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.


Center Field: Remembering the Holocaust after Ahmadinejad denied it

Center Field: Remembering the Holocaust after Ahmadinejad denied it

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-21-09


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He is attending the Durban Review conference as an observer.

Thanks to tremendous prep work by the Jewish community along with human rights organizations and democracies ashamed by Durban I, Durban II has been mild. Despite the undercurrent of hostility – and the occasional security threat — the UN’s move from Durban to Geneva worked. The NGO delegates’ lounge has the festive schmoozy air of any conference. The streets have been relatively quiet.

In fact, pro-Israel forces have dominated the street. On Monday, members of the European Union of Jewish Students taped their mouths shut – and were joined spontaneously by two Darfur refugees – to protest the UN’s silence on Sudan’s crimes and other human rights violations. Last night, a moving Yom HaShoah commemoration in front of the United Nations featured Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler, Father Patrick Desbois and the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Cotler recalled his parents’ lesson that some events “in Jewish history, in world history, are too terrible to imagine, but not too terrible to have happened.” Cotler’s words and his denunciation of Ahmadinejad’s genocidal designs on Israel linked the traumas of the past that Elie Wiesel described so eloquently with the threats of the present. Mourning the Holocaust in Europe, with six elderly survivors lighting candles in front of the UN, hours  after Ahmadinejad’s Durban Review conference appearance, also linked the world’s failures yesterday with the world’s failures today.

Still, with so many eloquent supporters of Israel assembled, this conference often feels like a Jewish fringe festival – and a gathering of my mentors and heroes – but with a profound message.

Today (Tuesday), after hearing predictably anti-Israel speeches from the Palestinian and Syrian conference delegates, I attended a side NGO session on modern anti-Semitism. The capacity crowd heard Professor Wiesel, visibly anguished by Ahmadinejad’s appearance, denounce the Iranian’s speech as “an insult to our intelligence, an insult to our sensitivity, an insult to our memory.”

Wiesel received a standing ovation by demanding the UN apologize for inviting Ahmadinejad at all. The actor Jon Voight followed with a heartfelt tribute to Israel and the Jews, mystified by the hatred such a “sacred” people endure. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz then drew “the unbroken line” linking Hitler, his Palestinian ally Haj Amin el Husseini, Yasser Arafat who called Husseini a hero, Ahmadinejad and his terrorist proxies Hizbullah and Hamas.

“Woe unto any of you out there who support Hamas,” Dershowitz thundered. “You are supporting Hitler’s heirs – you are complicit in the great evil of the twentieth century.” Natan Sharansky linked the Soviet Union’s “Orwellian world” with the modern UN’s Orwellianism. Sharansky offered a simple test for “a real conference against racism.” Countries that grant free speech should be given free speech; countries that fight against racism should be allowed to join the conference combating racism. Father Desbois, who uncovers mass graves of Jews in Eastern Europe by speaking to elderly parishioners, demonstrated the importance of challenging people to do the right thing. When he approaches, many ask “Father, why are you coming so late.”

While each of these speakers testified eloquently against the Durban distortions, the fifth speaker, Professor Shelby Steele, tried explaining the continuing appeal of modern anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Steele, a leading black American intellectual, analyzed the wave of revolutions after World War II which eliminated white supremacy. Unfortunately, for many Africans, Arabs, and African-Americans, ending racism, achieving freedom, did not improve their lives as much as they expected. The result was an obsession with racism, and a scapegoating of Israel and Jews, as an act of “bad faith.” It is easier, Steele said, to denounce someone else than to take responsibility for your own misery – or to work hard to improve. Anti-Semitism, is a way of “changing the subject.”

On this Yom HaShoah, in the unlikeliest of places, some of Israel’s most thoughtful defenders helped change the subject in Geneva constructively, away from the Durban obsession with “changing the subject” destructively. Professor Cotler’s warnings that the unimaginable can become the historical haunt me, even as the words of Father Desbois comfort me. We cannot be complacent. And we cannot wait for others to recognize the justice of our cause. We must challenge our friends, our neighbors, seeking out allies. We must make sure that in the future, no one looks back on a preventable historical tragedy and wonders “why are you coming so late” to ask for help.