Many in the Palm Beach County Jewish community are applauding President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there, but some leaders are concerned about looming violence.
Rabbi Moshe Scheiner of the Palm Beach Synagogue said this decision should have been made 50 years ago after the battles of the 1960s and 1970s.
“I think it’s symbolic but it’s important because it shapes public opinion and it allows people to see Israel as a free, democratic and sovereign country with defined borders,” Scheiner said.
Announcing the decision in a White House speech Wednesday afternoon, Trump said that the old approach of having the embassy in Tel Aviv has not led to long-lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in 1967, for their capital.
In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which said the embassy would be moved to Jerusalem before the turn of the century, but past presidents have delayed the move.
“After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said in his speech. “It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.”
Trump said the United States is not taking a position on the border dispute between Israel and Palestine, and they are still committed to working out a peace agreement that works for both.
But some think Wednesday’s decision could cause violence and uprising in the region.
Rabbi calls it a ‘provocative act’
Rabbi David Sislen of the conservative Temple B’nai Jacob in Wellington said while some in his congregation would be excited by Trump’s announcement, others “would feel that the status quo is perfectly fine.”
“Jerusalem has been the de-facto capital of Israel for generations in everything but name only,” he said.
But Sislen said he believes Trump’s announcement could cause great damage to the already-tenuous ongoing peace process and make things more dangerous for “the people on the ground, the ones who actually live there and have some skin in this game.”
He went on to say that “both sides are not going to take too well to a third party trying to make policy and ideology decisions.
“I think that at this time such a provocative act, which really makes no difference in practicality, is fairly ill-advised,” he said.
Until now, Sislen noted, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel always has been seen as one of the final steps in mediating the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. “It’s putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “But it’s putting an awfully dangerous cart before an awfully dangerous horse.”
Rabbi David Siff at Temple Torat Emet in suburban Boynton Beach is concerned for the people of Israel because of the possibility of violence.
“On the one hand it’s great to see our president supporting the state of Israel and those of us who are connected to Israel know that it’s obvious Jerusalem is its capital and it’s silly to say it’s not,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of concern whether it will accomplish any positive, practical results and whether it will result in violence on the part of the Palestinian reaction without really having any tactical advantage.”
Siff, however, is not concerned about the safety of his own synagogue. He said he is comfortable with the measures that they already have in place, such as a guard and locked doors.
Palestinian questions U.S. role in region
Palestinian leaders think Trump’s decision will hurt the peace efforts and remove the United States as a mediator in the region.
“This would mean they decided, on their own, to distance themselves from efforts to make peace,” Majdi Khaldi, a diplomatic advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinians’ chief delegate to Washington, added that the announcement is a “stab in the back.”
But Rabbi Leibel Stolik of Chabad of South Palm Beach said he doesn’t understand why anyone would refute that Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.
“What’s hurtful is the fact that some people refuse to recognize it,” Stolik said. “On what basis are you denying it?”
Scheiner, of the Palm Beach Synagogue, added that the threat of backlash shouldn’t be enough to derail the decision, which Congress overwhelmingly and bi-partisanly passed in the mid-1990s.
“We don’t believe in cowering or being intimidated by fear and anti-Semitism and terrorism,” Scheiner said.
Local lawmakers react to the decision
Rep. Lois Frankel, (D-West Palm Beach), who is Jewish, supported the decision.
She called the announcement “consistent with current U.S. law and reaffirms what we already know: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, in Israel on a trade mission, praised Trump’s announcement.
“This is a great day,” Scott said on a posted video with his wife Ann Scott at the Western Wall. “I stand with Israel, I stand with all the citizens of Israel. The state of Florida stands with all the citizens of Israel.”
Also praising the decision was Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City.
Even U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, an ardent Trump critic, voiced cautious approval.
In a joint statement with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, Deutch said of the decision “There is no debate that the Jewish people have a deep-rooted religious, cultural and historic ties to Jerusalem, and today’s decision reaffirms that connection.”
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, was critical.
“I believe that Jerusalem is and should remain the undivided capital of Israel. To deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem would be to deny world history. That being said, the manner in which the Trump administration has announced its recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is of great concern,” Hastings said.
Rabbi credits Trump for welcoming Jews to Mar-a-Lago
Locally, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago has also been known as one of the more Jewish-friendly clubs on Palm Beach, Scheiner said. In 2006, Trump wanted to expand the club to make room for a kosher kitchen — a request he later dropped after backlash about the size of the project.
But Scheiner said he has been involved with several completely kosher weddings and has shown Trump the setup.
“He was thrilled. He was just beaming,” Scheiner said, later adding, “He has been welcoming to Jews in his club, and he deserves credit for that.”
The looming threat of violence means it’s not yet time to rejoice, and the members of the Palm Beach Synagogue said an extra prayer for peace Wednesday morning.
“This morning at our daily services, we said extra prayers for peace and calm, and safety and security,” he said. “We are concerned of what the response may be because we are fully aware of the dangers and the threats.”
The Associated Press and Palm Beach Post Staff Writers Alex Seltzer, Kristina Webb and George Bennett contributed to this report.