A move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem could have broad impact on the evolution of the city and contribute to the promotion of peace.
US President Donald Trump’s proposed move of the embassy to the capital is generating a robust discussion about its political implications, but such move would also have a profound effect on the city itself.
An American move would likely pave the way for other countries to move their embassies, creating new dynamics in Jerusalem. It is likely to generate new jobs for Jerusalem residents and could contribute to the geographical spread of Jerusalem, as the outer neighborhoods of Talpiot and East Talpiot are reportedly considered as possible venues for embassies down the line. That in turn would likely lead to development of those bedroom communities, including the opening of restaurants and bars, which could turn those areas into attractive alternatives for younger people priced out of the city center.
Perhaps most significantly, such a move would have a substantial impact on the evolving narrative of Jerusalem – the image it projects and the message it brings to people in Israel and around the world.
During the 2,000 years of exile, Jerusalem inched away from the regional spotlight. During Ottoman rule, which started in the 16th century, Jerusalem was no longer a primary political center.
While in the 18th and 19th century many Jews and Arabs who moved to the then-desolate Palestine chose to settle in Jerusalem, the mass immigration that followed later in the 19th century and early 20th century was focused on other parts of the land. Jaffa, and then Tel Aviv, became the primary hub of the new Jewish settlement, leading to a further shift away from Jerusalem.
The military siege imposed on Jerusalem by invading Arab armies in 1948, and the daring effort to rescue Jerusalem’s Jewish population from starvation and destruction, shaped the image of Jerusalem for many of today’s Israelis.
The fall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the exodus of its Jewish residents as refugees had devastating psychological consequences. The notion that centuries of continuous Jewish life there had come to an end, and that for the first time since the Crusades the Old City was Jew-free, contributed to an image of a highly-revered, yet pitiful Jerusalem.
Even after it was reunited in 1967, Jerusalem, for many Israelis, continued to be associated with terrorism, poverty, religiosity and the past. Jerusalem was loved from a distance. It was somewhat inconsistent with Tel Aviv-centric Zionist themes, as depicted by authors such as Jerusalem native Amos Oz, who said in the 1990s: “In the war between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I am all on the side of Tel Aviv – sanity, secularity, the present.”
But Jerusalem has gradually evolved. The expansion of institutions such as the Hebrew University and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design attracted a younger population. The development of top-notch museums, sold-out annual international art shows and wine festivals, the massive investment in infrastructure and urban renewal such as the light rail and upcoming fast train to Tel Aviv, as well as the wealth brought in with the rising number of vacation home owners and tourists, all contributed to the gradual turning of Jerusalem into an elegant destination city.
The move of the US and other embassies would be a natural extension of such growth.
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch underscores how far Jerusalem has gone in recent years.
“There is so much happening in Jerusalem now – the art scene, the culinary scene, the start-up revolution, the development of the creative class and the rich cultural activities.”
Indeed, Jerusalem of 2017 is more accommodating to diplomats than that of prior decades. For example, the stunning vibrancy of Mahaneh Yehuda market with its restaurants, cafes and bars negates the old paradigm that “Jerusalem is for praying and Tel Aviv is for playing.”
The presence of embassies and diplomats in Jerusalem could also influence the ongoing reshaping of the image of Jerusalem in Israelis’ minds. Such reshaping is supported by developments in Israeli society. With the increased interest in Judaism and stronger engagement with religiosity and ideology, Jerusalem is gradually reclaiming its centrality in the Israeli narrative.
Yet many of today’s government employees who commute daily from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem choose to narrow their interaction with the capital to Givat Ram. This government campus, which is located right at the entrance to Jerusalem, is home to the Knesset, Supreme Court and most government offices. As embassies and ambassadors would be spread throughout the city, it is possible that such government employees would expand their engagement with Jerusalem. Berkovitch takes it a step further. “Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but there are 75 government agencies that by law are meant to be in Jerusalem, and are not here yet. In spite of 2007 and 2015 government decisions to move those agencies to the capital, there is no detailed plan to move them here.”
Berkowitz, who also holds the city’s economic development portfolio and leads the fight to move those agencies to Jerusalem, thinks that the US Embassy move could be of help.
“It is hard to ask other governments to operate out of Jerusalem when we do not have all of our own government’s operations here. If those agencies move, there will be 5,000 new government jobs in Jerusalem. We estimate that it would add NIS 40 million of annual revenues to the Jerusalem municipality through property tax and would boost individuals’ spending in the city by NIS 130m. a year.”
Moving embassies to Jerusalem could also help unite the city. Today, Jews and Arabs interact daily with one another throughout the city – in workplaces, malls, centers of entertainment, Mahaneh Yehuda market, the light rail and throughout the city’s sidewalks.
To the outside world, there has been too much focus and perhaps attachment to the 19 years in which the city was divided. That was 50 years ago. Moving of embassies to Jerusalem would allow foreign governments to witness this Arab-Jewish interaction and help promote it.
Beyond the actual jobs that embassies would generate, the move would be greatly beneficial to Palestinians in other ways. It would provide mentorship opportunities in world diplomacy, foster business connections, create career opportunities in ancillary industries: logistics, hospitality, technology, tourism.
Such ancillary benefits should not be underestimated.
Speaking with a former senior New York City official about the opening of the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island between Manhattan and Queens (in a sense, opening of an “embassy” of the university in an outer neighborhood of New York City), the official stressed that the gain to the city is expected to be enormous. The direct and indirect impact are estimated to lead to an estimated $30 billion in development over 30 years.
Yet some Jerusalemites are not convinced, expressing concerns that not only will the move create a logistical nightmare for an already congested city (where diplomatic traffic jams are a regular reality), but it will also inflame terror.
According to Michael Koplaw, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, the Jordanian government has even called the move a redline – and this, he told The Jerusalem Post, “is something that should not be taken lightly. We can’t assume the embassy will be moved, but if it does get moved, you have to assume that there will be violence and protests of some sort, whether it be ‘officially’ sanctioned by groups or if there will be protests against American embassies.”
“Moving the embassy would have all sorts of consequences for Israeli security, and I hope the incoming [Trump] administration will take them seriously. It’s not just moving the embassy and be done with it. People need to consider if it’s worth one Israeli, Palestinian or American life to move the embassy to Jerusalem.”
COULD PALESTINIANS and Jews enjoy analogous indirect effects from moves of embassies to Jerusalem? Berkovitch believes such indirect benefits are possible.
“Foreign embassies should be in Jerusalem. This way they would understand the dynamics and could work with us to improve conditions for the city’s Arab neighborhoods. There are a lot of east Jerusalem residents working in west Jerusalem: doctors, bus drivers, small business owners, but much more needs to be done. We would welcome partnership with embassies on that.”Adding to the economic contribution and social impact, the move would also benefit Palestinians and Jews by promoting peace.
Outsiders’ efforts in the last two decades to build artificial walls between Israeli and Palestinian societies have robbed Palestinians of jobs in Jewish-owned factories and from opportunities to become entrepreneurs through exposure to hi-tech startups located in Jewish settlements. A successful “case study” of co-habitation within the embassies could be a catalyst to eliminating these foreign-made barriers to peace.
Also, moving embassies would provide clarity and expose hypocrisies: a primary source for the world’s refusal to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the 1949 UN resolution, which calls for the internationalization of Jerusalem and Bethlehem (General Assembly Resolution 303-IV). The resolution, which draws on the 1947 partition resolution, seeks to establish Jerusalem and Bethlehem as a “corpus separatum” under a special international regime. Yet in the last 20 years, the world has broadly recognized Bethlehem as part of the Palestinian territories, essentially stripping the residual legal excuse for not recognizing west Jerusalem as part of Israel.
In addition to the impact on Jerusalem and on the promotion of peace, moving of the US Embassy might also generate a halo effect in America itself.
Jerusalem can once again serve as an inspiration for the American dream. Many in the US sense there has been an erosion of the American revolution and an attempt at re-Europeanization of the American narrative. Americanism was, amongst other things, about a return to Jerusalem, its themes synergistic with Zionism. There are numerous towns, villages and streets across America named Jerusalem or Zion. For some Americans, the long-awaited move of the US Embassy is indeed a powerful demonstration of Americanism.
Last week, when the 45th president of the United States was sworn in, the first person to speak right after the president took the oath of office and delivered his inauguration address, was Rabbi Marvin Hier. With more than 30 million Americans watching, the rabbi quoted the scriptures. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.”
Will America and many of the world’s nations join in the traditional blessing “Next year in Jerusalem?” For its part, Jerusalem, the city of peace, is ready.