A variety of perspectives on Elie Wiesel
Editor’s Note: Elie Wiesel was an important leader of the section of the Jewish world which believes that the highest, perhaps the only, commandment left to observe after the Holocaust is “don’t forget what happened to us Jews.” He used his growing fame in good ways at times, bringing attention to the suffering of other peoples. His attention to the Holocaust and his ability to educate large numbers of people to the suffering of the Jewish people, was a valuable contribution–and helped make clear to people around the world that the Jewish people should never again be powerless to defend itself against those who choose to make our entire people into their enemies. Yet it is important to realize that there are good ways to protect our people and bad ways–and that was not a distinction Wiesel helped people make. He never asked why Jews should have a Holocaust museum on the national mall in D.C. before there was a museum about US enslavement of African or US genocide of Native Americans.
Indeed, Wiesel, though receiving universal fame and honors. was no prophet nor someone who really understood the Jewish prophetic tradition. A prophet doesn’t only challenge the errors of other peoples, s/he challenges the distortions and faults of their own people or nation. Wiesel was largely silent about the War in Vietnam, and more importantly, the oppression of the Palestinian people. He was originally a member of the editorial board of Tikkun magazine, then resigned because, as he put it, “Jews should not publicly critique other Jews” (in our case, criticizing both the Jewish neo-cons at Commentary Magazine who supported defunding programs for the poor and blamed African Americans for their own oppression because of some alleged distorting culture of poverty” and the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (though we were also critical of those in the Palestinian world who launched terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians). He apparently never took seriously the Torah’s command to “love the stranger/the Other” when it came to his own people, the Jews, and our obligations to others. In this way, he severely tainted his legacy.
Yet there were many good things he did as well, e.g. in challenging publicly President Reagan’s decision to visit and honor the cemetery in Germany called Bitburg where Nazi fighters were buried, and in insisting that the world had some obligation to stop the blood bath in the Balkans in the 1990s. So we at Tikkun honor the good in him even as we reject the lionizing of him that accompanied him throughout his life, itself largely a reflection of the guilt the world felt at its own failures to stop the Holocaust and stand up soon enough against the racist fascists whose genocidal intentions were evident and broadcast to anyone who would listen.
Like many post-Holocaust writers, Elie Wiesel wrote eloquently about his inability to believe in God, even though in his later life he became a member of an orthodox synagogue. Many of these authors eventually became blind supporters of the policies of the State of Israel–believing that it would be a betrayal of the 6 million who died to cast doubt on the righteousness of the state that housed so many of the survivors. In my view, this attitude became the foundation for Jewish idolatry: the worship of the State of Israel that many Tikkun authors began to explicate in our earliest years as the voice of progressive Jews and our non-Jewish allies. Yet it is hard not to be moved by the pain of our people, though we are not the only people with a legacy of pain, and pain does not necessarily generate wisdom. But to understand more fully what is enduring and valuable in the legacy of Elie Wiesel, we strongly recommend a book by Michael Bernebaum: Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust and the Children of Israel published by Behrman House 1994.
We at Tikkun bless his memory, but also acknowledge his limitations (as you can see by reading the range of responses to his death (below). But who among us does not have limitations of various sorts? So it is appropriate to honor the good, even as we refuse to push out of our mind the limitations of the consciousness he helped popularize. —Rabbi Michael Lerner
Below is some of what others are writing about him. None of these articles appeared in Tikkun, and our editorial staff would have been unlikely to choose many of them for publication. But they give you some idea of the range of responses that have been made to Wiesel’s life and/or death.
ELIE WIESEL z”l 1928-2016.. Elie Wiesel died this past weekend. Elie was a great story teller, and many of his best stories were from the chassidic masters. This is what I learned from him in the telling about Reb Zusia. Reb Zusia tells us: ” when I stand before the great Judge, I will not be asked, ‘why were you not Moses who led his people to freedom; or, why were you not Joshua. I will be asked: ‘why were you not Zusia.’” What I take away from Zusia is that everyone is given a task in the reparation of the world – in the healing of the world, in “Tikkun Olam.”
Elie’s task was to tell about the Holocaust and to educate our generation and future generations about the tragic enormity of its evil, to try to never let it happen again, not only as applies to the Jewish people, but to all people. His was a universal message and he delivered it exquisitely. When we become acutely aware of the unique task each of us has in the service of Tikkun Olam – the healing of the world, we are obliged to follow that path.
I know that my task is to walk the path with those who advocate for the ultimate victims – the animals. Theirs is an ongoing Holocaust and we, the animals’ advocates, are dedicated – each in our own way – to ending their abysmal suffering and creating a kinder world that is more hospitable to them. Thank you Zusia, thank you Elie, for helping me to recognize the task I was given and the path to follow. - Batya Bauman
Story in Ha’aretz 2016: Wiesel never gained a huge following In Israel
(read the whole story at: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-1.728678
Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend at age 87, may have been the most famous Holocaust survivor in the world. But, ironically, that never gained him a huge following in Israel.
His best-known book “Night,” an account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald – required reading at high schools around the United States – has never been incorporated into the Israeli school curriculum.
“We have a few copies in our library,” says Zeev Degani, the principal of Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, the oldest Hebrew high school in the country. “But I would assume that the number of students who’ve actually read it is close to zero.”
Jackie Feldman, a professor of anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has accompanied dozens of Israeli high-school students on trips to Auschwitz – the place where Wiesel spent the pivotal months of his life – as part of his academic research. “‘Night’ was not one of the books they were reading,” he relays. “At one point it was Ka-Tsetnik [the pen name for Holocaust survivor and author Yehiel De-Nur, and at another time Primo Levi had become popular. But never Wiesel.”
This lack of recognition had other manifestations as well. For example, only two of the hundreds of honorary doctorates bestowed on Wiesel over the years from around the world, notes Yad Vashem’s chief historian Dina Porat, came from Israeli universities. “And even then, it hardly made any news,” she laments.
“Outside Israel, Elie Wiesel was a total icon,” observes Porat, who also serves as head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University. “But in Israel, much less so. He never enjoyed the same degree of admiration and appreciation here.”
Viewed around the world as a moral authority, Wiesel often drew fire from Israeli leftist activists and intellectuals for not speaking out against their government. “He always took Israel’s side, no matter what,” says Porat. “For him, withholding criticism was a matter of principle. Whenever he was questioned about it, he’d say that because he doesn’t live here, he didn’t feel he has the right to criticize.”
read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-1.728678?utm_source=trendemon&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=flow
Mondoweiss article by Marc Ellis on Ellie Wiesel http://mondoweiss.net/2016/07/elie-wiesel-is-dead/
This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Elie Wiesel is dead. The Holocaust world I cut my teeth on is coming to an end.
Is the world that cut its teeth on the Holocaust also coming to an end?
In their life and death, iconic figure like Elie Wiesel move us in different ways. The day after Wiesel’s death, it is time to take stock. In which direction are we heading?
I have been reading and writing about Wiesel for more than forty years. Though I have my arguments with Wiesel and other theologians and philosophers of the Holocaust, I never dismissed them as fakes or fools as some have. I will not do so today.
Those who explored the depths of the Holocaust were a great and deeply flawed generation. With reference to their hawkish stands on Israel, Wiesel and other Holocaust commentators simply did not understand what they had become involved in. If and when they understood, it was too late.
In the end, Wiesel was deeply corrupted by his use of the Holocaust he suffered so deeply from. Once an insurgent in Jewish life by insisting on the overriding importance of the Holocaust, in his later years, Wiesel became a cheerleader for an apartheid Israel and American military sanctions and intervention in the Middle East, all revolving around his support for Israel.
Wiesel became a caricature of himself. He trivialized the Holocaust he wrote so movingly about.
Through his invocations of the Holocaust, Wiesel achieved great wealth and garnered many honors; both compromised his witness. Politicians used him as the tributes accorded him in the coming days will no doubt show. But Wiesel and the Jewish establishment also used politicians to further entrench and extend their power and influence. So it goes, it seems.
We Jews live after the Holocaust and after Israel. By after Israel, I mean what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people. Those of us who live in the shadow of the Holocaust – and Israel – must ask ourselves the same questions we ask of Wiesel. What is our witness in the world? Has our standing in the world and what we represent corrupted us?
Elie Wiesel was hardly alone in becoming so stuck in Holocaust suffering that he failed to realize or care about what Jewish power was and is doing to the Palestinian people. We, the Jewish people, averted our eyes. We, the Jewish people, became corrupted through our use of unjust power against others.
Through Wiesel, Christians became heavily involved in the meaning of Holocaust suffering and support for the state of Israel without regard for the plight of Palestinians. Christians averted their eyes. Christians became corrupted through support of Jewish power against others.
So Elie Wiesel’s death must become our challenge. After the Holocaust and Israel, what are we to do? Do we really understand who we have become?
Once understood, we must stand for justice, at a personal and, if need be, at a collective cost. Lest we become other than whom we are called to be.
Here lies the unintended aspect of Elie Wiesel’s flawed witness. In the beginning Wiesel and others who reflected on the Holocaust invoked solidarity with the suffering as the key lesson of the Holocaust. True, again from the beginning, Jews were a priority. Yet, this solidarity also extended to those suffering after the Holocaust. Missing, of course, were Palestinians.
With the ascendancy of the Holocaust and Israel as the epitome of the Jewish and Christian witness, Wiesel helped ignite Jewish and Christian resistance to the oppression of the Palestinian people. By making the Holocaust and Israel central to the destiny of the Jewish people, Jewish and Christian resistance to Israel’s abuse of power was destined to take hold.
Today this resistance is exploding. Among others, Jewish Voice for Peace and the Christian struggle for divestment in a variety of denominational settings are deeply indebted to the flawed witness of Elie Wiesel.
As Elie Wiesel is honored and buried in the coming days, we would do well to reflect on other iconic figures of our day and those who use them for their own ends. Unlike iconic figures, injustice cannot be buried.
Resistance is always waiting in the shadows of unjust power. Thus our challenge as Elie Wiesel – and his generation – is laid to rest.
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
- See more at: http://mondoweiss.net/2016/07/elie-wiesel-is-dead/#sthash.c6t7iXdL.dpuf
Is there a more contemptible poseur and windbag than Elie Wiesel? I suppose there may be. But not, surely, a poseur and windbag who receives (and takes as his due) such grotesque deference on moral questions.
As a Jew living in the United States, I have long denied myself the right to intervene in Israel’s internal debates…. My critics have their conception of social and individual ethics; I have mine. But while I grant them their right to criticize, they sometimes deny mine to abstain.
Such magnificent condescension, to grant his critics the right. And it is not certain from when Wiesel dates his high-minded abstention from Israel’s internal affairs; he was a member of Menachem Begin’s Irgun in the 1940s, when that force employed extreme violence against Arab civilians and was more than ready to use it against Jews. At all events, his dubious claim above is only a pompous preface to discarding nonintervention in the present because Jerusalem is at stake, and “the fact that I do not live in Jerusalem is secondary; Jerusalem lives within me.” (Again the modesty.) There are, sad to say, serpents in Wiesel’s internal Eden, and they too must be patronized:
That Muslims might wish to maintain close ties with this city unlike any other is understandable. Although its name does not appear in the Koran, Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam. But for Jews, it remains the first. Not just the first; the only.
“Might wish.” “Ties.” “Understandable.” “Third holiest.” Even these lordly and dismissive gestures clearly cost Wiesel something. After all, he announces that the city is “mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible,” which (assuming for a moment that one ought to think like a religious fundamentalist in the first place) would give a Christian Arab–these being at least 15 percent of the Palestinian population–quite a strong claim on the old place. (Incidentally, let me ask any reader how often the city is mentioned in the Torah.) But for Wiesel all Arabs are Muslims, and even if they happen to live in Jerusalem, this is nothing to the way that Jerusalem dwells within Wiesel. Indeed, it would evidently dwell more comfortably within him if they did not live in it at all. Do I exaggerate? I don’t think so. In a propaganda tour of recent history, he asserts that in 1948, “incited by their leaders, 600,000 Palestinians left the country convinced that, once Israel was vanquished, they would be able to return home.”
This claim is a cheap lie and is known by Wiesel to be a lie. It is furthermore an utterly discredited lie, and one that Israeli officialdom no longer cares to repeat. Israeli and Jewish historians have exposed it time and again: Every Arab broadcasting station in the region, in 1947 as well as 1948, was monitored and recorded and transcribed by the BBC, and every Arab newspaper has been scoured, and not one instance of such “incitement,” in direct speech or reported speech, has ever come to light. The late historian and diplomat Erskine Childers issued an open challenge on the point as far back as the 1950s that was never taken up and never will be. And of course the lie is a Big Lie, because Expulsion-Denial lies at the root of the entire problem and helps poison the situation to this day. (When Israel’s negotiators gingerly discuss the right of return, at least they don’t claim to be arguing about ghosts, or Dead Souls.)
In a brilliant reply to Wiesel published in Vesti, Israel’s largest Russian-language paper, Israel Shamir compares him rather leniently not to Jabotinsky but to the Knight of the Doleful Countenance and his mad quest for purity:
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.
Shamir speaks of the beautiful city that Palestinians centuries ago “adorned with a magnificent piece of jewelry, the Golden Dome of Haram al-Sharif, built their houses with pointed arches and wide porches, and planted cypresses and palm trees.” He’s wasting his time on Wiesel, who says that Palestine was a desert before he arrived there as one of Begin’s thugs, and who slanders the people he helped dispossess, first by falsely saying that they ran away from their beloved ancestral hometown and second by disputing their right even to feel nostalgia for it.
In 1982, after Gen. Ariel Sharon had treated the inhabitants of the Sabra and Shatila camps as target practice for his paid proxies, Wiesel favored us with another of his exercises in neutrality. Asked by theNew York Times to comment on the pogrom, he was one of the few American Jews approached on the matter to express zero remorse. “I don’t think we should even comment,” he said, proceeding to comment bleatingly that he felt “sadness– with Israel, and not against Israel.” For the victims, not even a perfunctory word.
As I write, it looks as if the same Sharon will become Israel’s prime minister. If you recall, he occupied West Beirut in September 1982, after the assassination of the Maronite Prime Minister Bashir Gemayel, on the announced and highly believable pretext that Palestinian civilians would need protection from Phalangist reprisal. He then sent into their undefended camps the most extreme faction of the Phalangist militia and backed up the dirty work of these notorious fascists with flares during the night, and rear-guard cover during the day, for thirty-six hours before having them escorted out in triumph and thanked for their work. In other words, the bulk of US overseas military aid is about to be lavished on a man who stood with hands on hip, in belt and boots and steel helmet and binoculars, and saw a mound of human corpses rise, and who thought it good. For this outcome, the soil has been manured by the beautiful thoughts of Elie Wiesel.
Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens, longtime contributor to The Nation, wrote a wide-ranging, biweekly column for the magazine from 1982 to 2002. With trademark savage wit, Hitchens flattens hypocrisy inside the Beltway and around the world, laying bare the “permanent government” of entrenched powers and interests. Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England,
Racism promoter Donald Trump praises Wiesel:
Here are excerpts from the words of Elie Wiesel, who last week was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Considered the literary conscience of the Holocaust, Wiesel, 58, a professor of humanities at Boston College, dedicated his prize to all those who survived the Nazi horrors. He called them “an example to humankind how not to succumb to despair.”
From Wiesel’s speech in Washington on April 19, 1985 , on accepting a Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement from President Reagan. It was in this speech that he unsuccessfully implored the President to cancel his visit to the cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, where SS troops are buried.
I am grateful to you for the medal. But this medal is not mine alone. It belongs to all those who remember what SS killers have done to their victims.
It was given to me by the American people for my writings, teaching, and for my testimony. And when I write, I feel my invisible teachers standing over my shoulders reading my words and judging their veracity and while I feel responsible for the living I feel equally responsible to the dead. Their memory dwells in my memory. . . .
One million Jewish children perished. If I spent my entire life reciting their names, I would die before finishing the task.
Mr. President, I’ve seen children, I have seen children being thrown into the flames–alive! Words, they die on my lips. So I have learned, I have learned, I have learned the fragility of the human condition. . . .
I have learned the danger of indifference, the crime of indifference. For the opposite of love, I have learned, is not hate, but indifference. . . .
May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way to find another way, another site.
That place (the SS graves at Bitburg), Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS. . . .
And I, too, wish to attain true reconciliation with the German people. I do not believe in collective guilt nor in collective responsibility. Only the killers were guilty. Their sons and daughters are not.
And I believe, Mr. President, that we can and we must work together with them and with all people, and we must work to bring peace and understanding to a tormented world that, as you know, is still awaiting redemption.
Wiesel on the Holocaust, from “Night,” his autobiographical account of the Nazi death camps where his family was sent when he was a teen – ager. Originally published in France in 1958, it was recently issued in a new edition by Bantam Books.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp (at Birkenau), which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never. . . .
In the afternoon we were made to line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments. With the left sleeve rolled up, each person passed in front of the table. The three “veterans,” with needles in their hands, engraved a number on our left arms. I became A-7713. After that I had no other name. . . .
In the evening, lying on our beds, we would try to sing some of the Hasidic melodies, and Akiba Drumer would break our hearts with his deep, solemn voice.
Some talked of God, of his mysterious ways, of the sins of the Jewish people, and of their future deliverance. But I had ceased to pray. How I sympathized with Job! I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice. . . .
We would often hum tunes evoking the calm waters of Jordan and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. And we would often talk of Palestine. . . . We decided that, if we were granted our lives until the liberation, we would not stay in Europe a day longer. We would take the first boat for Haifa. . . .
Then we began to hear the airplanes. Almost at once, the barracks began to shake.
“They’re bombing Buna!” someone shouted.
I thought of my father. But I was glad all the same. To see the whole works go up in fire–what revenge! We had heard so much talk about the defeats of German troops on various fronts, but we did not know how much to believe. This, today, was real!
We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks, it alone would have claimed hundreds of victims on the spot. But we were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.
The raid lasted over an hour. If it could only have lasted ten times ten hours! . . . Then silence fell once more. The last sound of an American plane was lost on the wind. . . . In the afternoon we went cheerfully to clear away the ruins. . . .
During these last few nights, we had heard the guns (of the Red Army) in the distance.
My neighbor, the faceless one, said:
“Don’t let yourself be fooled with illusions. Hitler has made it very clear that he will annihilate all the Jews before the clock strikes 12.”
I burst out:
“What does it matter to you? Do we have to regard Hitler as a prophet?”
His glazed, faded eyes looked at me. At last he said in a weary voice:
“I’ve got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He’s the only one who’s kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people. . . .”
“Where can I find him? Perhaps you’ve seen him somewhere?”
“No, Rabbi Eliahou, I haven’t seen him.”
He left then as he had come: like a wind-swept shadow.
He had already passed through the door when I suddenly remembered seeing his son running by my side. I had forgotten that, and I didn’t tell Rabbi Eliahou!
Then I remembered something else: his son had seen him losing ground, limping, staggering back to the rear of the column. He had seen him. And he had continued to run on in front, letting the distance between them grow greater.
A terrible thought loomed up in my mind: He had wanted to get rid of his father! He had felt that his father was growing weak, he had believed that the end was near and had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival.
I had done well to forget that. And I was glad that Rabbi Eliahou should continue to look for his beloved son.
And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed.
“My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done. . . .”
On April 10 . . . at about 6 p.m., the first American tanks stood at the gates of Buchenwald.
Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves into our provisions. We thought only of that. Not of revenge, not of our families. Only of bread.
And even when we were no longer hungry, there was still no one who thought of revenge. . . .
One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
From “Dawn” (Bantam Books), a novel about a young Holocaust survivor who becomes a freedom fighter in Palestine. He faces a moral dilemma when he is assigned to execute a British hostage. It was first published in 1960.
I wanted to understand the meaning of the events of which I had been the victim. In the concentration camp I had cried out in sorrow and anger against God and also against man, who seemed to have inherited only the cruelty of his creator. I was anxious to re-evaluate my revolt in an atmosphere of detachment, to view it in terms of the present.
So many questions obsessed me. Where is God to be found? In suffering or in rebellion? When is a man most truly a man? When he submits or when he refuses? Where does suffering lead him? To purification or to bestiality? . . .
The English government has sent a hundred thousand soldiers to maintain so-called order. We of the movement are no more than a hundred strong, but we strike fear into their hearts. Do you understand what I am saying? We cause the English–yes, the English–to tremble!
This was the first story I had ever heard in which the Jews were not the ones to be afraid. Until this moment I had believed that the mission of the Jews was to represent the trembling of history rather than the wind which made it tremble. . . .
We were at war; we had an ideal, a purpose–and also an enemy who stood between us and its attainment. The enemy must be eliminated. And how? By any and all means at our command. There were all sorts of means, but they were unimportant and soon forgotten. The purpose, the end, this was all that would last. . . . But the dead never forget; they would remember. In their eyes I should be forever branded a killer. There are not a thousands ways of being a killer; either a man is one or he isn’t. He can’t say I’ll kill only 10 or only 26 men; I’ll kill for only five minutes or a single day. He who has killed one man alone is a killer for life. He may choose another occupation, hide himself under another identity, but the executioner or at least the executioner’s mask will be always with him. . . .
A man hates his enemy because he hates his own hate. He says to himself: “This fellow, my enemy, has made me capable of hate. I hate him not because he’s my enemy, not because he hates me, but because he arouses me to hate.”