Note: The following piece by Israel Shamir, a contemporary Israeli intellectual, was resurrected April 18, 2010 after Wiesel’s open letter appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and New York Times…
Elie Wiesel wrote a letter to President Obama demanding hands off Jewish hold on Jerusalem. He recycled his own letter of January 2001, so here is what I answered him then.¹
– Israel Shamir
The touching words of Elie Wiesel painted a beautiful portrait of the Jewish people, yearning, loving and praying for Jerusalem over the centuries and cherishing its name from generation to generation.
This potent image reminded me, an Israeli writer from Jaffa, of something familiar yet elusive. I finally made the connection by revisiting my well-thumbed volume of Don Quixote. Wiesel’s evocative article is so wonderfully reminiscent of the immortal love of the Knight of Sad Visage for his belle Dulcinea de Toboso. Don Quixote travelled all over Spain proclaiming her name. He performed formidable feats, defeated giants, who turned out to be windmills, brought justice to the oppressed, all for the sake of his beloved. When he decided that his achievements made him worthy, he sent his arms-bearer, Sancho Panza, to his Dame with a message of adoration.
Now I find myself in the somewhat embarrassing position of Sancho Panza. I have to inform my master, Don Wiesel Quixote, that his Dulcinea is well. She is happily married, has a bunch of kids, and she is quite busy with laundry and other domestic chores. While he fought brigands and restored governors, somebody else took care of his beloved, fed her, provided her with food, made love to her, made her a mother and grandmother. Do not rush, dear knight, to Toboso, lest it break your heart.
Elie, the Jerusalem that you write of so movingly is not now and never has been desolate. She has lived happily across the centuries in the embrace of another people, the Palestinians of Jerusalem, who have taken good care of her. They made her the beautiful city she is, adorned her with a magnificent piece of jewelry, the Golden Dome of Haram al Sharif, built her houses with pointed arches and wide porches and planted cypresses and palm trees.
They do not mind if the knight-errant visits their beloved city on his way from New York to Saragosa. But be reasonable, old man. Stay within the frame of the story and within the bounds of common decency. Don Quixote did not drive his jeep into Toboso to rape his old flame. OK, you loved her, and thought about her, but it does not give you the right to kill her children, bulldoze her rose garden and put your boots on her dining room table. All your words just prove that you confuse your desires with reality. You ask why the Palestinians want Jerusalem? Because she belongs to them, because they live there and it is their hometown. Granted, you dreamed about her in your remote Transylvania. So did many people around the world. She is so wonderful and certainly worth dreaming about.
Many people have adored this city across the ages. Swedish farmers left their villages and moved there to build the lovely American Colony together with the Vesters, a devout Christian family from Chicago. You can read about it in the works of Selma Lagerlof, another Nobel Prize winner. On the slopes of the Mount of Olives, the Russians built the dainty church of Mary Magdalene. Ethiopians erected their Resurrection monastery amid the ruins left by the Crusaders.
The British died for her and left as their architectural legacy the St. George Cathedral and St. Andrew’s. The Germans built the lovely German Colony and nursed the city’s sick in the Schneller Hospital. My devout great-grandfather moved into the protection of her thick walls in the 1870s from a Lithuanian Jewish village and threw his lot in with the hospitable Jerusalemites. He found his eternal rest until the day of Resurrection on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. None of them thought to rape their Dulcinea. They just left bouquets of architectural flowers as testament of their adoration.
Those who love Jerusalem are legion. It is disingenuous of Elie Wiesel to reduce the struggle for this city to a tug-of-war between Muslims and Jews. It is a question of coveting property versus having the deed of ownership. The resolution of this case should be based on the Tenth Commandment that our fathers observed. They knew that veneration does not amount to the right of ownership. Millions of Protestants venerate the Catholic-owned Gethsemane Garden, but it does not transfer the garden into their hands. Millions of Catholics visit the Tomb of Mary, but it still belongs to the Eastern Church. For generations, the Moslems have come to kneel at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, but the church remains Christian.
What water did to the Gremlins in Spielberg’s movies, Zionism has inflicted on the jolly Jewish folk of Eastern Europe. It caused them to carry out an ethnic cleansing of Gentiles in West Jerusalem, to convert the Schneller hospital and church into a military base and to build a Holiday Inn on top of the venerated shrine of Sheik Bader. The Jewish State forbids the Christians of Bethlehem to pray in the Holy Sepulchre and bans Moslems below the age of forty from attending Friday prayers at the Aqsa Mosque. This is the rape of the Holy City you profess to love.
In order to justify this rape, you invoke the names of King Solomon and Jeremiah, quote the Koran and the Bible. Let me tell you a Jewish Hassidic tale, one you might have heard in your childhood. A Jewish midrash, a legend, mentions that Abraham had a daughter. A simple-minded Hassid asked his Rabbi why Abraham did not wed his daughter and his son Isaac. The Rabbi responded that Abraham did not want to marry a real son to a legendary daughter.
Legends are the stuff that dreams are made of. Some are charming, some are horrible, and none is valid as a land deed or as a political platform. Elie, you certainly would not like to lose your private home in New York because of a few verses written in the Book of Mormon. This game is rather irrelevant, but I will play one more round with you for the entertainment of the crowd. As every archaeologist will tell you, King Solomon and his temple belong to the fantasy realm of Abraham’s daughter. Moreover, not that it matters, but the name ‘Jerusalem’ does not occur even once in the Jewish Holy Book, the Torah.
Do you want to play some more games? I’ll show you more. The Jews are not even mentioned in the Jewish Bible. Get that thick book off of your shelf and check it. None of the great and legendary men you named, from King David to the prophets, were called ‘the Jews’. This ethnonym appears for the first and only time in the Bible in the Persian story of the very late Book of Esther. The self-identification of the Jews with the tribes of Israel and with the heroes of the Bible is as valid as the story of Rome being founded by the Trojan prince Aeneas. If the modern Turks, who call themselves ‘the descendants of Troy’ would conquer Rome, dynamite Borromini’s baroque masterpieces and expel her inhabitants in order to re-establish the legacy of Aeneas, they would just be repeating the folly of the Zionists.
Our ancestors, the humble East European folk of Yids, whose language was Yiddish, had a tradition of adorning themselves with the impressive heraldic lions of Biblical heroes. Their claim of descent from these legends was as valid as the claims of Thomas Hardy’s ambitious farmer girl Tess. But even the fictional Tess did not conspire to evict the lords from their castle and claim the manor for herself.
Once, walking with the Christian pilgrims to the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I was stopped by a Hassidic Jew. He inquired whether my companions were Jews, and, receiving a negative reply, exclaimed in amazement: “What are these Goyim (Gentiles) looking for in the Holy City?” He had never heard of the Passion of Jesus Christ, whose name he used as a swear word. I am equally amazed that a Jewish professor from Boston University is as ignorant as the simple-minded Hassidic Jew. Jerusalem is holy to billions of believers: Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Christians, Sunni and Shia Moslems, to thousands of Hassidic and Sephardi Jews. Still, as a city, Jerusalem is not different from any other place in the world; she belongs to her citizens.
Twenty more years of Zionist control of this ancient city will turn her into another Newark and forever ruin her charm. Jerusalem needs to be restored to its inhabitants. The seized properties in Talbieh and Lifta, Katamon and Malcha should be returned to their owners. Professor Wiesel, respect Gentile property rights as you would like Gentiles to respect your right to your lovely house. The holy sites of Jerusalem are regulated by the 150-year-old international statute (Status Quo) that should not be tampered with. The last attempt to touch it caused the siege of Sevastopol and the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. The next attempt could cause a nuclear war.
¹ It was written as a response to a long article by Elie Wiesel, “Jerusalem in My Heart,” New York Times, 1/25/2001.