Trump and Jerusalem: a legal and historical appraisal

Just like Lord Balfour before him, Trump is trying to impose a unilateral understanding of Jerusalem’s complex reality.

Jerusalem Reuters
A general view shows the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem's Old City from David Tower [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

US President Donald Trump has said it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The decision comes seven decades after the Declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, that was unilaterally announced on 14 May 1948 by David BenGurion. At the time, no borders were settled for the new state. It is also for this reason that Israel’s admission to the United Nations (UN) soon became a strategic priority. The admission to the UN, in fact, was and is the “most secure and expeditious way” of gaining widespread or universal recognition. 

Yet, Israel’s original application for admission to the UN was rejected by the UN Security Council on December 17, 1948. The second bid for application was made on February 24, 1949. “Negotiations”, assured the then Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban at the General Assembly of the UN, “would not, however, affect the juridical status of Jerusalem, to be defined by international consent”. 

These binding assurances – that served as the basis for Israel’s admission to the UN – were made one year after the war of 1947- 48 (see Uri Avnery’s “sacred mantras” on “rejectionism”): none of the historical events of the following seven decades has the legal capacity to erase them. Even more so considering that when, in 1980, Israel passed a Basic Law which declared Jerusalem “complete and united”, as the “capital of Israel”, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 476 affirming that “measures which have altered the geographic, demographic and historical character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem are null and void”. 

US President Donald Trump, not dissimilarly from Arthur Balfour one century ago, is imposing a unilateral understanding of the local reality without knowing much of its complex past and present.


This decision was in line with the juridical principles affirmed 35 years earlier. In June 1945, in fact, the San Francisco Conference stipulated, in Article 80 of the UN Charter, that the organisation had the necessary power to conclude trusteeship agreements that could alter existing rights held under the pre-existing Mandate for Palestine. In the Partition Plan (Resolution 181, November 29, 1947) the UN General Assembly clarified the will to establish an international trusteeship regime in Jerusalem.

The relevance of history 

Notwithstanding these considerations, juridical aspects alone can hardly explain why any unilateral step regarding Jerusalem cannot but ignite further polarisation: It is history, in fact, that shows the key reasons why Trump’s unilateral decisions or attempts are ill-fated. 

Despite growing absolutist claims, “Uru-Shalem” (the city “founded by Shalem”, a god venerated by the Canaanites), founded by the Canaanites around 5,000 years ago, has not belonged to one single people in its entire history. This is a further reason why, in its nature, Jerusalem must be internationally, or at least bilaterally, shared. 

Long before the three monotheistic religions, Al-Haram al-Sharif, the site on which Solomon’s Temple stood, hosted a Canaanite place of worship. It is noteworthy that in biblical usage, Jerusalem is often mentioned as “Zion”, the high ground where its original inhabitants built the present city’s original fortress. “Siyon” is a term of Canaanite origin that can be translated as “hill” or “high ground”.

At the beginning of the last century, almost 80 percent of the city’s inhabitants lived in mixed neighbourhoods and quarters. In Yaacov Yehoshua’s memoir, Yaldut be-Yerushalayim ha-yashena, the author recalled that in the city “there were joint compounds of Jews and Muslims. We were like one family […] Our children played with their [Muslim] children in the yard, and if children from the neighbourhood hurt us the Muslim children who lived in our compound protected us. They were our allies.”


All this should not suggest that inter-religious and/or confessional conflicts were historically unknown. Some clashes have been documented as early as the Middle Ages. Yet, their nature and scope are hardly comparable to more recent times. More importantly, they don’t mirror the actual history of most of Jerusalem’s (and the broader region’s) past. 

True, the “actual history” and local equilibria, particularly in late Ottoman times, were not perceived by all observers, particularly external ones, in the same way. In 1839, William T. Young, first British Vice-Consul in Jerusalem, noted, for instance, that a Jew in Jerusalem was not considered “much above a dog”. Young himself, however, had to acknowledge that, in case of need, a Jew would have found shelter “sooner in a Mussulman’s house than in that of a Christian”.

Moreover, external observers used to provide very different, and, at times, contradictory opinions. Just a few years after Young, in 1857, British Consul to Jerusalem James Finn pointed out, for instance, that “there are few countries in the world where, in spite of appearances to the contrary, there is so much of practical religious tolerance as in Palestine”.

Nowhere more than in judicial records is it possible to assess to which extent local communities perceived themselves, in Finn’s times and in other periods of Ottoman history, as being constructive elements of the Ottoman milieu. American historian Amnon Cohen, who spent years studying documents stored in the archives of the Sharia (Islamic law) religious court of Ottoman Jerusalem, found 1000 Jewish cases filed from the year 1530 to 1601. 

Jews preferred to use Islamic Sharia courts rather than their own, rabbinical courts: “The Sultan’s Jewish subjects”, noted Cohen, “had no reason to mourn their status or begrudge their conditions of life. The Jews of Ottoman Jerusalem enjoyed religious and administrative autonomy within an Islamic state, and as a constructive, dynamic element of the local economy and society they could – and actually did – contribute to its functioning”. 

External understandings: a pattern 

Arthur Balfour, who gave his name to the 1917 Declaration, visited Palestine for the first time in his life in 1925. On that occasion, he presided over the opening of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, accompanied by Chaim Weizmann and his wife, Vera. 

Despite Balfour’s very limited knowledge of the local reality, his actions were based on the rock-solid conviction that the ideas that he was embracing were “rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”. 

Each observer and historian can have a different opinion about these aspects and Balfour’s approach. “The truth”, noted Oscar Wilde, “is rarely pure and never simple”. Yet, the point remains: US President Donald Trump, not dissimilarly from Arthur Balfour one century ago, is imposing a unilateral understanding of the local reality without knowing much of its complex past and present. To pay the price for this will be, once again, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.