Here in West Los Angeles, it’s social suicide to suggest that our president has done anything right or noble or good. But in moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem next week, President Trump managed all three. And he signaled to the world that Israel’s capital should no longer be treated as Jews’ private delusion.
Next to the other events of this presidency, the U.S.-embassy move can seem like a footnote. Jerusalem has long functioned as Israel’s capital — home to the Knesset, the supreme court, residences of Israel’s president and prime minister. And yet, barring a miraculous breakout of peace on the Korean Peninsula, the Jerusalem-embassy move is a strong candidate for Trump’s most enduring presidential achievement.
As a technical matter, the move represented no great change in U.S. policy. With overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both chambers, Congress directed the American embassy to be moved to Jerusalem back in 1995. But the Jerusalem Embassy Act contained a waiver, allowing each president to welch if he chose. Every president for 22 years so chose.
Common knowledge in Washington among cognoscenti has long been that regardless of what our law says, Israel is different. Israel is always different. Recognizing this sovereign nation’s choice of capital simply could not be done. What would the neighbors say? Such a move would enrage Palestinians, inflame the region. Following the will of the American people, in this instance, was something a president just couldn’t do.
That is, until we had a president who bristled at being told what he just couldn’t do. Who seems to view political niceties as an irresistible taunt, the martini glass that begs to be broken. Inflame a region? You might as well have waved a red flag in his face.
Historical legacy is a peculiar thing. It can attach to feats of great consequence or those of pure symbolism. Very often, it adheres to those acts that are true to self; the sorts of things we tend to think only this particular leader would have done. George Washington led American troops to victory over the British, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and quashed the Whiskey Rebellion. But his most significant historical move came after two terms as president, when he consulted his conscience and headed home.
British statesman Arthur Balfour was a celebrated orator and peerless debater. He made his most significant mark not as prime minister but as foreign secretary, when, in 1917, he penned a letter to Lord Rothschild pledging British support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The letter carried no legal weight. But coming from a man who was deeply moved by the predicament of Jewish statelessness, it held inestimable moral significance, breathing fresh hope into Zionist ambition and haunting the British with a promise unfulfilled. For his Balfour Declaration, he will forever be a hero to millions of Jews worldwide, and in Israel, where his memory is enshrined in the Balfour Forest and nearly a dozen streets named for him.
And so it is with Donald Trump, a man with enough chutzpah to defy nearly every State Department official and numberless foreign-policy experts to carry out the American people’s will with regard to Jerusalem. Israel has already announced that Jerusalem’s high-speed-rail station nearest to the Western Wall, and the square nearest the embassy, will be named for him. Many other streets and municipal projects throughout the country likely will too.
The Jewish people’s memory when it comes to Jerusalem is endless. Thrice daily we pray in the direction of its chalky limestone walls.
We may never know why he did it. The number of additional Jews who are likely to vote for President Trump because of the embassy move would probably fit comfortably inside a polling booth. The decision, made in December of 2017, wasn’t even engineered to coincide with — or influence — any election. The move won’t win President Trump any peace prizes. Neither is it likely to change the outcome of any peace talks: the administration has specifically said this and reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution. As many of his detractors have pointed out, in this instance, our negotiator-in-chief seems to have given without a corresponding take. That might be an ill-advised tack with an adversary, but with a friend, we would more typically think of it as common decency.
The Trump economy may soon be a distant memory. In the next administration, the tax bill might easily be reversed or much of it allowed to expire, and so much deregulation undone. Every measure achieved by unilateral executive action — the travel ban, the tariffs, withdrawal from various international accords — dispatched as quickly as it was put into place. But the embassy move, accomplished by coordination of two branches of government, is unlikely to face reversal.
The Jewish people’s memory when it comes to Jerusalem is endless. Thrice daily we pray in the direction of its chalky limestone walls. We declare at every Jewish wedding, quoting Psalms, that our right hand should wither if we forget Jerusalem, and tempting the evil eye is not for the insincere or faint of heart. We mourn Jerusalem’s long-ago destructions with rigorous fast days and celebrate its rebirth with a Festival of Lights.
It isn’t hard to imagine that for hundreds of years, Jews will teach their children what I will tell mine when we travel to Jerusalem to watch history being made: On Israel’s 70th birthday, May 14, 2018, President Trump ensured that America, which has long been great, once again kept its word.