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What Does The Jerusalem Decision Mean For U.S. Jews?


As we've just heard, the decision by the Trump administration to recognize Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel has evoked strong reactions throughout the Middle East. And the U.S. now would like to focus on how President Trump's decision has been received by American Jews, especially those who may support that move but otherwise disagree with the president on many issues. As a voting bloc, Jews overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in the 2016 election - 71 percent voted for Clinton, only 24 percent for Trump. So we were wondering whether President Trump's stated support for Israel and Jerusalem as its capital creates an ethical conflict for those whose political views are guided by their faith commitments. This is the second in a series of conversations we've been having along these lines.

Last week, for example, we heard from two Christian Evangelical leaders. Joining us today are Yehuda Kurtzer. He is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. That's a think tank devoted to addressing issues of modern life through Jewish theological perspectives. He's with us from our studios in New York. Also with us is Rabbi Rick Jacobs. He is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which leads the largest Jewish movement in North America. He's with us from Boston, where he's attending the group's biannual conference.

So, Rabbi, can I start by asking how you felt when you heard the announcement? I know it's actually U.S. law, but as I think most people know by now, presidents have signed a waiver for years, preventing the embassy from moving to Jerusalem for various reasons. So I still wonder, did you feel anything in particular when you heard this news?

RICK JACOBS: I definitely felt - as I believe probably all of us who feel now a deep connection to Israel, but a very, very significant love and attachment to the city of Jerusalem - there was certainly a feeling of affirming what we have believed not only for the last 70 years - we as a movement and the Jewish people for thousands of years that Jerusalem is at the very heart of who we are, our prayers, our yearning.

And there was a part of me that felt very, very hopeful that the U.S. government led by our president affirmed that there is, in fact, this deep attachment. And at the same time, we also were thinking, my goodness, what is this going to mean for the larger project of bringing peace? Which the president of the United States has also stated is an ultimate deal, something he's deeply committed to. So some of the affirmation and the feeling of gratitude also is filled with uncertainty and, you know, a lack of clarity of what really will be the next step.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, that really tracks with your organization's perspective on this. I mean, your organization takes positions. For example, in the early-'90s, they passed a resolution that the U.S. Embassy should relocate to Jerusalem but when the negotiations and process toward peace says it's the time to move it. So I'm wondering now, does this pose an ethical challenge for you and the people you represent?

JACOBS: Well, I don't think the question of whether it's by this president or another one. We're on record. We deeply believe that not only should the U.S. Embassy be moved to Jerusalem but that Jerusalem is the capital. The question of timing - that's the key question. It's not a question of, is it the right thing to do? The question is, when is it the right thing to do, and in what context, and with what other moves? That really is the question.

MARTIN: Yehuda Kurtzer, what are you hearing from the people and the leaders with whom you work? I mean, the Hartman Institute exists in order to have these kinds of difficult conversations with people from a variety of perspectives. So what are you hearing?

YEHUDA KURTZER: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what Rabbi Jacobs spoke about in terms of the sensitivities and the sense of fear that this is both exciting and ominous for the people of the region. I think another piece, though, that we're thinking about and looking at, especially as an institute that's based both in Jerusalem and here in North America, is the huge gap between the Israeli-Jewish street and the American-Jewish street on this issue, which is an issue that we as American Jews have to think very seriously about.

For the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews, they're extremely excited about this. For them, the state of Israel has always had Jerusalem as its capital. And it's simply been a gap between the state of Israel's perception of its capital and the international community's recognition. For American Jews, however, who as you said, at the outset, overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton and who fear what this will do for the region - their skepticism both because it's this president, because of the timing of this announcement and because of the fear that this becomes an obstacle to the peace process rather than advancing it, from what I have heard, by and large, are concerned about the timing of this announcement.

And what it forces us to do is to take a step back and ask, what does it mean to be a Zionist, and what does it mean to be pro-Israel when the American Jewish community and the Israeli Jewish community are actually not on the same page on this?

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, Yehuda Kurtzer, 54 percent of Orthodox Jews said that they voted for Donald Trump, according to a poll by the American Jewish Committee. Why does there seem to be this divide between Orthodox Jews and everybody else?

KURTZER: What I see in terms of orthodox attachments to Israel is a much closer relationship between religious Zionist ideology that understands the state of Israel as the fulfillment of longstanding theological dreams. And as a result, you see in the Orthodox community a lot more of what you might call a full-throated support for the government and policies of the state of Israel regardless of what they happen to be, whereas they're - among liberal Jews in America, politically and denominationally, a different calculus - you might say - about what's good for Israel, what's good for Israelis and Palestinians and what's good for us as Americans.

I think what's most complicated about all of this is that oftentimes when American Jews are taking positions on Israel or debating with each other about Israel, sometimes we seem to be talking about actual Israel. And oftentimes, we are talking about Israel as a kind of proxy identity. And so the gaps between what Israelis think and what American Jews think about Israel become really pronounced. You know, to that effect, you know, there are other variables that animate why the president may have wanted to push forward with his agenda now that have very little to do with the Jewish community.

MARTIN: Like what, for example?

KURTZER: For instance, I think this is - this was a big agenda item for Evangelicals, and the optics of it certainly suggested that. You know, it wasn't lost on a lot of people that this was a proclamation that was signed in front of a Christmas tree and with a document that referred to 2017 as the Year of Our Lord. And that would suggest that this isn't merely about support for Israel as a nation state but something that's electorally useful for Donald Trump and the Republican Party right now.

MARTIN: This is about the base as we commonly describe it. For many Evangelical Christians, it is very important that Israel be firmly in Jewish hands, if I could put it that way.

KURTZER: Yeah, and Jerusalem as its capital because that juxtaposes a theological story and a political reality.

MARTIN: That's Yehuda Kurtzer. He's president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York. Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He was kind enough to join us from Boston. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

JACOBS: Thank you.

KURTZER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.