Reading Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt’s interview with Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, I can’t help but wonder if this moral paragon is on his way to being perceived as just another political activist. Given Wiesel’s eloquent and moving contributions to our understanding of the Holocaust and its aftermath and his stature as a moral teacher on the issue of genocide, that would be sad.
I don’t doubt that Wiesel genuinely sees himself as above politics and completely independent, but his actions and statements of late seem to be pointing in the direction of direct involvement in some of the thorniest political issues of the day.
In his New York Times advertisement about Jerusalem and in the Jewish Week interview, he argues that the city must be “above politics.”
In a sense, that’s true. Ensuring that Jerusalem remains Israel’s eternal capital is something a vast majority of Jews agree on, regardless of where they stand on questions of Middle East politics.
But the city is also a political entity. As Americans for Peace Now pointed out recently, Jerusalem’s current borders create an “unwieldy behemoth, encircling dozens of Palestinian villages which were never part of Jerusalem.”
Israel and the Palestinians long ago committed to negotiating the exact disposition of those geographical areas even as Israel rightfully insists that Jerusalem will remain its eternal capital.
But some Jews opposed to any Palestinian state have used their insistence on an “undivided” Jerusalem – meaning no change in the current status quo – as a deal breaker. Is Wiesel siding with them? It’s not exactly clear to me.
That faction has been ratcheting up its arguments that Jerusalem shouldn’t be on the negotiating table at all, which is contrary to Israeli policy since the peace process began in the 1990s. By running his New York Times ad when he did, Wiesel seems to be supporting that position. Maybe that’s not what he meant, but it’s sure how it was interpreted by many.
Above politics? Not exactly.
Supporting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forever is a moral proposition steeped in Jewish religion and tradition; supporting the boundaries established by generals and politicians is a political act.
In addition, I keep wondering about Wiesel’s embrace of Pastor John Hagee, the founder and leader of Christians United for Israel (CUFI).
At the very least, Hagee is one of the most controversial figures in the Christian world today, and he is a highly polarizing figure among Jews. He says his support for Israel – and for right-wing causes in the Jewish state – has nothing to do with Bible prophecy, but a millennialism that promises nothing good for Israel and the Jews is the recurring subject of most of his books and much of his preaching.
I’m not saying Hagee is bad for Israel; I’m not questioning his love for the Jews. But he is a divisive figure who is clearly allied with a specific political faction in Israel. I understand why pro-Israel lobby groups seek alliances with him; I question why a moral leader like Wiesel, who claims to be above politics and who, in an important sense, has traditionally spoken for Jews regardless of their political positions, would offer his blessing.
It seems to me the Jewish world needs outspoken political activists who advocate aggressively for a range of views on Middle East matters, and it also needs moral exemplars like Elie Wiesel who stand above politics, speaking to the broad moral principles that shape what happens in the real world.
It’s hard to be both; the danger is that Wiesel, by delving into issues and personalities that are so bound up in politics, could lose a moral authority that has been so important to the world for so long.