Visions of Fire       

The response to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration has focused too much on the fear of Arab backlash and not enough on why the decision itself is immoral and illegal.

A view of the Western Wall and the golden Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine on Wednesday in Jerusalem.

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, President Trump announced his decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing more than half a century of U.S. policy as well as a United Nations consensus to remain neutral on the fraught city’s status in the absence of peace talks and a formal end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem. He also announced his intention to eventually move the U.S. Embassy to the city, as he promised during his campaign. Predictably, the president’s decision generated a storm of outrage, with everyone from major newspaper opinion pages to academics to politicians and even the Pope weighing in against the move.

The gist of this backlash is that the president’s move has needlessly undermined efforts to achieve peace, and risked causing new violence in the region. But while this criticism is certainly warranted, too much of it focuses on the threat of an abstract and angry Arab backlash, overemphasizing the specter of violence while the political, diplomatic, and ethical problems that are at the heart of Trump’s policy take a back seat or remain ignored entirely.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian on Wednesday morning, likened the move to “walking into a bone-dry forest with a naked flame,” cautioning readers to recall the second intifada (the Palestinian uprisings beginning in 2000), “a bloody two or more years of death for Israelis at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers, and death for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military.” NPR, in its coverage of the news, also evoked the “bloody history” of the second intifada to warn against history repeating itself, calling Jerusalem the most “combustible” issue in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The metaphorical language of fires and flames is a pervasive and persistent feature in commentary on the issue. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman warned president Trump that this move is “likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world.” For California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in her letter to the president, posted to Twitter, the inevitable fact that this move would “spark violence” topped the list of reasons why it is so ill-advised. Juan Cole, a professor of history and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, was even more explicit in a blog post, calling the president’s move “the creation of a deadly and dreary reality that will get Americans blown up.” Ayman Odeh, an Israeli-Arab member of the Knesset, called Trump a “pyromaniac” in a tweet. Even Pope Francis’ remarks about the peaceful identity of Jerusalem contained a warning edge that this action places Jerusalem on the precipice of conflict.

So what’s the problem in highlighting the combustible nature of such a seemingly reckless and shortsighted move? Surely such warnings are warranted given both the history of Palestinian resistance and current regional dynamics. But focusing so insistently on a potential Arab backlash elides the actual illegality of this move. United Nations Resolution 478, passed in 1980, deemed Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is the “complete and united” capital of Israel to be in violation of international law and urged member states to withdraw diplomatic missions from the city. Jerusalem is a contested city, at the heart of the dilemma over the two-state solution, and as some of the commentary has in fairness pointed out, this move is likely to prove an enormous obstacle to peace and good faith between Palestinians, Israelis, and the United States. Furthermore, Jerusalem’s eastern half has been under illegal occupation by the Israeli government since 1967. The construction of illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes continues unabated and has even seen an uptick in recent years. To recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel legitimizes these illegal actions. These factors should be at the forefront of any opposition to Trump’s policy rather than fear of backlash.

Focusing on the potential mobs of angry Arabs reacting to the decision further reinforces stereotypes about, well … angry Arabs. In an era of divisive rhetoric, often directed particularly toward Arab and Muslim communities—much of it stoked by this president—employing the fear of rioting Arabs as a reason for opposing particular policies is, forgive me the metaphor, playing with fire. Opponents of this policy should not be using the same fear of Muslim violence used to justify the Muslim ban, no-fly lists, and other discriminatory policies.

There is also a more insidious message being sent by warnings about the potential for a “third intifada” in response to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, one that has long haunted, not just the conflict over Palestine and Israel but also other instances where human rights, civil rights, and sovereignty are violated. When we focus on violence as the only preventive force against unjust policies, we reinforce the notion that violence is the only effective means of resistance. Perhaps more often than not, these assessments prove to be accurate, but it’s a dangerous game and only aids those who see no point in working toward peace at all.