The group of about 50 young Jews held signs denouncing war and occupation, and chanted “Stop the move,” in a public demonstration Wednesday night, attacking President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US Embassy there.
Perhaps most notable about the protest was its location — outside the Boston offices of another Jewish group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The influential pro-Israel lobbying group, known as AIPAC, had strongly praised Trump’s decision as “an important, historic step.”
Two miles away in the Back Bay, by coincidence, 6,000 members of the Jewish Reform Movement from around North America and the world, gathered for their biennial convention. This group, by and large, represented a third thread of opinion on Trump’s declaration: Yes, Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, but how does declaring it now help the complicated peace process with the Palestinians?
“I don’t think anyone can speak definitively about the consequences,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
These scenes around Boston in the past two days illustrate a divide among American Jews on a decision central to one of the most complex political and religious disputes in the world.
“The Jewish community has not been unanimous,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“A great many mainstream, traditional, old-line Jewish organizations, [including AIPAC] applauded the decision, in a sense saying, ‘Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital for 70 years,’ ” Sarna said.
“You have others in the Jewish community, like the reform movement whose members are Democrats, not fond of Mr. Trump, and in some ways critical of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], who basically said, ‘Right decision, wrong time. We support the idea that Jerusalem should be the capital, but that should be a part of a larger negotiation.’ ”
“Then you have a small number of noisy organizations ... that believe in one way or another that the Palestinians have been deeply wronged by the state of Israel. From their perspective ... Israel is Pharaoh.”
Many Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their hoped-for independent state.
Adding another layer of political complexity to the issue, Trump’s decision “has much more to do” with his political base, which largely supports Israel, Sarna said.
“This is about the tens of millions of evangelicals and not really about the Jews,” he said.
Christian political activist Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, praised Trump’s decision on Wednesday.
“Like the President, we remain fully committed to seeing the US embassy moved to Jerusalem, the seat of the Israeli government, as soon as possible,” Reed said in a statement. “To do otherwise will only give false encouragement to Israel’s enemies, many of whom still refuse to acknowledge its existence or maintain diplomatic relations with its government.”
In 1995, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which said the United States would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Language in the bill allows the president to delay the move for security reasons, and presidents beginning with Bill Clinton have extended the delay over concerns a move would inflame the Arab world and make a peace deal more difficult. On Wednesday, Trump told the State Department to begin plans to move the embassy.
AIPAC lauded Trump’s announcement, calling the move “a long-overdue step” that “does not in any way prejudge the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
Steve Grossman, a former president of AIPAC, offered a broader and more critical view.
“As much as [Trump] has recognized what so many of us have hoped an American president would do for many, many years — that’s the easy part,” said Grossman, a former state treasurer. “The only thing that’s going to achieve progress toward the goal of Middle East peace is sustained hard work, discipline and diplomacy.”
“Donald Trump has largely ignored this issue until [Wednesday]. If you compare him to Clinton, Bush, and Barack Obama, all of whom tried in one way or another to engage deeply in the issue – Donald Trump and the Trump administration has neglected efforts to support peace.”
The protest at the Boston AIPAC office was organized by IfNotNow, a movement led by young American Jews who are “seeking to end the American Jewish community’s support for the occupation,” said Sara Sandmel, 27, an organizer for the group.
“We’re protesting at AIPAC specifically because they were in a hurry to come out and stand in favor of this move and have been advocating for it as an organization for decades,” she said. “We think that no matter what your vision for Jerusalem is in the future, to make this move right now is only serving to incite violence and play into the hands of the far right, both here in the states and in Israel.”
Jacobs, in an interview Thursday during the Reform event at the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, said Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years.
“The question is, what do you do at a particular point,” he said. “We as a movement are on record that the embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. And it should be done in the context of a real peace process. Because seen as an isolated act, it’s just not clear it advances the deeper commitment that we all have, and this administration has, to reviving and leading the peace process.”
Mona Abdo, a board member of the Cambridge-based Palestine Advocacy Project, said by e-mail that Trump’s move defies international consensus and “prevents the US from being a mediator in the peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis.”
“It puts a halt, and could be the cause for the end, of peace negotiations,” she said.
Michael Maria, a Palestinian-American who lives in Boston, said he found Trump’s decision “extremely frustrating.”
“Trump has shown the US is not an honest broker when it comes to negotiations,” he said. “There is fear this decision will ultimately lead to violence, and we don’t want to see that.”