Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Elie Wiesel: sentimental populist?

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by wotty

I recently got done TAing a course on Nationalism. (I think of being a teaching assistant as kind of like running – in the way Peter the Great ran Russia – a book club on steroids, only Oprah doesn’t pick the books, and you get to grade everyone’s scribblings.) Broadly, the idea of the course was two-fold: first, to expose students to the surprising revelation that the concepts of nations and nation-states did not fall from the sky back in the mists of time immemorial, but are rather human artefacts (I tend to tarry over the importance of this, for many, unfamiliar word) and, indeed, are artefacts of very recent vintage, emerging as the pre-eminent, and now only imaginable, form of political organization in the wake of the French Revolution; and second, to give them some sense of how nationalism affects the telling of history. That is, how nationalists – or what Orwell called, in an inevitably trenchant essay, nationalist “habits of mind” – selectively shape, or simply fabricate, historical narratives the better to support their claims of national legitimacy. One of the “case studies” we looked at was the Middle East, an area where the historical narratives could hardly be more stark in their opposition (what is celebrated on one side as a glorious day of national independence and renewal is mournfully marked by the other as simply “The Catastrophe”).

In any event, this is all prologue to the following remarkable exchange of open letters on the topic of Jerusalem that I wanted to highlight (and would have brought to the attention of my super-charged book club were it still in session). Recently, in a letter to Obama published as full page ads in the Washington Post, the Times, and the International Herald Tribune, Elie Wiesel (former Oprah book club choice, by the by) used his considerable moral authority to plead with the US not to pressure Israel to curtail settlement activity in Jerusalem. Maintaining that, “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics,” Wiesel goes on to say:

It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.

With all due respect to Mr. Wiesel, I have always found the claim that anything is “above politics” – let alone Jerusalem in 2010! – to be risible, and harmfully so.¹ In any event, I’m not writing to presume to respond to Wiesel, but rather to draw your attention to an open letter that does, point by point. It’s written by a group of Jewish Israeli activists in Jerusalem (for the most part “prominent intellectuals and academics”) opposed to the expansion of settlements and who have been protesting in particular the eviction of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. It’s published in the current New York Review of Books, and also at the group’s own website. I strongly encourage you to read it in full as I think it’s a superb, sharp-elbowed deconstruction of the obfuscating effects of nationalist “habits of mind.” To offer just one quote, the letter takes especial issue with Wiesel’s “above politics” claim, turning it on its head to retort that,

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some otherworldly city that purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one.

Whatever the way forward is in the Middle East, it surely involves more unromantic attention to the messy, political, and earthly realities – Jerusalem as artefact, as it were – and rather less to the heavenly cities preventing dialogue on both sides.

¹I’m not sure what “above politics” would even look like. To quote the poet A.E. Housman (I think Orwell, in fact, used this as an epigraph somewhere):

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.


Written by (wotty)

May 13, 2010 at 12:32

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