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.