Elie Wiesel Denounced Oppression of Jews—But Didn’t Do the Same for Palestinians

How should we remember the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who also provided cover for the devastation of the Middle East?

Max Blumenthal

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel speaks with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago in 2013. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics / YouTube)

This post first appeared at Alter­net.

With Wiesel’s death, the elites who relied on him for moral cover leapt at the opportunity to claim his legacy. Meanwhile, the teachings and testimonies of Holocaust survivors who insisted on applying the lessons of the genocide universally—including to Palestinians—remained confined to the margins.

The news of Elie Wiesel’s death in the ear­ly morn­ing of July 2 ush­ered in ven­er­a­tion and reflec­tions from fig­ures across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, from Bill Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump to Ben­jamin Netanyahu and George W. Bush. The out­pour­ing of high-lev­el praise aimed at con­sol­i­dat­ing Wiesel as the eter­nal voice of the Holo­caust and the cen­tral pre­cep­tor of its lessons. Those who crit­i­cized his lega­cy or point­ed out his moral con­tra­dic­tions, mean­while, were fero­cious­ly attacked by the forces he helped inspire. 

Back when I was in junior high school, the rab­bi of my family’s syn­a­gogue urged me to read Wiesel’s book Night as part of my Bar Mitz­vah prepa­ra­tions. The sto­ry offered a look at the exis­tence of Jews deport­ed to Auschwitz and Buchen­wald that was as har­row­ing as it was acces­si­ble. Read­ing Night while study­ing a Torah por­tion that chron­i­cled Israelite cap­tiv­i­ty in ancient Egypt helped cement the Holo­caust as a cen­tral com­po­nent of my Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Count­less oth­er Jews my age expe­ri­enced Wiesel’s work in a sim­i­lar fash­ion and many came to idol­ize him. Like me, few of them knew much about the man beyond the tribu­la­tion he endured in Hitler’s death camps.

Though my expe­ri­ence was par­tic­u­lar to Amer­i­can Jew­ish life, the gen­er­al pub­lic has been famil­iar­ized with Wiesel over the course of sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions through edu­ca­tion­al cur­ric­u­la and an expan­sive com­mer­cial appa­ra­tus. In 2006, after Oprah Winfrey’s embar­rass­ing pro­mo­tion of James Frey’s mem­oir, A Mil­lion Lit­tle Pieces, which turned out to be a fab­ri­ca­tion, her book club made Night its month­ly selec­tion. The pub­lic rela­tions maneu­ver drove the book onto the nation­al best­seller list and cen­tered its author in the celebri­ty lime­light. Soon after, Oprah joined Wiesel on a tour of Auschwitz, where he spoke before a cam­era crew in mys­ti­cal terms about the souls of those were exter­mi­nat­ed and how he com­muned with them as he stepped across the hal­lowed ground.

Through Oprah, Wiesel secured his brand as the high priest of Holo­caust the­ol­o­gy, the qua­si-reli­gion he intro­duced some 30 years ear­li­er in a New York Times op-ed: The Holo­caust [is] the ulti­mate event,” he insist­ed, the ulti­mate mys­tery, nev­er to be com­pre­hend­ed or trans­mit­ted. Only those who were there know what it was; the oth­ers will nev­er know.”

Reflect­ing on the impact of Wiesel’s work, Brook­lyn Col­lege polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor Corey Robin wrote that he had turn[ed] the Holo­caust into an indus­try of mid­dle­brow moral­i­ty and manip­u­la­tive sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty” while sacral­iz­ing the ovens [as] our burn­ing bush.” For the mass­es of Jew­ish Amer­i­cans who sub­scribed to Wiesel’s sec­u­lar the­ol­o­gy, he was a post-war Moses who inter­ced­ed between the West­ern world and a cat­a­stro­phe that sub­sti­tut­ed for a mer­ci­ful God.

While Wiesel lever­aged his lit­er­ary tal­ents to win sym­pa­thy for Jew­ish vic­tims of geno­cide, he sought to lim­it the nar­ra­tives of oth­er groups sub­ject­ed to indus­tri­al-lev­el exter­mi­na­tion. As a mem­ber of the advi­so­ry coun­cil of the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um in 1992, he lob­bied against rec­og­niz­ing LGBTQ and Roma vic­tims of the Holo­caust. A decade ear­li­er, when the Israeli For­eign Min­istry demand­ed Wiesel exclude Armen­ian schol­ars from a con­fer­ence on geno­cide, fear­ing dam­age to the country’s rela­tions with Turkey, he resigned from his posi­tion as chair rather than defend the schol­ars. (It was not until 2008 that Wiesel called the mas­sacre of Arme­ni­ans by Ottoman forces a genocide.)

Wiesel seemed to view these oth­er vic­tim­ized groups as com­peti­tors in an oppres­sion Olympics, fret­ting that wide­spread recog­ni­tion of the atroc­i­ties they suf­fered would sap his own moral pow­er. The universalist’s cre­do — Nev­er again to any­one“ — was a threat to his saint­ly sta­tus, his celebri­ty and his bot­tom line.

Defend­ing Israel, crimes and all

By pop­u­lar­iz­ing an under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust as a unique event that exist­ed out­side of his­to­ry, Wiesel helped cast Jews as his­to­ry’s ulti­mate vic­tims. In turn, he fueled sup­port for the walled-in Spar­tan state that was sup­posed to rep­re­sent their deliv­er­ance, and defend­ed every­thing it said it had to do for their secu­ri­ty. My loy­al­ty to my peo­ple, to our peo­ple, and to Israel comes first and pre­vents me from say­ing any­thing crit­i­cal of Israel out­side Israel,” Wiesel wrote.

In the face of increas­ing­ly unspeak­able crimes against Pales­tini­ans, Wiesel coun­seled silence. I must iden­ti­fy with what­ev­er Israel does — even with her errors,” he declared.

Wiesel’s unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to Israel undoubt­ed­ly influ­enced his vocal sup­port for Pres­i­dent George W. Bush’s inva­sion of Iraq. We have a moral oblig­a­tion to inter­vene where evil is in con­trol. Today, that place is Iraq,” he pro­claimed in a 2003 op-ed. He went on to demand Amer­i­can-orches­trat­ed régime change in Syr­ia, Libya and Iran. To be Jew­ish in this world is to always be con­cerned,” he told an audi­ence on Capi­tol Hill, endors­ing Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s push for a U.S. attack on Iran. Wiesel’s sup­port for suc­ces­sive assaults on Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries — always on the grounds of defeat­ing evil” — made him a key asset of neo­con­ser­v­a­tives and lib­er­al inter­ven­tion­ists alike.

Since 911, Wiesel’s fig­ure has helped keep America’s impe­r­i­al designs safe­ly shroud­ed in the ghosts of Buchen­wald and Babi Yar. As the lit­er­ary crit­ic Adam Shatz wrote, the author of Night has gone from being a great vic­tim of war crimes to being an apol­o­gist for those who com­mit them — all while invok­ing his moral author­i­ty as a sur­vivor.” Even after the inva­sions Wiesel advo­cat­ed for spurred the deaths of some 100,000 Iraqi civil­ians and the rise of ISIS, his aura remained intact, keep­ing him insu­lat­ed from accountability.

Embrac­ing hus­tlers and demo­niz­ing Palestinians

When fed­er­al author­i­ties bust­ed Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme in 2008, Wiesel lost the mil­lions he had amassed through his career as writer and lec­tur­er on the Holo­caust. To recoup his loss­es, he turned to the fur­thest shores of the Amer­i­can right-wing, forg­ing mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial rela­tion­ships with a coterie of pro-Israel hate preach­ers and hustlers.

Just months after los­ing his invest­ments with Mad­off, Wiesel accept­ed $500,000 from Pas­tor John Hagee for a sin­gle speech. Address­ing Hagee’s con­gre­ga­tion in San Anto­nio, Texas, Wiesel heaped praise on the Chris­t­ian Zion­ist preach­er who once described Hitler as a half-breed Jew,” then called him his dear pas­tor” in a sub­se­quent inter­view. Hagee’s rants against gays and the indis­putably anti­se­mit­ic pas­sages that prompt­ed John McCain to rescind the preacher’s endorse­ment dur­ing his 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign were of lit­tle rel­e­vance to Wiesel as he scram­bled to regain his fortune.

Around this time, Wiesel fell in with Shmu­ley Boteach, a self-styled celebri­ty rab­bi who func­tioned as a liai­son for Repub­li­can mega-donor Shel­don Adel­son. (Adel­son began fund­ing Wiesel’s foun­da­tion in 2007 with a dona­tion of $1 mil­lion). Boteach oper­at­ed as Wiesel’s de fac­to agent, arrang­ing high-pro­file — and like­ly high-pay­ing — speak­ing gigs with fig­ures rang­ing from Bay­watch star Pamela Ander­son to Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz. In return, the eth­i­cal­ly taint­ed Boteach was able to bask in the pres­ence of a man regard­ed with near-uni­ver­sal veneration.

I met Wiesel for a brief moment at New York University’s Bronf­man Cen­ter for Jew­ish Life in Feb­ru­ary 2014. He had just shared a stage with Boteach, Adel­son and Paul Kagame, the Rwan­dan strong­man whose M23 proxy mili­tia helped fuel the Con­golese geno­cide. Dur­ing the event, which was as sur­re­al as it was out­ra­geous, Kagame’s secu­ri­ty team bru­tal­ly eject­ed a lone audi­ence mem­ber who took Wiesel’s call to chal­lenge injus­tice as a cue to rise from his seat in protest against the Rwan­dan dic­ta­tor. After­ward, I approached Wiesel and asked him about his vehe­ment sup­port for Jew­ish set­tlers eject­ing Pales­tini­ans from their homes in occu­pied East Jerusalem. He told me to con­tact his office and shuf­fled away.

That July, Israel embarked on its most lethal oper­a­tion to date against res­i­dents of the besieged Gaza Strip, destroy­ing or dam­ag­ing some 100,000 homes and killing over 2,200 peo­ple, includ­ing 551 chil­dren. At the height of the assault, a shock­ing­ly Islam­o­pho­bic full-page ad appeared in the New York Times under the ban­ner of Boteach’s World Val­ues Net­work non-prof­it, which has received sub­stan­tial fund­ing from Adelson.

Jews reject­ed child sac­ri­fice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’s turn,” the ad declared. Ham­mer­ing on the com­mon pro-Israel myth that Pales­tini­ans do not val­ue their children’s lives as much as Israelis do, the ad den­i­grat­ed the besieged res­i­dents of Gaza as wor­ship­pers of death cults indis­tin­guish­able from that of the Molo­chites.” The text con­clud­ed with the sig­na­ture of its author, Elie Wiesel, the man who would be eulo­gized by fel­low Nobel Prize-win­ner Barack Oba­ma as one of the great moral voic­es of our time.”

With Wiesel’s death, the elites who relied on him for moral cov­er leapt at the oppor­tu­ni­ty to claim his lega­cy. Mean­while, the teach­ings and tes­ti­monies of Holo­caust sur­vivors who insist­ed on apply­ing the lessons of the geno­cide uni­ver­sal­ly — includ­ing to Pales­tini­ans — remained con­fined to the margins.

Destroy­ing the dissidents

Among the Jew­ish dis­si­dents to emerge from the night­mare of World War Two Europe was Marek Edel­man, a mem­ber of the War­saw ghet­to resis­tance who pub­lished an open let­ter to Pales­tin­ian resis­tance fight­ers dur­ing the Sec­ond Intifa­da, address­ing them respect­ful­ly as Pales­tin­ian Par­ti­sans” while beseech­ing them not to attack civil­ians. There was also Hajo Mey­er, who spent months in Auschwitz, where he lost his par­ents, and spent his lat­er years writ­ing slash­ing cri­tiques of the Zion­ist movement’s base exploita­tion of the Holo­caust. Like Mey­er, Hedy Epstein invoked her expe­ri­ence sur­viv­ing geno­cide (she escaped on the kinder­trans­port) to empha­size the urgency of her activism for Pales­tin­ian rights. In her final years, she embarked on an aid flotil­la to the besieged Gaza Strip and par­tic­i­pat­ed in count­less demon­stra­tions for human rights, even get­ting arrest­ed protest­ing police bru­tal­i­ty in St. Louis, Missouri.

Many Israeli Jews who had fled Europe dur­ing the 1930’s band­ed togeth­er in rad­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions like the Social­ist Bund, Matzpen and the com­mu­nist par­ty known as Maki to chal­lenge the mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion of Pales­tini­ans that began inside Israeli ter­ri­to­ry in 1949. One of the ear­li­est lead­ers of the Israeli Com­mu­nist Par­ty, Meir Vil­ner, used his posi­tion in the Knes­set (Israel’s par­lia­ment) to expose the mas­sacre by Israeli sol­diers of 47 inno­cent Pales­tin­ian farm­ers in 1956 in the town of Kfar Kassem, where Prime Min­is­ter David Ben Guri­on had ordered a media blackout.

What we want­ed to escape in Vil­na [Lithua­nia] we found here [in Israel],” Vil­ner said after uncov­er­ing the atroc­i­ties Israel’s mil­i­tary had com­mit­ted. There, hatred was direct­ed against Jews; here against Arabs.”

When these dis­si­dents could not be ignored, they have been den­i­grat­ed by pro-Israel forces as self-haters, race trai­tors and even frauds. This year, when the Aus­tri­an par­lia­ment invit­ed Hedy Epstein to par­tic­i­pate in an event on women sur­vivors of the Holo­caust, she was smeared by Efraim Zuroff, a self-styled Nazi hunter” who head­ed the Simon Wiesen­thal Center’s Jerusalem office. She is not a sur­vivor in the clas­si­cal sense,” Zuroff claimed, sug­gest­ing that Epstein’s sup­port for Pales­tin­ian rights nul­li­fied her expe­ri­ence of escap­ing geno­cide. The Jerusalem Post’s Ben­jamin Weinthal piled on, paint­ing Epstein as a pro-Hamas, anti-Israel Jew” and attempt­ing to link her to Iran­ian Holo­caust deniers. As a result of the pres­sure, the par­lia­men­tary event was can­celed. Epstein died three months lat­er at age 91.

On the day of Wiesel’s death, those who took a crit­i­cal view of his lega­cy were sub­ject­ed to the same wrath as the sur­vivors who chal­lenged the seg­re­ga­tion­ist prin­ci­ple he rep­re­sent­ed. Con­demn­ing his anti-Pales­tin­ian tirades was paint­ed by right-wing and pro-Israel out­lets as tan­ta­mount to Holo­caust denial, and invit­ed a tor­rent of incite­ment and death threats trans­mit­ted through social media. (A quick browse through my Twit­ter inter­ac­tions will show an almost end­less stream of dis­turb­ing imprecations).

With Elie Wiesel gone, his most zeal­ous defend­ers have set out to destroy those who embraced the mes­sage he espoused in his Nobel Prize accep­tance speech, but which he ulti­mate­ly failed to uphold: Silence encour­ages the tor­men­tor, nev­er the tor­ment­ed. Some­times we must inter­fere. When human lives are endan­gered, when human dig­ni­ty is in jeop­ardy, nation­al bor­ders and sen­si­tiv­i­ties become irrelevant.”

Max Blu­men­thal, a TomDis­patch reg­u­lar, is the author of the best­selling Repub­li­can Gomor­rah and of Goliath, the win­ner of the Lan­nan Foun­da­tion­al Cul­tur­al Free­dom Notable Book Award. He is a senior writer for Alter­net. His new book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resis­tance in Gaza (Nation Books). Fol­low him on Twit­ter @maxblumenthal.
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