Shmuley Boteach was joined by Elie Wiesel, Samantha Power, and Noah Feldman at the Cooper Union on Monday night for a discussion called “Genocide and the Jews: A Never-Ending Problem” — a title that evoked Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. It was an evening characterized by uneasy contradictions, as the panelists differed on the basis for criticizing Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, the significance of accusing the Jewish state of genocide, and the prospect of a Shoah-like catastrophe in the age of Zionism. Power sat out the discussion, delivering only a pro forma tribute to Wiesel, but the presence of the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave the evening a troubling relevance, as Palestinians were once again exempted from the official list of peoples deserving our protection: “today,” Power said, “this could include Yazidis and Christians in Iraq, tomorrow, it could include other groups…” She trailed off without elaborating. But it was hard to disagree when Power asserted that “so much of our moral architecture was defined by what we read at a young age,” praising the author of Night’s “willingness to bend his pen and bend those words to capture history and the moral choices that each of us have.” She mentioned in passing Wiesel’s reference to Palestinian suffering in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech but did not discuss his professed refusal to critize Israel.
The event — well-attended, with many students in the audience — was “as much a tribute to Elie Wiesel as it is a discussion of this most seminal of subjects,” Boteach told us, “why it is that when it comes to genocide and the Jews, it is indeed a never-ending problem.” Wiesel would seem to disagree later on: when Boteach cited “incendiary language” by Iran’s Supreme Leader and asked whether a genocide of the Jews is possible today, Wiesel answered, “Genocide means the extinction, the extermination of an entire people. Is that possible? Of course not. That’s possible only if the Jews live in one place, at the same time, threatened by the same enemy.” “Six million now live in one place,” Boteach interjected, “it’s a very eerie number.” Wiesel was unpersuaded: “Israel is a very strong country.” Boteach pressed on, arguing that “even if Israel is good at defending itself,” marginalization by the world makes a small country’s position precarious; charges that Israel is “attacking a civilian population,” bombing children and destroying schools, could “neutralize” the IDF: “suddenly, you’re fighting with two hands tied behind your back.”
The bestselling author of Kosher Sex and Kosher Jesus began the evening in the mode of a showman, joking about everyone in the audience getting a car — “at least Mort Klein of the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] appreciates that” — before introducing the guest of honor:
“I want you to know, that any room in which Elie Wiesel is to be found is a special evening that will be unforgettable. You will tell your children and your grandchildren about this evening together with Professor Wiesel, who will live to a robust and healthy 120, at the very least… You will tell them that you sat in the same room as the greatest living Jewish personality on planet Earth. You will tell them that you were in the same room as one of the three most respected human beings alive. On any list, the only people who would be in the pantheon of Elie Wiesel, the world’s leading humanitarian, would be the Dalai Lama, with whom I had the great honor of sharing a platform just 10 days go in Alabama, and Pope Francis. But no one else would be in that pantheon, because no one else has devoted their lives towards establishing the infinite worth of every individual, and the unqualified dignity of the human person.
My friends, with us tonight is the face of the Holocaust… the very living embodiment of the martyred six million… a true legend in his own lifetime… the pride and radiance of the Jewish people… the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace… and the voice that dared thunder and challenge the heavens itself in the face of the world’s greatest crime… the one, and the only, Elie Wiesel.”
Boteach introduced Power as “one of the world’s incredible women” and, “after Prof. Wiesel, the world’s foremost voice against genocide, which is why it was my dream to put them together on the same stage.” The third most important voice on the subject, he said, is President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who appeared at the same venue one year ago with Boteach, Wiesel, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. (Boteach’s admiration for Kagame is interesting: it’s as though, in light of the military action that won the Rwandan civil war and halted the mass killing of Kagame’s fellow Tutsis, subsequent atrocities in which the president has been implicated are somehow negligible.) He added that he truly believes Power, who was born in Ireland, “is in and of herself enough of an argument for there to be a constitutional amendment” allowing non-native-born citizens to become president. (“Rarely has the American people been more enriched by someone who joined this great nation like you, Samantha.”) This seems like idle flattery until you remember how Boteach went to bat for Power when she faced stiff opposition from so-called supporters of Israel including the aforementioned Mort Klein, whose ZOA came out swinging against her nomination to the UN ambassadorship. Boteach helped her to “clarify” previous statements on the conflict, some of which were in fact extreme by elite U.S. standards; for instance that the government should consider “a mammoth protection force” for Palestine, “because it seems to me at this stage, and this is true of actual genocides as well and not just major human rights abuses which we’re seeing there, you have to go in as if you’re serious.” An invitation to Power’s White House office, a tearful “closed-door meeting of about 40 American Jewish leaders”, and all was well.
Pivoting from a speech Power gave last week in Berlin (“one of the most courageous speeches against Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism in modern world history”), Boteach revealed the reason “we wanted to organize this event so badly”: to respond to Mahmoud Abbas’s September 22 appearance in that same hall, in front of “an audience that gave him an ovation,” days before he addressed the UN General Assembly and “fraudulently and falsely accused Israel of a genocide against the Palestinians, repeating the oldest canard in the book: that the Jews are guilty of a blood libel, this time on a collective mass scale, against every available shred of evidence to the contrary.” Boteach averred “that every Palestinian child is the equal of a Jewish child, but if our people are maligned, we must respond.” He said Wiesel told him not to worry, that people won’t believe the charge; “I reminded him that when they said we killed God, the world believed them.”
In contrast to Boteach’s fervor, Power seemed subdued, her remarks almost perfunctory. She spoke of the need to prevent the Nazi atrocities from coming to seem like “last century’s genocide, a remote historical event. We must always ensure that while the photos and film footage of the Holocaust are in black and white, we teach the facts in color.” This, she suggested, was in part the significance of assigning Wiesel’s memoir Night to “generations of children”: “so they can learn the uniquely unspeakable history of the Holocaust itself.” But more than showing “the evil of the executioners,” the book depicts also “the moral agency of those who could have been upstanders but chose instead to be bystanders”:
“To read Night is to ask, ‘What would I have done? How would I have behaved differently?’ Even more, to read Night is also to ask, what am I doing? What am I doing to stop atrocities in my time?’ Just as when we say ‘never again,’ we are making a commitment that goes beyond defending the Jewish people, so too when we read Night, we are reading a book whose lessons go beyond even the Holocaust.”
Later, Boteach announced to general applause that it is Power who personally exercises the U.S. veto to prevent Israel from facing censure in the Security Council.
The panel was filled out by Feldman, a Harvard law professor who advised the Coalition Provisional Authority on drafting an Iraqi constitution, and Boteach’s son Mendy, an undergraduate at NYU. Feldman walked a delicate line throughout the evening, explaining that “since Israel is a state and not the manifestation solely of a religion, it can’t be the case that to criticize it necessarily entails you in criticism of the religion.” But as “it is obviously the case that it’s possible to criticize Israel from anti-Semitic motives,” we are left “with an extremely difficult quandary…namely that we have to figure out whether the particular form of criticism is derived from anti-Semitic sources or isn’t.” I wanted to ask Feldman whether an intellectual should be concerned primarily with the validity of a criticism, rather than the motives of the critic, but he was swarmed by students as soon as the event ended.
Feldman ascribed Abbas’s accusation of genocide to “the structure of rhetoric in politics”: while it is “false as a statement of fact and as a statement of law” that Israel is genocidal, the charge has power because of a connection in people’s minds between the Holocaust and the rationale for founding a Jewish state. He went on to say that “the degree of criticism of Israel with respect to the situation of Palestinians is connected to an intuition that is probably morally correct”:
“Given that there’s an intuition that different peoples should be able to live on their own in their own states, it’s natural perhaps to think that if one is not living that way, then its status as a nation is being some way impugned. And the concept of genocide is bound up with the idea of the nation-state, or at least of the nation; it’s bound up with the idea that a people has a special right to exist, and that’s why it’s worse to destroy a nation than simply to destroy all of the people, the same number of people, without trying to destroy an entire nation.”
“I don’t think it’s correct in this case,” he added, “but you can see the associative logic of it.”
Mendy Boteach went on to efface the distinction Feldman had labored to draw between religious prejudice and political criticism. Encouraged by his father to discuss the state of debate on college campuses, in particular whether Jewish students face anti-Semitism, Boteach rehearsed the familiar charge that Israel is singled out for condemnation, but with a twist that was especially appropriate for the evening. Genocide, he pointed out, has often been ignored: “the Armenian genocide is still not recognized by our country” (or by Israel, he might have added), “and then in Indonesia in 1965, which it’s debatable whether it was a genocide or a politicide, but in any case 500,000 to a million people were slaughtered and I bet most of the people in this room don’t even know anything happened in Indonesia in 1965.” This is surely correct, and in need of explanation; perhaps it has something to do with the fact that “the most definitive book on genocide ever written,” as Shmuley Boteach called Power’s A Problem from Hell, completely omits Suharto’s mass killings, U.S. support for the atrocities presumably having rendered them moot. Boteach’s use of “politicide” is also noteworthy: though he didn’t mention it, the term was coined by Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling to characterize “Ariel Sharon’s war against the Palestinians”.
Also of interest was Mendy Boteach’s characterization of NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine: “a very successful group on campus… I’m actually a little jealous for just their reach. I do not admire their tactics or ever want to imitate them, but they have a really far reach and they’ve creative… very immoral.”