The US Embassy in Jerusalem: What’s the Big Deal?

For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3b-4 ESV)

US President Donald Trump has moved to fulfill his campaign pledge, one that others made before him and failed to fulfill—to declare Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel and move the US embassy there. The initiative did not begin with President Trump. The US Congress passed a law in 1995 to move the embassy to Jerusalem but successive presidents have opted to postpone implementation of the law until now.

Benoit Soubeyran from Jerusalem, Israel [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
A chorus of US Evangelical voices have congratulated the President recognizing the move as a token of solidarity with God’s ancient people that he has promised to bless. Some suggest that the move is America’s great hope to return to God’s blessing and favor.

Meanwhile the streets of the Middle East have erupted in rioting. Leaders of majority Muslim nations convened to condemn the decision. Even the most moderate Middle Eastern voices (Christian and Muslim) have declared that the peace process, based on a two-state solution, is defunct due to President Trump’s decision.

Only time will tell the story of the outcomes of this decision. The modest aim of this blog is to help the reader understand why this presidential declaration has been a lightning rod drawing the ire of far-flung nations, but especially those of the Middle East.

First, there is a history here. Many American Evangelicals, well-aware of the story of the Exodus and the entrance of the promised land led by Joshua, are unaware of regional developments in the Middle East since the time of Christ.

For thirteen centuries (prior to 1948), Jerusalem was a city under Islamic empires. There was a brief effort to wrest Jerusalem from Muslim domination in the Crusades. The effort ended in disaster driving a wedge further into the “Great Schism” between Eastern and Western Christians. Ultimately, the Crusaders lost Jerusalem…until the 20th century when…

A small state was carved out of the former Ottoman Empire by the European victors of the World Wars and awarded to the Zionists—a minority movement made up of European Jews who desired to re-establish their ancient homeland.

The state contained the holy city of ancient Judaism, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and the third holiest city of Islam—Jerusalem, known as al-Quds (“the holy”).

Arab reaction was swift, but ineffective as the new state of Israel rallied to defend itself. Wars and uprisings have recurred over the decades. One important date is 1967, when Israel’s surprise attack destroyed the Egyptian air force. Israel moved quickly to occupy east Jerusalem, the Gaza strip, the West Bank and the Sinai Peninsula. Though Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital, the United Nations deems east Jerusalem to be occupied land, held illegitimately by the Israelis.

While Palestinian attacks on Israel have captured media attention, many Palestinians want a peaceful resolution to the conflict. They seek a negotiated settlement based on the pre-1967 borders allowing for a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem while Israel would retain control of West Jerusalem.

A second issue is the integrity of mediation in the peace process. The US, as Israel’s most staunch ally, is the de facto broker of peace negotiations.

However, the US has lost credibility as a peace-broker due to a number of factors, including:

  1. Numerous vetoes of UN resolutions recognizing the just cause of Palestinians.
  2. Turning a blind eye to Israel’s persistent building of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and destruction of Palestinian homes.
  3. Generous economic and military aid to Israel is culpable in deaths and injuries among Palestinians which far outnumber Israeli deaths (both are deplorable).
  4. Palestinian refugees continue to be denied the right of return to their homeland.

The Presidential declaration adds insult to injury. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Palestinians perceive that the US has demonstrated its bias, upholding Israel’s contention that Jerusalem is its “eternal and undivided capital.” In effect, the US has recognized that the territory taken in the 1967 war rightfully belongs to Israel, contravening international law.

A third issue concerns Palestinian moderate voices such as Hanan Ashrawi, Saeb Erekat, and President Mahmoud Abbas who have renounced violence, investing years in a peace-process brokered by the US. They are now left out in the cold as the US decision pre-determines a key outcome of negotiations which is the status of Jerusalem. The decision strengthens the position of extremists, potentially exposing innocent Israelis and Palestinians to violence.

For Evangelical readers, it is critical to note that Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian Evangelicals appealed to President Trump to avoid determining the status of Jerusalem until a comprehensive settlement could be reached. Jack Sara (President of Bethlehem Bible College), Botrus Mansour (co-chair of the Lausanne Initiative for Reconciliation between Israel and Palestine) and other Palestinian Evangelicals have spoken out on the President’s decision, urging that the criteria be justice and equity. Many Christian leaders in the Middle East are pleading for their Western brothers and sisters to pursue the peace of Jerusalem, rather than a superficial political endorsement of one side over the other.

A final factor is a plausible alternative reading of the Bible concerning the “holy land.” It’s far too much to cover in a blog. Suffice to say that Christ is the true descendant of Abraham and the Son of David. He is the Prophet, Priest, and King—the object and fulfillment of the Old Testament promises (Lk 24:44-49, John 5:39). Christians in the Middle East find the politicization of the Evangelical faith confusing and maddening. If Jesus is King and Lord, is He applauding the US embassy’s move to Jerusalem? Think about that a minute.

If a two-state solution is defunct, the one-state status quo remains. In this scenario, Palestinians become the majority population forcing Israel into apartheid policies in order to remain a Jewish state. Democracy becomes impossible.

If the peace of Jerusalem and the surrounding peoples is the goal, there is no alternative to negotiations with a sincere intent to listen carefully to both sides in this extended conflict in which Christ-followers are found on both sides. Might we and they become catalysts for peace?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9 ESV)

This article was originally posted at the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies blog by Dr. Mike Kuhn.

About Dr. Mike Kuhn

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