Elie Wiesel & His Critics (Israel & Palestine)


Some of the questioners are malicious, but certainly not all of them. For his critics it is hard to square the image of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor as witness against God and “man,” as apostle of universal morality with what seems to be his lack of sensitivity regarding the question of Palestine. So they wring their hands or call him a liar and fraud. To compound matters, late in life, Wiesel was captured and held by the Jewish right –in support of an NGO supporting Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem and against the Iran Deal. It remains true that Wiesel was always loathe to criticize Israel in public. Lost in the criticism is that Wiesel, like all of us, was a creature of his own time and place –in the Diaspora and after Auschwitz.  And not just after Auschwitz, but very much a creature of the 1970s, a period in time when many in the Jewish world, especially after 1973 Yom Kippur War, feared very much, again, for the survival of the State of Israel. For Wiesel, no value was more paramount than Jewish survival, which he understood to the best of his limit. I’m posting this picture of Wiesel as a young man, alone in the world, abandoned, on his way to Israel by boat in 1949 as a reminder that what Wiesel represented was something very frail, and that for Wiesel, Israel meant something very deep by way of a precarious solace after so much destruction and death.

But I also want to recall that Wiesel’s understanding of Israel and the question of Palestine was more complex than his critics realize. My friend MK reminds me of the passage from his memoirs (I forget which volume) in which Wiesel writes about walking through the Old City in Jerusalem after its liberation in 1967 understanding that for the first time in his life, he was the object of another person’s fear. I would also refer the reader to two essays that appeared in A Jew Today, a collection of non-fiction essays penned by Wiesel in 1978. They are both open letters to imaginary interlocutors. The first is “To A Young Palestinian Arab,” the second being “To My Brother in Israel.” I only mention “To a Young Jew in Soviet Russia” to set more firmly these essays in 1970s Jewish cultural politics and activism. The views set out in the first two essays are more complicated than the simple caricature of Wiesel as an unquestioning supporter of the State of Israel.

Like much of Wiesel’s writings, “To A Young Palestinian Arab” has to be read with the view of cutting through the sententious moral posturing that defines much of his work. Written in an over-the top and morally high-handed manner, the essay builds on a core that is both hard and open. On the one hand, there is a loyalty to “the Jewish cause” that is described as “limitless” and “flawless.” Setting what we might call universal Kantian morality to the side, this is a moral code whose starting point and foundations are profoundly particularistic. As a Holocaust survivor, Wiesel will not relinquish the Jewish self-interest as a primary priority. About this, he is perfectly blunt. “We emerged from the darkest recess of history, from the most hidden marshes of man’s and God’s imagination; nobody could tell us what to do or undo. We were a people apart, and we could act accordingly. And spit on those who had handed us over to killers. And despise the neutral spectators who had forgotten us. And deride anyone who had not shared our obsessions. And nobody would have dared prevent us.” Anyone who is concerned today about the Palestinian Nakba should heed these words written by way of clarification to an imaginary Palestinian interlocutor in the 1970s. What follows is moral pap, but here the declaration could not be more clear and crystal. “We owned nothing, not to anyone. We could do anything, undertake anything with impunity. And condemn anything. And destroy it all” (p.125). By way of explanation, this quality of expression will remind certain readers of what Naomi Seidman identified as the expressive rage inflecting the 800 page Yiddish version of Night.

Then there’s this, on the other hand, the impulse to discern the suffering of another person, another people, the attempt to see “you,” the imaginary Palestinian, to understand his [sic] attachment to Yaffa, the place of his birth, and to Haifa, Jerusalem, and Nazareth, to understand his anger, and humiliation, and the shared experience of demoralization, powerlessness, marginalization, and stigmatization (p.124). There is no attempt to brush off this pain, which Wiesel treats as morally, if not politically equal to his own. These are described as the two suffering that divide “us” (p.124). If only the Palestinian national movement had accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, laments Wiesel. If only the Palestinian people understood the Jewish suffering. The conclusion to the letter admits that there is no way to bring these two sufferings to an end. The task is to humanize it, to turn it into dialogue, and that this depends on “us,” and upon “you.” The last words speak to “your right to the future and happiness,” and to the hope that his suffering would “become one of our [Jewish] priorities” (pp.127-8). “To a Young Palestinian Arab” is condescending, candid, and curious all at once.

The letter to the imaginary Israeli is  just as interesting as the one to the imaginary Palestinian. Again, one has to cut through the nonsense, in this case the almost ritualized confession that Diaspora Jews have not right to criticize Israel, that Diaspora Jews are in some way inadequate to their “brothers” in Israel. But just as Israeli Jews condemn the Diaspora, there is this concluding “reproach” directed against Israel. Wiesel wants not just to love Israel, but to admire Israel, to hold it up and to “find there what cannot be found anywhere else: a certain sense of justice, a certain sense of dignity…a society ruled by a vision of probity, justice, and compassion,” a “haven where the circle of cynicism and nihilism will be broken.” It is more than clear that this is not what Wiesel actually finds in Israel. Are we wrong, he asks, to “elevate you so high,” demanding that Israel be a model nation? And to ask “you” to be more welcome to immigrants (presumably Mizrachi Jews) and to Russian Jews, and to “ask you to adopt a more Jewish attitude to Palestinian Arabs and, particularly, toward Israeli Arabs? To be less intransigent, more receptive?” This reproach is spoken in the name of generation which “discovered the ruins of the world and the dark side of God” (pp.133-7).

By 1988, in the middle of the first Palestinian Intifada, it was clear that Wiesel was unable to act politically on these words published in 1978. This was the brunt of Arthur Hertzberg’s famous criticism of Wiesel that Hertzberg published that year in the New York Review of Books. (You can read it here.) One can only imagine what it must have seemed to Wiesel, as it seemed to Primo Levi, when the gentile world, for wrong and for right, began to condemn Israel for whatever reason, for whatever cause, and to whatever purpose. And while I am sympathetic to the politics that drove Hertzberg, he surely missed a basic point. It’s not just that Hertzberg was born over here in this country. As the editor of the famous collection of primary source material in classical Zionist theory, The Zionist Idea, published in 1959, his eye was over there in Israel, not back in Hungary and Poland. Or to put it another way. Night is one thing, The Zionist Idea quite another. Night is a book that illuminates the underside of human existence, and religious existence, whereas Hertzberg, much better than Wiesel, understood and could illuminate with more precision the complex ideological mechanisms undergirding the history and politics of Zionism and Israel.

Much of the rage from his detractors about his position on Palestine is pure malice. It spits on the solace of other people, and stamps with a brutal finality on Wiesel’s memory. That kind of one-dimensional criticism fails to see in Zionism a kind of humanism. But how should one understand the cognitive dissonance about him expressed by many others of good will? What I would suggest is this. From a position of perpetual vulnerability, Wiesel, at least in his remarks in A Jew Today, could identify the moral limits of Jewish power, but he could not speak truth to Jewish power. It was beyond him. From Wiesel one should not have expected in the first place more than what he was able to give, to join what must have seemed to him a mob turning against Israel in the pages of the New York Times. One can only be “disappointed” in a person from whom one expects too much, in whom is invested too much in the first place. No one should have ever bought the hype around which Wiesel has been wrapped and which he wrapped around himself. Mentioning nightmares, perpetual fear, and the inability to laugh deeply, the writer of his obituary at the New York Times quotes Wiesel, “I live in constant fear.” The primary mistake made by critics today is not to recognize that just because Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor does not mean that he survived the Holocaust. 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Elie Wiesel & His Critics (Israel & Palestine)

  1. Did anyone ever really survive the Holocaust (even if they survived in the sense of not being murdered)? I think this is a very wise essay. People forget that suffering does not ennoble people – something we should all know from our personal experience, but that somehow we forget when we judge someone we admire and respect, like Elie Wiesel. But it seems a bit disrespectful to say that Wiesel was “captured” by the Jewish right – shouldn’t we treat his support of Elad and his opposition to the Iran deal as his considered political opinion, not something that other people dragged him into? (Unless you are arguing that he did not have the mental capacity late in life to think deeply enough about these issues – is there any question about this?)

    • zjb says:

      maybe you’re right about “capture,” except it just seemed that he was frail and so badly used by them

      • Gila Hirsh says:

        Though he was frail, he still could express his considered opinion, to be against the disastrous Iran deal and to be an unwavering supporter of Israel. May his memory be for a blessing.

  2. efmooney says:

    Am I missing something? Why this avalanche of critique when he’s barely properly buried? Is there no respect for the dead? Are intellectuals bent on take-downs and nastiness? There are no doubt many avenues of critique, but the timing seems odd, if not uncivilized. Why this pile-on? It reminds me of a student attending a MLK day who wanted to know about his clay feet.and had no interest in his accomplishments.

    • zjb says:

      because people are monsters, Ed

      • dmf says:

        there is certainly that, but also some wider questions I would think about how tightly ideas are to be bound to personalities, how much should we give our selves/attentions to abstraction, seems to cut to the heart of academic endeavors.

  3. Pingback: Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi: A Study in Contrasts | David Ramírez

Leave a Reply