In his oped for The New York Times on December 9, 2017, entitled “Jerusalem Denial Complex”, Bret Stephens, the new super-Zionist Times oped columnist, supported Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by arguing that Trump was simply acknowledging reality. This echoes Trump’s own justification for the move from his speech announcing the new policy last week. After listing the many “pieties”, as Stephens puts it, that Trump’s announcement finally lays to rest, he gives us the following description of Jerusalem:
“What Jerusalem is is the capital of Israel, both as the ancestral Jewish homeland and the modern nation-state. When Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit the country in 1974, he attended his state dinner in Jerusalem. It’s where President Anwar Sadat of Egypt spoke when he decided to make peace in 1977. It’s what Congress decided as a matter of law in 1995. When Barack Obama paid his own presidential visit to Israel in 2013, he too spent most of his time in Jerusalem. So why maintain the fiction that Jerusalem isn’t the capital?”
What’s interesting about this passage is that it embodies both a fundamental fallacy and a fundamental falsehood. Pretty good for one paragraph.
The fallacy is one of equivocation, in this case on the word “recognition”. One commits this fallacy when one takes an ambiguous term – in this case, “recognition” – and constructs an argument in which one uses the terms in one sense in a crucial premise and then in a different sense in the conclusion. “Recognition” has two, admittedly related, meanings. In one sense, the one expressed when it is said it’s time to recognize reality and stop believing in fictions, the premises of Stephens’s argument, “recognize” just means acknowledge what is the case. And in this sense all of us know, indeed “recognize,” that Jerusalem has functioned as Israel’s capital for many years, so if you want to talk to government leaders, of course that’s where you have to go. So from this premise, together with the premise that you ought to acknowledge facts that are staring you in the face, Stephens (and Trump) conclude that you ought to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Sounds almost reasonable when you put it that way.
However, “recognition” has a different sense when describing political acts carried out by representatives of nation-states. In this sense it means formally agreeing not to challenge the situation in question, to sanction it and treat it as legitimate. So Trump’s act wasn’t a mere cognitive achievement, it was a political act of officially acquiescing and condoning Israel’s annexation of the city against international law. The point is that when governments “recognize” they are not merely acknowledging facts, they are in an important sense creating them. What Trump did was to put the US seal of approval on the Israeli annexation, and that goes far beyond merely recognizing what happen to be the undisputed facts of the matter. While Trump may not himself understand the difference, I find it hard to believe Stephens doesn’t, which makes his argument extremely disingenuous.
The falsehood comes in that phrase, “…as the ancestral Jewish homeland”. What this means is that the group of people who now identify as Jews, whether currently living in Israel or outside it, constitute a nation, and the very same nation as the people who lived in the ancient kingdom of Judea; therefore, in establishing the Jewish state of Israel, they are merely returning to take possession of what has always been rightfully theirs.
But can anyone really take this claim seriously? Judaism is a religion, and what Jews today share with the ancient Judeans is this religion. My roots can be traced back to Eastern Europe, and earlier than that is all speculation and conjecture, nothing that can compete with the Palestinians’ actual residence on the land for the past hundreds of years.
Shlomo Sand, in The Invention of the Jewish People, has forcefully argued that the very idea that Jews, as a collective, constitute a nation, is a very recent idea, largely coinciding with the rise of Zionism. As someone who was raised Orthodox, I’m not sure I totally agree with him, but this only reinforces my point. It has for a long time been part of Jewish religious doctrine that we are God’s people, so if that’s so, we have to be identifiable as a separate nation. We also have religious laws about who can count as a Jew that are mostly biologically based. But this is religious dogma, not history and not political reality.
In fact, not too long ago, during the period of Jewish emancipation in Europe, it was the anti-semites who emphasized that Jews were a nation apart, and it was advocates for emancipation who argued that Jews were integral to the nations in which they lived but just happened to have a minority religion. So no, Bret Stephens, Jerusalem is not my homeland, nor my “birthright”. I have no more of a right to claim Jerusalem than any Catholic in the US has to claim Rome.