The death of Elie Wiesel has been remarkable in exposing the fact that Israel supporters and Israel critics live on separate planets. In the mainstream media, Israel supporters have celebrated Wiesel as a universalist dedicated to remembering and exposing atrocities everywhere. These obituaries have left out Wiesel’s sad history of caring most about Jewish suffering, such as in his objection to including Roma victims at the Holocaust memorial, in his denial of the Palestinian Nakba, and his support for the Israeli settlement project that forces Palestinians off their land.
Critics of Israel have pointed out that it is impossible to understand Wiesel without appreciating this ethnocentric side of the man. But they have had virtually no influence over the mainstream accounts of Wiesel’s life.
There are two exceptions to the two-planets reality: In Haaretz, Simone Zimmerman and Jacob Plitman write that Wiesel “represented not only his generation’s greatest triumph, but perhaps also its greatest failing. As Wiesel demanded we [Jews] set ourselves apart, he closed his eyes to reality and denied Palestinian suffering.” And Hussein Ibish in Foreign Policy, observed that despite his claim not to be one, Wiesel was a religious nationalist, who asserted a Jewish right to sovereignty over Jerusalem and who, even as he memorialized the Holocaust, denied the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, saying that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had only left Palestine at the directions of their leaders.
Those two pieces are the exceptions. In the American mainstream, Wiesel is strictly a saint. The trend was evident on National Public Radio last night, when Wiesel was quoted at length saying, “I’m afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury which is dangerous to all human beings.” Without any mention of his own efforts to suppress Palestinian and Roma memories.
The New York Times was even more egregious. Its gushing obit by Joseph Berger cast Wiesel as a great defender of human rights for all peoples everywhere.
Mr. Wiesel condemned the massacres in Bosnia in the mid-1990s — “If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilize the whole world,” he said — and denounced others in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. He condemned the burnings of black churches in the United States and spoke out on behalf of the blacks of South Africa and the tortured political prisoners of Latin America.
Oh but Wiesel had “detractors.” Why? Literary foibles.
Mr. Wiesel had his detractors. The literary critic Alfred Kazin wondered whether he had embellished some stories, and questions were raised about whether “Night” was a memoir or a novel, as it was sometimes classified on high school reading lists.
Palestinian advocates just don’t count in the Times. Nor do the Roma. Here is an important fact from Isabel Fonseca’s book Bury Me Standing on gypsies and their journey. It refers to the council, or board of trustees for the US Holocaust Memorial:
It was only after the 1986 resignation of President Elie Wiesel, the survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had opposed Gypsy representation, that one Gypsy was invited onto the council.
The Telegraph was as bad as the Times.
A tireless advocate for the oppressed – not only Jews – Wiesel defended Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s “disappeared”, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, South African apartheid victims and famine victims in Africa…
Widely recognised as “the conscience of his generation”, Wiesel’s statement that “to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…” stands as a succinct summary of his views on life and always served as the driving force of his work.
The Thomson Reuters obit at CBC listed Wiesel’s advocacy for “Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, Cambodian refugees, victims of South African apartheid and of famine and genocide in Africa,” and then did mention Wiesel’s pro-Israel stances. But it did so in the most neutral terms:
Wiesel became close to U.S. President Barack Obama but the friendship did not deter him from criticizing U.S. policy on Israel. He spoke out in favor of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and pushed the United States and other world powers to take a harder stance against Iran over its nuclear program. Wiesel attended the joint session of the U.S. Congress in 2015 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the dangers of Iran’s program…
There is no sense there of the intensity of Wiesel’s support for settlers and his opposition to the deal with Iran, which all the world but Israel welcomed, because it reduced tensions in the Middle East.
Joshua Mitnick has a piece in the LA Times, from Tel Aviv, on Wiesel’s reputation in Israel, again saying nothing about Palestinians. It’s all about how it took Jews a while to wake up to Wiesel’s Holocaust message:
“Eli Wiesel died as a hero in Israel, but it took him many years to become an Israeli hero,’’ said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli American author and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Halevi is a settler; he lives in occupied East Jerusalem. The LA Times doesn’t tell us that.
There was more hagiography this morning on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Matthew Lazar, a Jewish musician, said that Wiesel mixed “particularism” and “universalism” without contradiction. “He was a proud Jew and a citizen of the world,” Lazar said.
No mention of Wiesel’s efforts on behalf of Elad, a pro-settler organization that forces Palestinians off their land in Jerusalem, or his full-page ad opposing the Iran deal.
Lehrer had the good sense to ask whether Wiesel took “a position on the Israeli Palestinian conflict… What did he have to say about the Palestinians if he was so universal?”
Guest Rabbi Ariel Burger, who had called Wiesel “the champion of memory,” offered this parcel of naked hasbara and condescending spiritual humbug as a response:
Well you know he was very close to Israeli prime ministers over several decades, and he said many times, that he criticized Israel when he was in Israel and in those conversations. [i.e., privately]
He wrote in his book A Jew Today about Palestinian suffering as well, in an open letter to Palestinians…. But he felt that we need to come from a positon of strength and commitment to ideals of peace rather than grounding our narratives in victimization… That was his strong feeling, that there’s a falsehood in that and no way to peace.
Haaretz is better on this score than any American publication. Ronen Shnidman’s obituary in Haaretz notes Wiesel’s willingness to use his celebrity for a very sectarian purpose.
Weisel was an advocate when it came to a host of Jewish issues, and in particular was stridently pro-Israel. Following a visit to the Soviet Union in 1965, he wrote about the plight of Soviet Jews in a book called “The Jews of Silence,” and spoke out in favor of the struggle to allow them to emigrate; he was also a vocal supporter of the immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In April 2010, he took out advertisements in four major newspapers, criticizing the Obama administration for pressuring the Netanyahu government to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods located across the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Wiesel repeated that tactic in 2013 when he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times calling on the U.S. administration to demand the total dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure in Iran because that country had called for Israel’s destruction.
The victory here is that two publications, Foreign Policy and Haaretz, dared to tell readers about Wiesel’s terribly mixed record. And a victory, too, that Brian Lehrer even raised the question before allowing his guest to steep his listeners in ignorance.
The Wiesel remembrances offer little hope that American consciousness is changing. And yet we all know that it is. In fact, the refusal to recognize Wiesel’s Jewish exceptionalism in the mainstream media has a generational flavor about it. Israel advocates know that his passing represents a significant, and inevitable, loss to their cause.