This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
I never pursued Elie Wiesel like some other Jews who felt that his memory of the Holocaust deflected, even buried, the complicity of Israel and the Jewish establishment in America in the injustice done to the Palestinian people. Over the years, I studied and wrote about Wiesel in a respectful and critical way.
It wasn’t just critics of Israeli policies toward Palestinians who had their fill of Wiesel on the public stage. I will never forget a prominent liberal rabbi complaining that Wiesel was cashing in on the Holocaust. When he ended his stinging indictment – “There’s no business, like Shoah business” – he expected from me a sign of solidarity. I cringed and walked away.
Now there is a reflection by Wiesel’s son, Elisha, in the Forward on the first Rosh Hashanah since his father’s passing last year. Again respect is due. Each one of us has a right to remember his or her father in the way we need to.
Yet Elisha’s reflection is a public one, of his famous father, and the way he remembers his father is important. How Elie Wiesel is remembered is important for us, too.
After some personal reminiscing, Elisha concentrates on his father’s message to Jews and the world:
What was my father’s message?
Listen to the prophet Isaiah in yesterday’s Haftorah, the reading from the prophets: “For the sake of Zion, I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest, until her righteousness comes out like brilliance, and her salvation burns like a torch.”
Not to be silent… not to rest. When I see friends standing up for DACA Dreamers, or refusing to accept false moral equivalence in Charlottesville, or demanding the world’s recognition of the Jewish State of Israel’s right to exist, I hear the message. And I feel him with us.
But there was something about my father that went even deeper than his humanitarian efforts and social activism, something that was a source for those outward manifestations.
I find Elie Wiesel’s deeper manifestation in Elisha’s cadence, much like his father’s. Rather than fact or dogma, their words have a liturgical resonance. Father and son communicate a liturgy of commitment and inclusion on the personal and collective level. Yet like his father, Elisha leaves important elements of the Jewish present out. I wouldn’t call what is left out an issue. Issues can be resolved over time and, often, through small steps. Rather what Elisha leaves out is more like a confessional commandment: his father’s, now his complicity in the ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.
Notice, when Elisha addresses DACA and Charlottesville, he calls for justice, compassion and inclusion. When it comes to Israel, his vision narrows. Elisha calls for the recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Nowhere are Palestinians mentioned. Or Israel’s settlement polices in Jerusalem and the West Bank. On Gaza, Elisha is silent. The call among some of Israel’s political and religious leaders to further diminish Palestinian life are likewise unmentioned. As is the need for Jews to listen to Jews of Conscience in solidarity with Palestinians.
Instead, Elisha moves on to more apolitical issues:
Do you walk your friend to the elevator or the lobby and not just the front door, the way he would?
Do you put aside what you are doing when a human being, child or adult, has a story they want to share?
If you were his student, and are now a teacher, do you treat every student as a soul to be carefully heard and nurtured during your time with them?
If remembering my father leaves you a little less cynical, a little less self-absorbed, a little more open to other people than you would have been otherwise, then the message is still being received. Still being broadcast. And the messenger is still here.
Aren’t these pointers a little too easy for the rigor of the holy days that are upon us?
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, leads to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The path from one to the other is one of confession and commitment to change. What makes Elisha’s remembrance of his father tragic is that he fails to realize that one honors the memory of one’s parents by taking up the torch, recognizing their witness, and articulating how we, their children, can move further along the road of justice and compassion.
Nostalgia for Jewish innocence isn’t the way forward. As Jews, we are no longer innocent. What Elisha leaves out is crucial. How can we move forward without recognizing what needs to be done?
In the end, Elisha’s Rosh Hashanah remembrance saddens me because he fails to understand that the limits of his father, indeed his father’s complicity in the suffering of Palestinians, need not be his own.
Yet Elisha’s own limitation raises, in an urgent way, the way our sons and daughters will remember us.
The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur season is a time of reckoning. Of course we are flawed. Who better to know that than our sons and daughters? Yet if we speak and act at the most difficult points of our collective and personal life, we provide hope for our children’s future.
Though fragmented and broken, a way forward – a Jewish future of justice and compassion – is possible. Our sons and daughters can take up the torch passed to them and pass it along to their children.
So it is, what I believe Elisha left out, our Book of Life, where we are written in or out during these coming days: “Here I am. Send me.”