THERE is huge symbolism in US president-elect Donald Trump’s declaration that he will relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the epicentre of Judaism’s beliefs and holy also to Muslims and Christians. Jerusalem itself is one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Arab conflict which has blocked peace negotiations, particularly regarding control over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount precinct.
The move is supported by Trump’s choice for American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an Orthodox Jew and outspoken supporter of the settlement movement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week moving the embassy would be “great.”
Previous US presidents have refrained from moving their embassy to Jerusalem for political reasons, while declaring it was a long-term goal. Israeli security officials fear relocation now would provoke belligerent reaction from the Arab world and East Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it would lead the PLO to revoke its recognition of Israel, demolish the possibility of a two-state solution, and indicate American acceptance of “Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.”
Symbolic acts such as relocating the embassy have few practical implications – it could operate effectively from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – but are often more powerful than practical deeds. Depending on the context, they may provoke terrible bloodletting, or comforting, reassuring feelings. The rapid rise of militant nationalist politics in many countries worldwide today has a lot to do with symbolism – people will fight and die for their flag.
But there is another side to the symbolism of place. A contrasting but equally powerful deed relating to Jewish sites and experience is occurring in Hungary, where the Budapest Festival Orchestra has an inspiring plan to perform in the many towns and villages in Hungary now devoid of Jews but where a synagogue still stands, “bringing music and life to them and recalling the memory of the annihilated Jewish communities”. Hungarian Jews were almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust – about 500,000 from a population of 800,000. Two years ago, conductor Iván Fischer and the BPO, which he co-founded in 1983, formulated the programme.
These old synagogue buildings are mostly derelict, have been ransacked or are used for other purposes. In some cases they have remained locked since the German occupation.
On December 1 a fundraising concert was held in the magnificent Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest, which was restored in the 1990s through support from prominent Jews living elsewhere in memory of their forebears. The solo pianist was illustrious pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, who played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 and Chopin’s G minor Ballade, among other pieces. The synagogue is one of the world’s largest, with a capacity of 2700 people, adorned with candelabra, gold leaf, wood, marble and rich ornament, in Byzantine and Romanesque styles. In 1859, the year it opened, Franz Liszt played the organ.
The BPO’s website says: “What’s our purpose? We would like to reduce prejudice and tell the story of how Christians and Jews used to coexist peacefully here… Music brings people closer to each other and purifies memories.”
The plan resonates with a similar story in a 1988 novel, The Magic We Do Here, by late author and Holocaust scholar Lawrence Rudner, in which a Jewish actor travels through Poland to places where Jews lived before the Holocaust and performs in town squares and streets, re-enacting their lives in front of todays’ non-Jewish Polish residents.
Nationalistic Jews would say moving America’s embassy now to Jerusalem symbolises the confident return of Jews – in the form of the state of Israel – to where they once lived. Others say it is a premature, provocative act making peace less likely, and should only happen in the framework of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Symbolic deeds can be reconciliatory or aggressive. The consequences of the American embassy move, and the BPO’s performances in old Hungarian synagogues, are likely to be vastly different.