Israeli borders take spotlight in History Comes Alive lecture

Dean Vaglia, Staff Reporter

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Don Matthews, Ph.D., an associate professor of history, explored the consequences of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

In the second History Comes Alive lecture of the season titled “America’s Jerusalem: Conflict, Peacemaking, and National Identity,” Matthews focused on the border politics of Jerusalem and how the new United States Embassy affects those politics.

Matthews is an expert on the modern Middle East, publishing a book on the region in 2006 and gaining a reputation among historians around the world.

“I get hosted by a number of [European] institutions where I deliver lectures,” James Naus, associate professor and history department chairperson said.  “It is starting to become an uncanny occurrence that those people who host me, the way they seem to always know Oakland University is because they say to me some variation of ‘Is this the university where Don Matthews teaches?’”

Matthews started the night by explaining the reasoning behind why he wanted to discuss the recent diplomatic developments in Israel. On Dec. 6, 2017, President Donald Trump announced the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“I was blindsided by a number of things [about the move], and I follow these things pretty closely,” Matthews said. “And so tonight I’d like to tell you about some of the things that I’ve been finding out as I’ve been trying to understand the meaning and the reasons and the sort of methods that pushed this transition.”

He began by establishing a background of the “Green Line” armistice line from the 1948 war between Jordan and Israel. The line runs through Jerusalem and was intended to be a temporary cease-fire line while the United Nations figured out how to divide Israel.

However, Jordan began to treat East Jerusalem as a Jordanian territory and cut off access to the Old Town, home of Islam’s Dome of the Rock and Wailing Wall of Judaism. Since the 1967 war, Israel claims East Jerusalem and the West Bank to be their territory and has sought to erase the Green Line.

The Green Line led to disputes over who controlled Jerusalem, putting the U.S. in a diplomatic bind.

“The American government did not want [Jerusalem residents] going to the American Embassy in Tel Aviv because that would signal that the US Embassy in Tel Aviv took authority over West Jerusalem, and so it would signal essentially Israeli sovereignty over that part of the city,” Matthews said.

To get around the sovereignty issue, the U.S. opened a second consulate office in East Jerusalem in 1952 and kept the West Jerusalem consulate office from 1912 open. This was the diplomatic situation up until May 14, 2018 when the new U.S. Embassy was opened on the Green Line.

According to Matthews, the movement of the embassy and the actions and the comments of Trump Administration officials serve as an indication of a rejection of the policies of past administrations and is “an American endorsement of [Israeli] annexation of the West Bank” as it erased the Green Line.

Now in its 15th year, OU’s popular History Comes Alive lecture series will continue throughout March 2019.