Wiesel’s Jerusalem: celestial and earthly – but not stereotypical

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-10-10

Some leading Israeli leftists criticized the Nobel Peace Prize winning-writer Elie Wiesel for being too lyrical in defending Jerusalem. His recent ad, “For Jerusalem” declared: “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.” His critics scoffed: “You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one… We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.” As my family and I celebrate our third Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – as residents of this extraordinary city, I want to thank Professor Wiesel for using poetry to teach President Barack Obama that Jerusalem is not just another bargaining chip but the eternal window into the Jewish soul.

Accusing Elie Wiesel of being too lyrical is like accusing Isaac Stern of being too musical or LeBron James of being too athletic; that’s what they do. Even those of us who lack Professor Wiesel’s eloquence frequently wax poetic about the Jewish people’s capital for the last 3,000 years. That, our radical friends should remember, is what nationalists do when talking about their capitals – and homelands. Americans celebrate Washington’s monuments; Brits hail London’s towers; Jews rhapsodize about Jerusalem’s walls.

Unfortunately, if Jews celebrate their eternal ties to Jerusalem – or dare question Palestinian ties – they are deemed racist. Yet those who question Jewish ties to Jerusalem get human rights awards and EU grants, especially if they are Jewish. This narrative imbalance is another form of asymmetrical warfare.

Jerusalem’s walls evoke for Jews a profound mix of nationalism and religion, glory and tragedy, spiritual fulfillment and political redemption, longevity and longing. The Phoenicians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the Romans disappeared, but the Jews remain connected to the same land, speaking the same language, following the same basic laws, and romanticizing the same capital city three thousand years later. Jerusalem has been consistently Jewish since King David, but it has not been consistently free. Just 43 years ago, until early June, 1967, Jews could glance towards our holiest sites but could not touch our holiest stones.

That history mocks the occupation preoccupation. Occupation implies an historical clarity that does not exist – especially around Jerusalem. Even in the 20th century, borders have been fluid, populations have shifted. One cannot freeze time as of 1949 or 1967 or 70. An equitable solution must consider history, demography, security and border contiguity. I personally have no ties to Shuafat or Abu Dis. My only concerns with those parts of modern Jerusalem relate to security.

So yes, Jerusalem shel malah is a celestial city that makes my soul sing. Every morning, I jog through the Old City, passing seamlessly from one Quarter to another. I need no iPod stuck into my ears to delight in a symphony of sounds: birds chirping as I scramble up Mount Zion, schoolchildren laughing in the Jewish Quarter, Arab shopkeepers in the Muslim souk kibitzing “one-two,” “one-two” as I trudge by, church bells tolling in the Christian Quarter. I see wondrous sights, passing monks and nuns, garbagemen and high school students, each in their respective uniforms, all proceeding peacefully. Some sights defy the stereotypes. Just this morning, while jogging up the steps of David Street, I passed a haredi soldier, in uniform, with forelocks flying, bicycling down the steps.

And yes, Jerusalem shel matah is an earthly, modern municipality which must be judged practically. Is the trash collected? Is the building permit process honest? Are resources distributed fairly among its various sectors? Does the municipality preserve the city’s old-new charm? Does traffic flow? Can young people get jobs, buy homes, raise families? Amid the Holyland scandal and the Sheikh Jarrah power struggle, only fools claim all is hunky-dory. But only fanatics – or headline-hungry reporters – could caricature Jerusalem as exploding.

Stereotypes fall regarding alleged Israeli oppression when we consider that thousands of Palestinians are seeking Israeli citizenship to enjoy Israel’s bounty if the city is divided. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem the pressure-cooker when you see Arabs and Jews playing side-by-side in Liberty Bell Park, or see secular Jews, modern religious Jews, haredi Jews, Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, working, suffering, healing together at Hadassah Hospital. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem as a city inhospitable to secular Israelis when you visit the Jerusalem Theatre or see the diverse but heavily secular crowds at the annual festivals enlivening the calendar. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem the dangerous when you see how freely, comfortably, safely my kids and their friends wander around our neighborhood – and others.

And yes, Jerusalem is a political hot potato. Elie Wiesel’s ad was not from someone in denial about that. Instead, he was correcting some of the oversimplifications that could have devastating political consequences. Wiesel’s plea was rooted in the historical fact that, beyond Jews’ millennial ties, Jews have been the largest demographic group in Jerusalem at least since 1845. His plea was rooted in the fact that Israel has protected Muslims’ and Christians’ freedom to administer their holy sites, even though the Jordanians trashed the Jewish Quarter and Palestinians more recently desecrated Jewish holy sites such as Joseph’s tomb. His plea was rooted in the fact that the Palestinians in 2000 turned away from negotiations and toward violence, spilling blood in Jerusalem specifically, so confidence-building measures must come from them too. And ultimately, his plea was rooted in the fact that one-side stereotyping, pressure and narratives will only delay the dream so many of us share of Jerusalem as the city of peace, bewitching us all with its spirituality, its harmony, offering a model of amity among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In honor of Professor Wiesel – and in honor of this magical city – my kids and I will celebrate this Jerusalem Day. We will not march with those who seek to expand Israeli control into Palestinians areas, nor with those who diminish Jews’ historic ties to the city. Instead, we will participate in a sing-along of Jerusalem songs at 4 p.m. that day in front of the newly-rebuilt Hurva Synagogue for a “tolerant Jerusalem” sponsored by the “Yerushalmim” Quality of Life movement, among those who seek the balance between Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital, and Jerusalem, an international treasure beloved by billions more.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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