Unfazed by Gaza riots, Jerusalem celebrates itself — and Donald Trump
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Unfazed by Gaza riots, Jerusalem celebrates itself — and Donald Trump

The US embassy dedication was a distinctly partisan affair, with pastors and politicians thanking God for the president's courage and leadership in recognizing Israel's capital

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

People watch as US President Donald Trump speaks on a video screen during the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People watch as US President Donald Trump speaks on a video screen during the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the festive atmosphere, guests of Monday’s inauguration of the American embassy in Jerusalem were acutely aware of the deadly violence taking place at the same time along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

As they waited for the VIPs to arrive and the festivities to start, many in the audience received constant updates on the security situation at the southern border. Some watched live newscasts on their phones, letting their spouses know every time the death toll increased. There was palpable concern as the number rose and it became clear the violence would likely have implications for Israel beyond some fleeting headlines.

But attendees made clear they would not let the mounting bloodshed in Gaza spoil the party. The people had braved long lines and exceedingly tight security arrangements to come to the new embassy in the capital’s Arnona neighborhood and celebrate what they felt was a truly unique moment in the history of the Jewish people.

“What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the beginning of his speech, trying to channel the collective feeling of the 800 guests, most of whom were supporters of US President Donald Trump and many of whom were wearing blue and red baseball hats they had been handed, bearing the new embassy’s seal.

“President Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history,” Netanyahu went on.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, made the only reference to Gaza in about a dozen speeches. “The protests of the last month and even today,” he said, proved that “those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 2nd left, his wife Sara Netanyahu, left, Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner 3rd left, US President’s daughter Ivanka Trump, center, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, right, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, 2nd right, attend the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

Despite global news networks covering the Israel story with split screens — the embassy dedication on one side, the Gaza riots on the other — the event in Arnona was a victory lap for Trump and his supporters.

More even than King David, referred to in several speeches as the founder of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital, the president was the uncontested star of the show.

Speaker after speaker hailed his recent decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, describing Trump as a modern-day messiah who courageously stands up for the truth where lies have long prevailed, a leader of historic stature who protects the national interests of the US and Israel like no one before him.

Many guests cheered every time the president’s name was mentioned, some even chanting his name as if he were a pop star and they wanted him to come to the stage for an encore.

“We want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump,” Pastor Robert Jeffress said during his opening blessing, addressing the Almighty.

“Without President Trump’s determination, resolve and courage we would not be here today,” the controversial Southern Baptist went on. “And I believe I speak for every one of us when I say I thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history but more importantly stands on the right side of you, O God, when it comes to Israel.”

There was some controversy surrounding Jeffress’s appearance at the embassy’s dedication, given his past statement about Jews “going to hell” and Islam and Mormonism being heresies “from the pits of hell.”

During the ceremony, no one seemed particularly bothered by it, though Chabad Rabbi Zalman Wolowick, US Ambassador David Friedman’s former Torah study partner from Long Island, who also delivered blessings, looked a bit taken aback when Jeffress hailed the “prince of peace, Jesus our lord.”

Pastor John Hagee’s closing benediction, some 90 minutes later, struck a similar theme. “We thank you, O Lord, for President Donald Trump’s courage in acknowledging to the world a truth established 3,000 years ago that Jerusalem is and always shall be the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” he said to loud cheers and amens.

Trump himself addressed the Almighty in his prerecorded video message.

“May God bless this embassy. May God bless all who serve there. And May God bless the United States of America,” he said. “Thank you, have a fantastic day.”

The crowd rose to its feet for standing ovations about a dozen times during the hour-and-a-half-long event, which uncharacteristically for Israel ended four minutes ahead of schedule.

Netanyahu didn’t surprise anyone when he, too, heaped effusive praise on Trump, comparing him to Britain’s Arthur Balfour, who recognized the right of the Jewish people to a national home in Mandate Palestine, and Harry Truman, the first world leader to recognize the State of Israel 70 years ago.

“Thank you, President Trump, for having the courage to keep your promises,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin thanked “the many members of the Congress — Republicans and Democrats, Democrats and Republicans — for their love and support for Israel.”

A bipartisan event, though, it was not.

Ten members of the House of Representatives, four senators, and one governor attended the ceremony — and not a single Democrat among them.

“I hope that the Democratic members [of Congress] had [scheduling] conflicts and they had to be somewhere else,” former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman had told The Times of Israel earlier on Monday, a few hours before the event started. “I hope that they don’t see this as some kind of pro-Trump rally in Jerusalem. It’s not. It’s a pro-US-Israel friendship-partnership-alliance rally.”

Chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation Sheldon Adelson, center, and his wife Miriam arrive ahead of the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018.
(AFP/Menahem Kahana)

One can only wonder if Lieberman still thinks that way. Because Democrats and other liberals were MIA not only from the congressional delegations but also from the crowd, which was made up almost exclusively of Americans and Israelis with strong ties to the Republican party or right-wing pro-Israel advocacy groups.

A rare exception was Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who flew in from Closter, New Jersey, and described himself as a “left-wing Democrat.”

“I have spoken out against things that Trump did that brought embarrassment to me as an American and as a Jew. But today we should celebrate his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” he said.

Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, of New Jersey, attending the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/TOI)

Kirshner, a Conservative rabbi who presides over the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and was personally invited by Friedman, noted that the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act passed with broad bipartisan support. Last year, 90 senators reaffirmed the law’s content and not a single one voted against, he recalled.

“I do feel like a fish out of the water,” he said, pointing to the fact that he was surrounded by people like Sheldon Adelson, Mike Huckabee, Morton Klein and Marc Zell.

“But there’s nowhere I’d rather be right now. I have a front row seat to history,” he added figuratively, as his seat was toward the back. “I wasn’t alive in 1948 and in 1967, but today is another notch in our miracle, and I’m not going to miss it.”

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