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In light of President Donald Trump’s announcement this month that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a UT professor can provide some background on the history of conflict surrounding that city and offer analysis about public response to the president’s action.

The president’s announcement highlights the long-simmering tensions over the city, which is important to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions, said Erin Darby, assistant professor of religious studies, who specializes in ancient Jerusalem.

The statement does not clarify which the US will recognize as the capital of Israel—West Jerusalem, which Israel controlled before 1967, or a united Jerusalem, which also encompasses East Jerusalem, home to a majority Palestinian population. The concern for many parties is that recognizing a united Jerusalem could normalize Israeli control over areas of the city taken during the Six-Day War that remain contested today. It could also make it difficult for a Palestinian state to locate its capital in East Jerusalem, a demand that has remained central in peace negotiations.

The status of the city is a sticking point in a potential peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Everyone will read the statement a particular way. It leaves room for some kind of deniability on the part of the United States,” Darby said. “Many Palestinians will read this as confirming their suspicions that America has never been an independent third party in peace negotiations. Instead, they may perceive it as being on the side of Israel.”

Furthering the confusion, the US indicated it would sign a waiver to not move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem due to logistical challenges.

“From a practical level, little may change in the short run. But at a symbolic level, it’s a ripple in time,” Darby said.

She added that despite the religious and political tensions surrounding the city, compassion is needed in discussions about Jerusalem.

“These are human people who have real lives and have experienced real loss. And they are multidimensional,” Darby said. “In Knoxville, we have a lot of citizens who come from both Palestine and Israel, not to mention other areas of the Middle East. They have serious personal investments in the form of families there. Try to remember that there are people here for whom it is a heart as well as a head issue.”

The full breadth of the situation can be hard for Westerners to grasp, Darby said.

“The lives of Jerusalemites are hard all the time. The atmosphere can feel like a pressure cooker,” she said. “What we can do from the safety of our living rooms is to start with empathy for the hearts and minds of the people in that region.”

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)

Erin Darby (865-974-2466, edarby1@utk.edu)