Professor at Jewish uni defends petition against Trump's Jerusalem move
U.S. President Donald Trump signs an executive order after he announced the U.S. would Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. Source: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

An associate professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University is being criticised for signing a statement of dismay at US President Donald Trump’s recent declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

Jess Olson joined more than 170 other Jewish studies academics from various higher education institutions in a petition condemning the US administration’s move to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the announcement that the US embassy in Tel Aviv will be transferred to Jerusalem.

In an email to YU’s student newspaper The CommentatorOlson wrote that he was a “Zionist who desires in my deepest core a future of real, permanent peace and prosperity for Israel” which he believes is possible by negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians.

He emphasised his unequivocal belief “that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel… it is not only the seat of Israel’s government, but rightfully the place which represents the deepest spiritual and historical aspirations and identity of our people.”

Olson wrote, “in a perfect world, recognition of this fact by the world community would come as a matter of course, not be a matter for debate.”

The only signatory from YU had signed the statement because the Trump administration’s move has likely inflicted a “mortal injury” to the possibility of real peace with Palestine. Describing it as seemingly “made in haste” and without full consideration of the broader implications, Olson foresees it as putting the “dream of the world community’s support of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital even farther out of reach”.

Trump’s pronouncement came earlier this month in what commentators say is a bid to show progress on his election agenda, despite the risks it brings to years of Middle East peace efforts as well as the US’ relationship with the Arab world and other Western allies.

“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” Trump said, as quoted by The Washington Post.

“Today, I am delivering.”

Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was “the right thing to do”, Trump said.

“This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It’s also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”

Days after the declaration, the academics released the petition with more than 110 signatories from universities and colleges around the country.

They asserted that Jerusalem holds “immense religious and thus emotional” significance of Jerusalem to Jews, Muslims, and Christians and is the “focus of national aspirations for both Israelis and Palestinians”. It then noted the “systematic inequalities” that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank endure, such as the restrictions of movement, seizures of Palestinian properties, home demolitions, etc.

“In this context, a declaration from the United States government that appears to endorse sole Jewish proprietorship over Jerusalem adds insult to ongoing injury and is practically guaranteed to fan the flames of violence,” the petition wrote.

The petition called for the US government to immediately de-escalate the tension arising from the President’s pronouncement and to clarify Palestinian’s stake in Jerusalem.

Olson’s participation in the petition drew sharp criticism from some in the Jewish community. The Coalition for Jewish Values, a new right-wing Orthodox organization advocating “for classical Jewish ideas and standards in matters of American public policy” criticised Olson’s endorsement in a letter to YU’s president Rabbi Dr Ari Berman.

“Young Jewish adults attend YU to learn the truth about Israel and Jerusalem, not to be treated to the demonization we have faced throughout our history,” the statement wrote.

“His participation in this declaration thus harms the university’s reputation in the eye of the Jewish community.”

It claimed the petition “misportrays propaganda” as fact and called YU to “publicly disavow this repugnant statement” as well as to refer Olson’s endorsement to the appropriate faculty committee for review.

Richard Allen, the founder, the Jewish watchdog group that organized a protest at the Center for Jewish History in October, accuses YU of remaining “mute” while Olson “lobbies to disassociate Jerusalem from the Jewish people”.

“There is no will to publicly defend Zionism within the school.”

“This is a wake-up call for YU students to organize against this feckless YU administration,” Allen added.

However, Dr Aaron Koller, chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva College, of which Olson is a faculty member, showed his “absolute support” for his colleague’s “right to sign the statement”.

In an email to The Commentator, Koller wrote:

“On every campus and in every community, there are – and ought to be – different learned opinions, and certainly this is fundamental to higher education: our students must be exposed to different defensible views, and therefore be encouraged to think through issues deeply in order to reach their own views.”

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