The psalmist sings: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (137:5-6)
It is no secret that the city of Jerusalem has occupied a central place in the Jewish psyche ever since King David, 3,000 years ago, made Jerusalem the capital of the united monarchy of Judah and Israel. For the past two millennia, traditional Jews, when reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of our daily liturgy, have called on God to return to Jerusalem and to restore it to its former glory. In addition, the Birkat ha-Mazon, recited after every meal, includes a blessing that calls on God to rebuild Jerusalem, ir hakodesh, the holy city.
I visited Jerusalem for the first time during the summer of 1965, when I was a volunteer at Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, located an hour or so away. Before I even laid eyes on the city, I was moved to tears as my bus ascended a curving road, on the side of which were rusting armored military vehicles; these heavily damaged vehicles, disabled by enemy fire during the 1948-1949 War of Independence, were left as memorials to the Israeli soldiers who fought to keep the supply lines open to the besieged Jerusalem.
During that first visit to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel since its founding on May 14, 1948, it was a divided city; West Jerusalem was Jewish, while East Jerusalem – including the ancient walled city with its Western Wall, the Kotel, sacred to large numbers of Jews – was in Arab hands. I can still remember peering into the crowded streets of the Jordanian-controlled Old City from my vantage point in the Migdal David, David’s Tower, feeling frustrated about not being able to set my Jewish foot in it.
When I visited Jerusalem for a second time, in February 1972, I was with my wife Sandy. With the conclusion of the Six-Day War, in June 1967, Jerusalem had become a united city. Our tour guide was able to take us through the Old City, through the dark and twisting alleys of the Shuk, the Arab market, to the wide plaza in front of the Kotel, then into the Jewish quarter, which was in the process of being rebuilt. I felt almost as if I were living inside the lyrics of the popular song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”).
In the fall of 1995, my son spent the first semester of his junior year in high school in Jerusalem as a student in the Reform Movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange Program, which is housed in the movement’s Bet Shmuel, next door to the world-famous King David Hotel. When I visited him, in early November, we had the opportunity to spend some time in the mild autumn air among the crowds on Ben Yehuda Street, enjoying our shawarma wraps and the relaxed give and take between father and rapidly maturing son. I felt as if David was in the process of internalizing Jerusalem as his city, so comfortable did he appear.
But then, on Saturday evening, Nov. 4, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – and Israel has never been the same. Those ominous words crawling across the TV screen: “Shalosh yeriot… Rabin b’vet cholim … matsavo kasheh: Three shots … Rabin in the hospital … his situation grave ….” Strange to say, never have I felt more closely connected to the Jewish people than during those fateful days of sorrow and pain. My heart and soul told me that Jerusalem was where I belonged.
I was last in Jerusalem in March 2002, during the height of the Second Palestinian Intifada, at the annual convention of the Central Conference of America Rabbis. Because of a string of bombings, including one at the Moment Café the night before most of us were heading back to the U.S., Jerusalem was almost devoid of tourists.
Despite the fact that family members and friends had tried to convince me not to go to Jerusalem at such a volatile time, I felt the need to be there out of a sense of loyalty and solidarity with my rabbinical colleagues and with the Jewish people as a whole.
Once again, as I studied and worshipped with my colleagues at our convention, and despite the threats from the Intifada – or, perhaps, because of the threats – I felt that Jerusalem was where I belonged.
Given my sense of the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish psyche and given my personal feelings of connection with the city, one might assume that I approve of President Donald Trump’s recent decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 2020. Nevertheless, I am profoundly disappointed by his decision. Why? Because we Jews are not the only people who inhabit the city. The city is also sacred to many of the Muslims and Christians who live there, as well as to their co-religionists throughout the world.
On the political level, the Palestinians hope to make East Jerusalem their capital as the culminating event of a two-state solution. Unless President Trump reverses his decision, he has precluded the possibility of our country being an honest broker in any future peace talks. That’s the reason that every former president has resisted the temptation to fulfill a campaign promise by throwing gasoline on the always smoldering embers in the Mideast.
We Jews do not need President Trump to tell us what we already know: that Jerusalem has been part of our collective understanding for 3,000 years, and that, of course, the city has been the capital of modern Israel since its establishment in 1948. It seems to me that our president’s actions will do nothing to hasten the day when Jerusalem will at last embody the very meaning of its name: Jerusalem, City of Peace.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.