In a 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), then-candidate Donald Trump stated his intention to “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Eric Cohen, looking beyond recent policy debates, examines the meaning of the phrase “eternal capital” itself, and the ways in which Jerusalem has represented the aspirations of Jews both ancient and modern, both religious and secular:
We should have respect for the capital cities of the world, in nations large and small. Yet we would describe very few of them as “eternal.” Ottawa, Amsterdam, Caracas—most modern capitals cannot carry the civilizational weight of such a phrase. But Jerusalem is no ordinary capital. It is a political center with theological significance. . . .
For two millennia, the Jewish people were in exile. Jerusalem remained a real place—often a bloody crossroads of God, war, and politics—but it was also a dream in the Jewish mind, sustained across the generations through prayer: “Next year in Jerusalem!” . . .
The mystery and pain of Jewish history should keep us theologically modest in claiming to know God’s will or to understand the full meaning of the Jewish journey through time. But we can say this: the resurrection of Jerusalem—after centuries of wandering and after the near-death experience of the Holocaust—eludes simple rational explanation. It so defies the odds that one might understandably believe that the divine dealer knew the cards all along, even if we can never fully grasp the rules of God’s providential game.
To say that Jerusalem is the “eternal capital” of the Jews is not merely to say that it is, in this temporal world, always and forever the Jewish capital city. It is to stake a larger claim: Jerusalem is where the Jew most directly experiences eternity. In walking where the biblical ancestors walked, in praying where the ancient Israelites prayed, in governing where they governed—the Jew in a sense leaves time itself. He transcends history. Abraham and his descendants stand equidistant together before the eternal. Then becomes now, now becomes then, and the eternal mystery of God’s election of the Jewish people is experienced in the flesh.