JERUSALEM — Earlier this month, the evangelist Mike Evans began plastering the city of Jerusalem with signs praising Donald Trump for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. It was not Evans’ first foray into provocative signage. For months, his small organization, the Friends of Zion Museum, has been posting pro-Trump advertisements around Jerusalem. Because the signs are politically charged, and because their source is not immediately obvious, they tend to work their way into press photos and articles (including in The New York Times), where they are usually presented as an expression of the political mood in Jewish Jerusalem.
This time around, Evans outdid himself. Someone placed a few of his largest banners on the old Diplomat Hotel, a hulking building that sits on the edge of the embassy compound. One banner read “Trump Make Israel Great.” The other proclaimed that the president was a “Friend of Zion.”
Both signs, at best, seem tone-deaf. The Diplomat currently houses hundreds of elderly Russian Jewish immigrants to Israel, many of whom have lived in the building since the 1990s, and all of whom are slated to be evicted as a result of the embassy move.
The irony of all this did not seem to be apparent to the revelers at the U.S. embassy inauguration on Monday. If anything, the signs seemed like a fitting backdrop for the festivities.
After all, the decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem may turn out to be good for the United States, or not; its long-term consequences are hard to foretell. As violence roiled Gaza 40 miles away, the embassy inauguration seemed like nothing so much as a show—a piece of elaborate political theater, staged primarily for the benefit of American Christians, imposed on the city of Jerusalem. And it offered a reminder of just how easily geopolitical abstractions can obscure the very real grind of life in the Holy City.
THE REASONING BEHIND the embassy move is straightforward: The United States typically puts its embassies in national capitals. And Jerusalem functions as Israel’s capital: It’s where the prime minister lives and where the national legislature meets. It is the spiritual and political center of Jewish Israeli life. For many Israelis, the United States’ unwillingness to recognize the capital seemed like a violation of common sense, and a snub to the Jewish state.
In 1995, Congress tried to compel the president to move the embassy, but every president until Trump has declined to do so. The reasoning against moving the embassy is pretty straightforward, too. Jerusalem is a contested city: Both Jews and Palestinians claim it as a capital. Israeli actions there have violated international law. Until some kind of peace agreement settles those issues, the thinking went, the United States would not place its Israel embassy there. Analysts also worried that the move would stoke tensions in the region and make it impossible for the United States to act as a neutral broker for a peace deal.
The situation on the ground can complicate both narratives. Few people today would argue that the United States appears to be some kind of neutral peacemaker, or that a serious peace deal is even in the works. At the same time, the city’s stark segregation undermines any claim that Jerusalem is somehow an “eternal and undivided capital,” as the old phrasing goes.
On Monday afternoon, a few hours before the official embassy opening, I visited Jabel Mukaber, a Palestinian neighborhood on the eastern slopes of the city. As the crow flies, Jabel Mukaber is just a mile away from the new embassy. In important ways, though, the distance is much greater. The embassy is in a verdant Jewish neighborhood, threaded with parks and playgrounds. In Jabel Mukaber, the most obvious sign of government investment is a large police station situated at the entrance to the neighborhood, behind heavy metal gates.
For people in Jabel Mukaber and nearby Sur Baher, the new U.S. embassy—which was, until Monday, the old U.S. consulate—is not a geopolitical abstraction. It’s all but looming over them, on a long ridgeline that runs near both neighborhoods.
That does not mean the embassy decision feels like the most pressing local issue. Not far from the police station, I found Hussein Daoud, the mukhtar of Jabel Mukaber, sitting in a plush blue armchair on the sidewalk in front of his son’s shop. Daoud looked relaxed in a gray suit. His family, he said, has lived in Jabel Mukaber for at least a century, and, as a mukhtar, he’s a significant local authority. He was unimpressed by the pageantry brewing a few minutes away. “Move the embassy, or another embassy, it doesn’t make any difference for us, as long as we are occupied,” Daoud said. “We are all Palestinians under occupation! So what’s an embassy here or there?”
Down the street, a young teacher in a brightly colored hijab sounded resigned about the move. “We can do nothing,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “The Israeli government is controlling our life. If they want to move the embassy, we can say nothing to them.” The woman declined to give her name, explaining that she was afraid of the Israeli police.
In front of a falafel-and-pizza shop, I stopped to talk with a group of teenage boys who were smoking and drinking cans of XL energy drink. They were talkative, funny, and a little skeptical that I was a reporter rather than a police informant. One of them joked that they were going to protest the move—but if the embassy wanted to give them all American passports, they would be quick to quiet down. Again and again, they kept asking me the same thing: What, exactly, did America get out of doing this?
It was a good question. In response, I offered some thoughts on American political coalitions, and how the move was very popular among Trump’s evangelical Christian base. But, standing 7,000 miles away from the United States, talking to teenagers who live in one of the poorest areas of Jerusalem, under a government that does not grant them citizenship, those political observations sounded a little hollow.
The people I spoke with in Jabel Mukaber and Sur Baher didn’t talk about two-state solutions or peace deals. Many of them spoke about feeling powerless and occupied. Some complained about Palestinian leadership, as well as Israeli governance. None of them seemed excited by the prospect of an embassy moving in nearby. But nobody seemed to be clear about how, exactly, it could make a bad situation even worse.
In a grocery store in Sur Baher, a woman in a flowered hijab said she was disappointed by the embassy move, but not surprised. “We are never surprised,” she said through an interpreter. “As long as we are living under Israeli control, we are never surprised.”
SUFFICE IT TO SAY, these were not exactly the dominant talking points of the global narrative. When Trump announced, last December, that the United States would move the embassy, many analysts predicted violent reactions from Palestinians, and perhaps some kind of larger catastrophe in the Middle East.
Those claims of impending doom could seem a little of touch. Earlier in the day, I had gone to visit Fayrouz Sharqawi, the global mobilization coordinator for Grassroots Al-Quds, a small nonprofit that coordinates Palestinian projects in the city. She was skeptical of claims that the embassy move would be an earthshaking event for Palestinians. “Even when we are asked about it by journalists, the framing is that this is a dramatic move, that this is a game-changer, as if now Jerusalem is being occupied. And I think that’s a bit missing the point. I think that for the people on the ground, this is actually a very honest personification of the U.S.’s continuous, unconditional support of Israel throughout history,” Sharqawi told me.
“Sometimes it feels that people feel that once Trump took over, then the U.S. approach toward the situation in Palestine has dramatically changed,” she said. “That is wrong. That’s not the way things are going. For people practically, moving the embassy does not change anything in our daily lives.” Sharqawi stressed that she did not want to make the embassy move sound like a happy thing, but she keyed into a dynamic behind many of the doom-saying scenarios: that they could imply that before Trump moved the embassy, things had been rosier than they were. But for her, concepts like international law had come to sound hollow.
That’s not to say that there was not violence on Monday. On the same afternoon of the embassy opening, weeks of protests on the Gaza-Israel border came to a head, and Israeli troops shot hundreds of Palestinian protesters, killing at least 60. While many of the demonstrators condemned the embassy move, their grievances extended far beyond diplomatic symbols in Jerusalem. The protests had been going on for weeks. The final push was timed not just with the embassy opening, but also with Nakba Day, when Palestinians commemorate their losses in the 1948 war and their expulsion from their lands.
Still, images of Ivanka Trump smiling next to a plaque in Jerusalem, juxtaposed with images of wounded Palestinian protesters, spread quickly online after the event. And they highlighted the sense of slight unreality that pervaded the festivities.
INDEED, THE OPENING had all the air of a made-for-TV event—one in which the complicating realities of Palestinians and war were kept as far away as possible. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special advisor, gave a speech. So did Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. Texas megachurch pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee offered prayers. Fox News broadcast the whole thing live.
Outside, two demonstrations had coalesced on the street, separated from each other by rows of metal barriers and knots of riot police. On one side people were waving American flags, chanting “USA! USA!” and singing Jewish songs.
Thirty feet away, protesters—a mix of mostly Palestinians and Jews born in diaspora—chanted slogans against America and Israeli policy. They were nearly outnumbered by the throngs of reporters. When some of the protesters began waving Palestinian flags, the riot police rushed the crowd, shoving people to the ground and grabbing the flags out of their hands. Small packs of journalists surrounded each scrum. One young police officer walked around snapping the flags’ flimsy plastic sticks in half. At one point, she grabbed a demonstrator’s homemade sign, written on neon yellow poster board, and crumpled it up.
A protester with a megaphone started up an ironic chant: “This! Is what! Democracy looks like!”
On the edge of the pro-embassy throng, Soraya Zamora, who served as a Trump delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention, told me that the president had been appointed by God for a moment such as this. “This land is not going to go to anyone else,” said Zamora, who lives in the Rio Grande area of Texas. “This is the land of the people of the land, the people the book. The Jewish people.” What about the millions of Palestinians who live here? “There’s a lot of land in a lot of countries in the Middle East,” Zamora said.
While talking with Zamora and other people there, I kept thinking about a tailor that I had met earlier that day, just down the hill from the embassy. He was 75 years old and wanted to retire, but he didn’t have the money, he said, and his municipal tax bill was too high. He spoke forcefully about his faith, about his disgust with ISIS, about his frustration with global capitalism. I asked him about the embassy. People can protest if they want, he said. But, he added, “they are like wood to the fire.”
Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist who writes about religion, science, and culture.