capital. He provoked them in a way that might expose the futility of any peace process.
Trump, by making his statement, sent them more than a hint that the nonsense of rejecting the Jewish connection to the Holy Land wouldn’t fly. If they are willing to deal with Israel — the state of the Jewish people that was established on a historically Jewish homeland — maybe a compromise can be reached. If their intention is to negotiate with Israel while still denying Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland — and that is the underlying meaning of rejecting Israel’s right to have its capital in Jerusalem — then there’s no point in putting a peace plan on the table.
Either way, the recognition of the Jewish capital of Jerusalem is a truth that will endure, in war or in peace.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.