Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, died earlier this week at the age of 87 and is being widely eulogized. But Max Blumenthal writes that while there were many good things about Wiesel, what is being overlooked is the fact that his humanitarian impulses did not extend to everyone and his blind allegiance to Israel led him to excuse any action they took, however deplorable, and treat Palestinians as if they did not matter, that led the late Israeli politician Yossi Sarid to call Wiesel an “ethnic cleanser in a prayer shawl”.
As Blumenthal writes:
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.
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.
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.
As if to confirm Blumenthal’s thesis that anyone who dares to say anything against Wiesel becomes the target of vitriol, Hillary Clinton, who continues her determined effort to pander to right-wing extremist Israelis and their lobby in the US, blasted Blumenthal for daring to suggest that the sainted Wiesel had even the slightest flaws. (Incidentally, Max’s father Sydney is a close friend and confidante of Clinton.) Yakov Hirsch explains why the reactions to Blumenthal’s essay by the pro-AIPAC political and media sector are so harsh.
Joseph Grosso also documents that while speaking out against war in general terms, Wiesel refused to say anything against the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, or about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006. He also supported the war in Iraq and Israel’s onslaught against Gaza in 2014. Wiesel angered other Holocaust survivors who felt that Wiesel was exploiting the atrocity of the Holocaust to excuse other atrocities.
A noble sentiment indeed but not one that seemed to inspire Wiesel to live up to his peace prize, in fact evidence suggests Wiesel had a soft spot for war, at least war in the Middle East. Four years before giving his acceptance speech of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, where even an Israel commission found the Israeli military indirectly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre, “I support Israel-period. I identify with Israel-period.” When asked to comment of the massacre: ‘I don’t think we should even comment’, then commenting he felt ‘sadness with Israel, not against Israel’ with nary a peep about the actual victims. Some years later Wiesel would be wheeled into the spotlight by the Bush administration to endorse the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. His statement at the time read: ‘Isn’t war forever cruel, the ultimate form of violence….And yet, this time I support President Bush’s policy of intervention when, as is this case because of Hussein’s equivocations and procrastinations, no other option remains’.
In the midst of another Israeli operation in Lebanon, this one in 2006, Wiesel stood in front of a crowd in Manhattan (along with then Senator Hillary Clinton) and declared “Israel defends herself, and we must say to Israel ‘Go on defending yourself.’” His final years didn’t slow him down. Wiesel took out a full page ad in newspapers across the country during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict fully supporting Israel’s effort (Human Rights Watch went on to document several instances of war crimes by the Israeli military) without a syllable about diplomacy except that ‘before diplomats can begin in earnest the crucial business of rebuilding dialogue…the Hamas death cult must be confronted for what it is’. That ad was criticized by a large group of Nazi holocaust survivors in a subsequent ad in the New York Times which stated ‘Furthermore we are disgusted and outrages by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable: Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and murder more than 2000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children.’
David Shasha contrasts the behavior of Wiesel with Primo Levi, another survivor of Auschwitz, and points out that the latter had a universalist perspective that applied humanitarian principles consistently to everyone while the former was selective in his application.
It is hard not to compare the careers of Wiesel and the Italian-Sephardi Primo Levi who both survived the hell of Auschwitz, but who took very different paths to express their witness.
The stark contrast between their approaches could not be more pronounced: Levi was very much a man of rationalism, science, and literature who sought to provide a more humanistic understanding of the tragedy he experienced, while Wiesel emphasized Jewish ethnocentrism and remained wedded to the alienated Ashkenazi view of the world. Wiesel was a tortured believer, while Levi was very much a non-believer who provided a more panoramic view of culture and civilization.
Wiesel was a key part of the Abe Foxman/Alan Dershowitz institutional axis, while Levi continued in the intellectual path of the Sephardic tradition and could be seen in the line of great writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco.
When public figures die, the media tend to paint just one side of them, either to satisfy a propagandist goal or out of a misplaced sense of propriety that feels that one should not speak ill of the dead. But it is precisely at those times that a full picture of the good and the bad is needed so that posterity is not left with a distorted view.