Placing the United States embassy to Israel in Jerusalem seems natural — or at least unimportant — but it is unprecedented. Should it happen, it will please some but outrage others.
It all goes back a long time, a really long time. Just 40 years after Christ, the Jews rebelled against the Roman empire, the very power that executed Jesus for alleged defiance of Rome. The Jews lost that fight, and Rome played for keeps when it came to suppressing opposition. Many Jews died. One legend has it that the land around Jerusalem looked like a forest, so many crosses were standing upon which hung Jewish rebels. Other Jews not sentenced to death were exiled, although some stayed in the Holy Land, but these survivors were few.
Time passed. Arabs, some Christians, mostly Muslims, sponsored by the Ottoman Empire seated in what now is Turkey, eventually came in numbers. Their descendants constitute today’s Palestinians. More than a century ago, descendants of Jews exiled by the Romans almost 2,000 years earlier began to move to the Holy Land, and from them came most of today’s Jewish Israeli population.
Harmony never reigned supreme. World leaders after World War II hoped that a solution would be to create two independent, adjoining nations — one for Jews, the other for Arabs. Acting on this plan, Jews formed the state of Israel. Arabs bitterly rejected the plan, however, insisting that the entire Holy Land belonged to them.
Basically, this situation pertains today. Over the years, no reconciliation has been found. Bloodshed and hatred are the everlasting characteristics of this struggle between the Jews and the Arabs.
Eventually, the Arabs formed something like a nation: Palestine. Israel has not made it easy for Palestine, to say the least, but many world powers, including the papacy, recognize Palestine as a sovereign entity.
Regardless, feelings have not softened. Many Palestinians still argue that all the land is their land. Many Israelis argue the same.
Peace between Israel and Palestine has been a priority for American presidents going back to Harry Truman. Governments have come and gone in Washington, and in other capitals, over the years, and all must have concluded that they could not win for losing.
Our leaders, and governmental heads elsewhere, have tried never to aggravate one or the other side, but U.S. authorities always, rightly, have seen Israel as this country’s best friend, the only democracy, in the Middle East, believing that Israel’s diminishment would hurt America.
Yet, as successive popes have pleaded, and as millions agree, including most major world powers, Palestinians also have their rights.
Why the argument about Jerusalem? Both sides claim Jerusalem.
To avoid taking sides, no world government presently keeps its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem, so America’s embassy is in Tel Aviv, 40 miles west of Jerusalem. Every other sovereign nation also deliberately has its embassy outside Jerusalem. The Holy See maintains its nunciature, or embassy, to Israel in Jaffa, a Tel Aviv suburb. (The Vatican’s representative to Palestine resides in East Jerusalem, on recognized Palestinian territory.)
What about the “settlements”? These are new communities built, maintained and protected by Israel specifically for Jews on land claimed by Palestine. Successive American governments, and the rest of the world, have opposed the settlements.
It is enough to prompt despair. As Pope Francis prays, God give us peace — with justice.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.