May 22, 2017

Trump Becomes First Sitting U.S. President to Visit Western Wall

President Donald Trump placed a note in the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Monday, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit one of Judaism's holiest sites.

The historic visit is part of Trump's efforts to highlight "the need for unity among three of the world's great religions" on his first foreign trip, senior administration officials said.

Trump's stop at the Western Wall came between Sunday's trip to Saudi Arabia, where he called on Muslim leaders to "drive out the terrorists and extremists" from their lands and his forthcoming visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

At the Western Wall, Trump, wearing a black yarmulke, stood alone with his hand on the wall for several moments before tucking a note deep between the cracks.

Many visitors to the Western Wall leave prayer notes in the wall's crevices. Those notes are collected periodically and buried at the nearby Mount of Olives cemetery. When Barack Obama visited the wall as a candidate for president and placed a note, it was later taken by a seminary student and sold to an Israeli newspaper, which published a photograph of it.

First Lady Melania Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner joined Trump for the visit to both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall. Melania Trump also tucked a note into the wall.

The Western Wall is not officially recognized as Israeli territory, and the Trump administration has not been clear about whether they believe it is part of Israel.

George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama each visited the Western Wall as private citizens or candidates. None of them was accompanied by an Israeli prime minister, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not join Trump for his visit. The two leaders and their wives will have dinner at the Prime Minister's residence Monday evening.

Trump's visit was complicated by reports that U.S. representatives had told Israeli officials that Netanyahu should not join Trump because the wall "isn't your territory."

"This is in the West Bank. It is a private visit by the president, and it's not your business," a U.S. representative said last week, according to Israel's Channel Two News.

A White House spokesperson later clarified that the comments "do not reflect the U.S. position, and certainly not the president's position."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, "Obviously, I believe that the capital should be in Jerusalem and the (American) embassy should be moved to Jerusalem" from Tel Aviv and she added that the Western Wall was located in Israel — something which top Trump aides had declined to say.

Asked if he agreed with Haley on the wall on Air Force One en route to Israel on Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters only that "the wall is part of Jerusalem."

The Western Wall was part of the Second Jewish Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is also a significant site for Muslims because it is near the Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have ascended into heaven. 

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