When the US president visited Jerusalem he stepped into a place charged with an almost unique power, writes Eleanor Jolliffe

Eleanor Jolliffe

My part II thesis considered the role of architecture and urbanism in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. While it has been a while since I actively studied the area, nine months of immersing myself in academic papers and books and a whirlwind visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank have left me with a deep affection for and interest in the “eternal capital”.

Trump’s recent visit made for fascinating viewing, not only for the sheer interest in his reaction to the Wall but in the political fallout it generated – and the meaning that the place itself ascribes to his actions.

The Western, or Wailing, Wall is one of the last remaining sections of the second Jerusalem Temple – built by Herod the Great around the year 19BCE. The Wall would have formed one of the walls to the outer courts of the Temple, which was built on Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) itself. It is the closest point to the “Holy of Holies” at which Jews are permitted to pray because no symbols of or expressions of non-Islamic faith are permitted on Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif itself. More than half the world’s population literally finds common ground at or adjacent to the Wall, making it one of, if not the, most significantly emotive sites on the planet.

So entangled has this area become with visions of Israeli or Palestinian nationalism that Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Dome of the Rock (on the Mount itself) in the year 2000 was enough to trigger the second intifada. And the Western Wall is now widely accepted, even by secular Israelis, as “the most lasting achievement of Jewish construction in history, [and] a de facto symbol of national solidarity” (Eric Orozco). The Western Wall’s place in the Israeli national identity is further solidified by its use as the location for the Israeli Defence Force swearing-in ceremony.

This site of fragile and barely kept peace simmering with history and religious and nationalistic fervour is fertile ground for politicians and others looking to add the authority of eternity to their cause. Were Trump a more conventionally religious man this visit might have been written off as a visit from a faithful man to a site at which he believed God touched earth. As it is, it is hard not to wonder whether his visit was a tacit statement of support for Israel’s claim to Jerusalem.

Trump is the first sitting US president to visit the Wall and though he rebuffed Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to visit alongside him they did hold a joint press conference at which Netanyahu told Trump he had “touched the stones of our existence”.

US officials declined to comment on who Jerusalem or the Western Wall belong to (Israel occupied East Jerusalem, where the Wall is located, in 1967. The international community still regards East Jerusalem as an occupied territory). But hours later the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, asserted that the Western Wall was a part of Israel. “I believe the Western Wall is part of Israel and I think that that is how, you know, we’ve always seen it and that’s how we should pursue it,” she said.

Trump may have declared, “I will do whatever is necessary … and we will get this done” regarding peace in the Middle East. But his initial policy of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (now stalled) and the weight he appears to give to the opinion of his son-in-law Jared Kushner (who has financial connections to Zionist settlement building) might suggest his support lies in a solution weighted towards Israel.

On May 22, as the world watched, Trump walked into the Western Wall Prayer Plaza; placed his hand on the ancient limestone and left a prayer note lodged between stones. If the Western Wall could be argued to be the physical embodiment of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as their capital, did this ritualistic laying-on of hands just endorse that claim?