In an unprecedented and historic gesture on Monday, US President Donald Trump became the first sitting American president ever to visit the Western Wall, the last remaining remnant of the Jewish Holy Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago and one of the holiest sites in Israel. The visit deeply touched the people of Israel, who saw it as a true affirmation that the president recognizes the Biblical and God-given nature of the Jewish land.
His visit came the day before Israel is due to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city’s unification in the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, returned to the Jews after 2,000 years.
All eyes were on President Trump, joined by wife, daughter, son-in-law and a large entourage of security personnel, as he made his way on Monday afternoon through the twisting cobblestone alleys of the Old City to emerge onto the completely emptied plaza of the Western Wall, or Kotel – a trip no other acting president has ever made.
The president was greeted there by the rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, and Mordechai Eliav, director-general of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who presented him with a Book of Psalms. After speaking with the rabbi, Trump approached the wall alone, standing for several moments in prayer at the holy site, a black kippah on his head. His prayers complete, he placed a note in the wall and respectfully backed away before turning to leave, as Jewish tradition requires.
The significance of the event was undeniable. Israel held its breath as the president made his pivotal visit, and media instantly exploded with videos, photos and analysis of the moving moment that the leader of the free world placed his hand on the ancient stones to pray.
Trump himself clearly internalized the spiritual and political implications of the act, even changing the cover photo on his Twitter account to the instantly iconic image of himself standing at the Kotel.
But perhaps the most significant – and unnoticed – result of Trump’s deep connection to the heart of Israel came when the White House broke with decades of policy by quietly acknowledging that Jerusalem is, in fact, part of the Jewish state, posting the video feed of Trump’s visit on its official website with the caption “Jerusalem Israel”.
Though Congress officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 1995, the White House does not acknowledge this in official communications. On at least two occasions, the previous administration amended communications that identified Jerusalem as being in Israel.
Trump’s entourage was also deeply affected by the president’s worship. In an unrehearsed and touching move, a number of White House staffers and security forces, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, donned kippot and moved forward to pray at the wall.
The women of the White House made a powerful multi-faith gesture. Ivanka, the president’s Jewish daughter, prayed at the Kotel in the adjacent women’s section, dressed modestly, her hair symbolically covered in the manner of married women. Visibly moved, tears filled her eyes as she prayed. Ivanka converted to Judaism before marrying Jared Kushner, and was given the Hebrew name Yael. She posted on her Twitter account, “It was deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.”
It was deeply meaningful to visit the holiest site of my faith and to leave a note of prayer.
???? Associated Press (AP) pic.twitter.com/9xzpZQywL2
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) May 22, 2017
First Lady Melania Trump also prayed at the site, pressing her hand against the stones and leaving a note. Melania has been noted for her Christian devotion, drawing national attention when she opened a rally in Florida during her husband’s campaign by reciting a prayer from the New Testament.
Contained in this political gesture intended to bring Israel and the US closer was a powerful religious message. The First Family, composed of Jews and Christians, came together in Jerusalem to pray. Jared Kushner, raised in the Orthodox Jewish faith, prayed alongside his Christian father-in-law. Ivanka, an observant convert to Judaism, prayed alongside her Christian mother-in-law. No fuss was made in the media about the multi-faith nature of the prayer, but many noted the worshipers’ apparent sincerity and devotion.