Exile and the prophetic: Elie Wiesel and the history of the court Jew

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

I’ve never been a fan of Bill Clinton.  Nor of Hillary.  I’m not sure I’d want to be known as an ‘old friend’ of theirs like Elie Wiesel.  Then again, I wouldn’t want to be a friend of Wiesel’s either.  I don’t want to be part of the establishment.  The perks are hardly worth the conscience trade-off. 

Does this mean I’ve given up on mainstream politics or on the possibility that politics can move justice forward?  I’ve always thought giving up on the political arena a form of cynicism.  God knows, there are plenty of reasons to take that position.  I’m in a transitional moment.  I’m not sure which way is right. 

Of course, there are different levels of establishment.  You can be an establishment person in the wealthiest of situations and the poorest.  There are empires of the strong and empires of the weak.  ‘Establishment’ is relative.

Some years ago I had coffee at UCLA with a Palestinian friend, Adliya. She and her family were expelled from Haifa in 1948.  Earlier in the day we encountered an Israeli academic now living in America.  In an off-hand manner, the Israeli noted her family had settled in Haifa in the very same year.  The Israeli spoke as if she and Adliya shared a home city bond.  In reality, their bond was ethnic cleansing. 

Over coffee, Adliya and I talked about how the Israeli handled an awkward moment in such a casual manner.  It was like someone who had been born and raised in, say Cape Canaveral, left for another city, as someone else arrived at the Cape for the first time.  Lovely beach, isn’t it?

I was at the university to speak on liberation theology.  At the same time, the university Hillel was holding a conference that included sections on American Jewish viewpoints on Israel.  When I told Adliya, I would prefer speaking at Hillel, she demurred.  Always polite and soft spoken, she then responded in an uncharacteristically stern manner:  ‘No, you wouldn’t.’

I was taken by surprise.  As a Palestinian, wouldn’t she want my voice to be heard at the Hillel at a major university like UCLA?  Her response was firm:  ‘No, I don’t.’

We were interrupted andI never did get to the bottom of her argument.   I wonder if she felt that Hillel was so compromised that it wasn’t worth it or that in wanting such an invitation I might become compromised.

I thought of this in relation to Elie Wiesel hobnobbing with the Clintons and every other elite that proffers a dinner invitation.  After all, if all you have is a ‘moral leadership’ card, you need political, economic and cultural heavyweights to secure your future.

So strange to ask, since this was supposed to change with creation of the state of Israel, but is Elie Wiesel a Court Jew?

Historically, Court Jews were Jewish bankers who handled the finances of or lent money to European royalty and nobility as well as the Catholic Church.  Here’s how it worked:  The royalty, nobility and the Church borrowed money from Jewish bankers or employed them as financiers. Jewish financiers used family connections and connections between each other to secure finance, food, arms, ammunition, gold and precious metals for the powerful. In return for their services, Court Jews gained social privileges.  Sometimes they were granted noble status.  Often they represented the Jewish community to those in power.

The history of Court Jews is mixed.  Sometimes it was good to have a Court Jew close to power.  Sometimes it wasn’t.  It all depended on how the societal, economic and political winds were blowing.

There’s an entire history here worth exploring.  The question for us is the role powerful Jews, or Jews close to power, play to secure the good fortunes of the Jewish community and the good fortune of others. 

At any rate, Court Jews and their evolving brethren were supposed to go by the historical wayside with Jewish empowerment in Israel and the United States.  Who wants to rely on the relationship of non-Jewish and Jewish power brokers to secure a future for individual Jews or the Jewish community at large?

What does Elie Wiesel represent for the Clinton’s?  Certainly they ingratiate themselves to him because he represents Jews to those in power. Wiesel can communicate back to other powerful Jews what the Clintons will and won’t do regarding Jewish community interests, especially in relation to Israel. 

Wiesel also represents to the Clintons and to others Christians the long history of Christian interaction with Jews.  This interaction includes anti-Semitism and the Holocaust but also Biblical witness of Jews. In contemporary American society these are bundled together.

Wiesel symbolizes the suffering Jews persecuted by Christians and the Biblical Jews who remain the foundation of Christianity.  He also symbolizes the crucified Jew, Jesus, since Jesus was persecuted through no fault of his own – as was Wiesel in the Holocaust – and Jesus was Jewish, like Wiesel.

Being a Court Jew and the Crucified Jew – the combination is Wiesel’s genius.  His invitation to the dinner tables of the powerful is thus highly charged. 

In America, Wiesel represents a politics infused with spirituality.He plays the part to the hilt but here’s the caveat.   Wiesel is 84 years old.  His Court Jew/Crucified Jew shelf-life is decreasing daily. 

Soon there won’t be any Jews who carry the same symbolic weight that Wiesel does.  As well, the Clintons are also aging.  Christians of a different generation will see Jews differently.

While thinking about Wiesel as America’s Court Jew, how about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s Court Jew?  Ask yourself if Netanyahu’s pre-election confrontations with President Obama were staged for American Jews who overwhelmingly supported Obama in both Presidential elections or for evangelical Christians who are the great majority of Israel’s ‘Occupation Forever’ supporters.

It only goes to show that you can have nuclear weapons and still be dependent on others who wear power as their natural right.  Has Israel become the Court Jew par excellence?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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