Rabbi Ze’ev Smason doesn’t usually talk politics at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion — except when it comes to Israel, he said.
He decided he should deliver a sermon last Saturday addressing President Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“I thought it was an early Hanukkah present,” said Smason, the leader of the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Olivette. “The excitement is that the United States recognizes Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem and to the Old City and the [Western Wall] unconditionally. It certainly doesn’t mean that Israel’s troubles are over and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t dark clouds over the horizon, but his declaration was…very inspiring and meaningful.”
Throughout the St. Louis Jewish community, there appeared to be widespread support for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. However, the timing of the announcement and the person who made it have caused some dissension.
Trump had pledged such a move during his campaign and followed through on the promise, despite a lack of international support and concerns that the announcement could lead to violence in Israel.
In 1995, Congress approved the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for a recognition of the capital and a relocation of the embassy, but presidents since then have signed waivers every six months to delay the move. White House aides told reporters that it will take years to build an embassy in Jerusalem, so it will remain in Tel Aviv for now.
But Trump’s announcement has already had effects. Palestinian leaders hope to establish the capital of a future state in East Jerusalem and have said that the move hurts efforts to reach a peace agreement with Israel. Palestinians and Arab Israelis have protested the decision — sometimes violently — and rockets have flown from Gaza, which is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also will not meet with Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region next week, officials in Abbas’ administration announced.
As far as concerns about backlash, Smason said, if people had let anxiety about negative reaction determine their decisions, “then the State of Israel never would have been declared. If we would have thought about what the anti-Semites would have said or that violence would result of asserting our rights to our country and to Jerusalem, that timidity would have been very ill-founded.”
About 100 people affiliated with pro-Palestinian groups and Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, gathered Sunday afternoon in the Delmar Loop to protest the decision.
“We believe Trump’s decision should not be a unilateral decision made by anybody, even if they are in the Oval Office. This is a decision that should be made by the parties who live in that region,” said Faizan Syed, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations-Missouri, a group also involved in interfaith efforts with the Jewish community. “The U.S. peace process has really been undercut by Trump.”
The pro-Palestinian groups were met by 20 counter-protesters affiliated with Jewish groups or Christians United for Israel; there is also strong support for recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital among evangelicals. The counter-protesters held signs such as, “Honk for Israel” and “Jerusalem, Eternal Capital of the Jewish People.”
“We are here because we think it is important to have another voice out, to show another opinion,” said Stuart Klamen, founder of The Bergson Group, a local organization dedicated to promoting Israel advocacy among Jews and Christians. “I think (Trump’s announcement) was a long time in coming. It was a great decision.”
Many Jews discussed the announcement over Shabbat and at various Jewish events. Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel said she had heard more from congregants regarding this decision than any other news regarding Israel in her decade at the synagogue.
“What I heard most from people — and they were a little embarrassed — is, ‘I thought Jerusalem was already the capital. Why is this a thing?’ ” Feder said at an introduction to a Judaism class on Monday morning. She also said that people’s opinions on the announcement did not neatly align with whether they generally leaned more to the left or to the right.
“With this particular issue, it is not clear that just because someone is left-wing or right-wing, which side they are taking on this. I think you can absolutely be a very fervent Zionist and still say, “Oh, no. This was a bad idea,” said Feder, whose class featured a mix of Jews and non-Jews.
Sarijane Freiman, a Temple Israel member and docent at the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center, said her “feelings about Israel are very strong. I believe Israel must be a nation of its people and I can only draw a comparison between the Nazis of the Holocaust and the Palestinians who want all of the Jews pushed into the sea.”
Her reaction when she learned of Trump’s announcement was “he has just signed an order of execution for the State of Israel, and I am extremely fearful about what is in store for a country that I love.”
During the class, Feder distributed statements on the decision from various Jewish and Israel advocacy groups. In “almost every case, I was kind of shocked” by the groups’ responses, she said.
For example, the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis stated that it “welcomes this acknowledgement” of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but also says that the decision “was made in the face of calls of protest and violence on the ground, which, however unjustified and abhorrent, are likely to produce physical harm to human life and property. Furthermore, this decision appears to have been made in the absence of a more comprehensive strategy to advance the cause of peace in the region.”
Dr. Terry Weiss, a physician and member of Temple Israel, disagreed with the JCRC statement because he believes that previous presidents had been wise to “resist implementation [of the Jerusalem Embassy Act] in order to achieve the greater goal: being recognized as an honest broker and just mediator in bringing the two sides together to achieve a lasting peace. Donald Trump can hardly be accused of exhibiting either wisdom or restraint.”
But Weiss describes the JCRC statement as “misguided, schizoid, short-sighted and unfortunate” and said he wishes that the organization had “forgone taking a position rather than having published this statement.”
Galit Lev-Harir, a member of Congregation B’nai Amoona, attended a JCRC meeting last week at Congregation Shaare Emeth that featured a live webcast with David Makovsky, a St. Louis native who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovsky mentioned that Jordan could feel the need to distance itself from Israel because of Trump’s declaration. Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly told the U.S. president that the decision would have “dangerous repercussions for the stability and security of the region.”
But Israel has recently strengthened relations with neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which is concerned about Iran. Said Lev-Harir, “Arab states are going to do what’s in their best interest regardless of what the U.S. does or doesn’t do related to Israel.”
“That’s why I think think that this was actually very good timing for this announcement,” she continued. “Yes, the Palestinians are going to riot; yes, they are going to make a fuss, but they rioted before. They riot all the time for different reasons…I don’t think we are going to see a lot of fall-out from the Arab states.”
A couple of nights before the Makovsky talk, JCRC held an event at Shaare Emeth, which was part of the Jewish Federation’s Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series. It featured Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
Maura Baker, who attends Shaare Emeth and was at the Kurtzer event, heard him speak about rethinking the U.S. relationship to Israel. He asked questions such as, “What would happen if we considered using ‘moral’ red lines as opposed to ‘political’ red lines to define the discourse?”
Kurtzer “basically was trying to say that someone’s politics don’t necessarily reflect their morals, that you can have the same moral goal as someone but a different path to get there,” said Baker, a former board member of Next Dor, an organization for Jewish young adults.
As to Trump’s decision, Baker added, “it could only lead to violence. It was a spark that ignited what was already a bubbling pot, and the only reason he would have done that at this point was to appeal to his base of voters, but he did not take into account the larger community and the effect that it would have.”
Editor Ellen Futterman contributed to this report.