The opening ceremony for the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was, essentially, an invitation-only Trump campaign rally.
Those in attendance had all sworn loyalty to the president and belonged to one of the groups that has hailed him as a modern-day Cyrus the Great: Orthodox Jews, right-wing Israelis (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and the pro-Trump Republican base – particularly those in the evangelical community.
This was all on display from the ceremony’s opening blessing, by Texan Baptist megachurch pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress. His eyes squeezed closed in prayer, he thanked God for “our great president, Donald Trump,” lauded how Israel “has blessed this world by pointing us to you, the one true God, through the message of her prophets, her scriptures, and the Messiah,” and praying for Jerusalem “in the name of the spirit of the Prince of Peace, Jesus our lord.”
Standing beside him, also offering prayers in praise of Trump and Netanyahu, was ultra-Orthodox Chabad Rabbi Zalman Wolowik – a personal friend of U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
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The ceremony was bookended with a benediction by another Trump stalwart: The televangelist founder of Christians United For Israel, Pastor John Hagee, who noted that “Jerusalem is where [the] Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end,” and led the crowd in a final shout of “Hallelujah!”
In the front row, flanking Netanyahu and his wife Sara, were Jewish first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner – who attend a Chabad synagogue – as well as Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who has just committed $30 million to GOP election races across the country and offered to pay for at least part of the new Jerusalem embassy himself. (His offer was ultimately declined).
The presence and visibility of the evangelical leaders at Monday’s inauguration demonstrated the true source of the political muscle that made the embassy move a reality. Even the banners around Jerusalem in praise of Trump were paid for by Friends of Zion, the brainchild of evangelical leader and Christian Zionist Mike Evans.
Conspicuously absent from the stage were any mainstream Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis. In the audience, high-level representatives of the U.S. non-Orthodox Jewish majority were few and far between, though not entirely absent. Anti-Defamation League Director Jonathan Greenblatt was in attendance, for example.
Prominent Democratic political leaders – even the long-term, pro-Israel Jewish ones – were nowhere to be found. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who still lives in Israel, was pointedly not invited to the event, despite the fact he went against many of his former colleagues from the Obama White House by supporting and praising the embassy move. No matter: As a non-Orthodox Democrat, he too was persona non grata.
For mainstream American Jewry, being so visibly shut out of an event that many had previously hoped and lobbied for – allied to the event’s dominance by evangelical leaders with controversial views on Jews, Muslims, Mormons and homosexuality – was disturbing enough.
But the fact they were being represented by the likes of Ivanka, Kushner and Adelson, while simultaneously being bombarded with disturbing images of the violence on the Gaza border, triggered a full-on crisis for many.
Sadness and confusion permeated the statements of Jewish leaders, and these sentiments – intensified with anger – exploded across social media.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said he was “alarmed, concerned, and profoundly saddened by the growing number of Gazan dead and wounded. It does not have to be this way.”
Regarding the embassy ceremony, Jacobs said, “The Trump Administration declared its commitment to promoting a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict by celebrating the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. We also celebrate the opening of the Embassy as an affirmation of the deep and lasting ties between the U.S. and Israel. However, we remain very much aware of the lack of progress toward a long-term just solution for Israelis and Palestinians.”
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami harshly criticized the timing of the ceremony, saying the decision to hold it to “coincide with both the anniversary of Israeli independence and the Palestinian ‘Naqba’ [sic]” has “thrown more fuel on an already raging fire.” Ben-Ami was referring to the Palestinian term for the establishment of the State of Israel, which means “Catastrophe” in Arabic and is marked yearly on May 15.
Ben-Ami added that “opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and official American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital should be a moment of celebration for all of us who feel deeply connected to Jerusalem and recognize its importance to the Jewish people over the millenia [sic]. However, the manner and timing of this move were designed to advance the agenda of right-wing political leaders in the US and Israel, rather than the interest of Americans, Israelis and Palestinians in resolving the conflict.”
He continued: “One only has to observe the campaign rally atmosphere in Jerusalem today to realize that the greatest interest being served is President Trump’s desire to fulfill a campaign promise – and to cater to the views of ‘Greater Israel’ advocates like Ambassador David Friedman, Sheldon Adelson, bigoted pastor Robert Jeffress and their friends in the Israeli government.”
The views of American Jews were expressed in far rawer form on Twitter, with many confessing to feelings of shame about events in Jerusalem and Gaza.
A typical tweet came from Christina Duval, who wrote: “I am very proud to be Jewish, but I am completely ashamed of what’s going on in Israel. After all our people suffered, you’d think we’d value human lives a lot more.”
Ivanka Trump and Kushner, meanwhile, were targeted by Jewish celebrities like Chelsea Handler and Bette Midler, who took aim at the couple on Twitter.
Handler wrote, “I’m glad Ivanka and Jared could take time away from their busy schedules of not being qualified to represent the US to go represent the US, and celebrate moving the capital in exchange for the adelson’s donations, while 50+ Palestinians have been killed.” Midler added, “You lose the PR advantage on this one, #MrTrump, with those two images side be [sic] side, Ivanka and Jared yukking it up in Jerusalem while the Palestinians get shot at. Perfect, you moron.”
Ultimately, though, any criticism by American Jews, liberals or the media about the embassy ceremony or distress over U.S. responsibility for the deaths in Gaza was utterly irrelevant, as far as the White House was concerned.
If Adelson was happy enough to continue plowing his millions into Republican campaigns, and if Jeffress, Hagee and the rest of the pro-Trump evangelical base believe the embassy move has brought them one step closer to redemption and will turn out in force for the 2018 midterms – for President Trump, his mission has been accomplished.