The late Elie Wiesel was an immensely complicated figure who helped raise public awareness of the Holocaust, but who also became consumed by his own celebrity and the immense power he wielded in the world.
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.
The Levi vision is on full display in the many writings contained in the massive Complete Works which was recently published in a handsome three-volume edition by Norton.
I have commented on Levi as a Sephardic writer in the following article and said “the writing of Primo Levi continues to present a much-needed contrast to the dark fatalism of Ashkenazim like Elie Wiesel.” The differences between Wiesel and Levi and their approaches to the Holocaust and to the world are very much a product of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi split.
Wiesel lived his life in a way that reflected the Shtetl mentality of the Eastern European Jews. No matter how far he had moved in physical terms from the nightmare world of the Nazis, or how much public fame he garnered, his extensive advocacy on Holocaust matters and on human rights was always tied to these formative Ashkenazi foundations and its religious-theological complexities and muddled contradictions.
Levi on the other hand represented the cultural pluralism of the Sephardic tradition and its innate Cosmopolitan values.
Levi was an assimilated European Jew who was sometimes attacked by Ashkenazi ethnocentrists for not being “Jewish” enough, while Wiesel was intimately tied to the Jewish establishment that has so ill-served our people.
It was unfortunate, but not altogether unexpected, to see Wiesel victimized in the Bernie Madoff swindle. Like many members of the American Jewish establishment, Wiesel was hoodwinked by Madoff who presented himself as a solid member of the Zionist tribe, a loyal adherent of what has now become the primary cause of the Jewish community. Wiesel was bilked out of his personal fortune as well as money earmarked for his charitable foundation. He once famously compared Madoff to God.
Where Primo Levi shied away from the spotlight and was often made uncomfortable by this alienated Jewish ethnocentrism, Elie Wiesel was always front-and-center in the establishment Jewish community, and fully devoted to promoting its reactionary political values.
From the looks of it, Wiesel is a figure much-beloved in the Settler community and by Hard-Line Zionists more generally. He famously refused to speak out on behalf of the suffering inflicted by Israel on the Palestinian community, preferring instead to rubber-stamp official Israeli policy and remain silent on the issue of Jewish persecution of others, at the same time that he was extremely vocal on the issue of human rights for other oppressed groups in the world.
It is interesting to note that the lengthy New York Times obituary made no mention of the Palestine Question in Wiesel’s very extensive record of human rights advocacy:
For a critical look at Wiesel’s career there is the excellent article at Mondoweiss by Marc Ellis that does raise these troubling issues.
Zachary Braiterman provides a valiant, but often incoherent PILPUL argument trying to justify Wiesel’s many hypocrisies and moral failings.
There has been a rush to attack those who use Wiesel’s own moral values to criticize him, and then there are those who wish to valorize him at any cost.
In the final assessment, Wiesel contributed a great deal to our understanding of the Holocaust, while presenting this history in a framework fraught with the many problems and complications of the Ashkenazi experience and its difficult Jewish process.
By contrast, Levi’s struggle against Fascism always had the Universal as its primary focus.
In his text “Arbeit Macht Frei” we see that this universality was always uppermost in his mind.
The Holocaust was not strictly limited to Jews and Judaism, though it is obvious that Anti-Semitism played an oversize role in the barbaric Nazi movement. Levi consistently presented the matter in the framework of a universalistic concern for humanity.
The following is a key passage from the essay that typifies Levi’s understanding of the nefarious Nazi ideology:
In reality, and despite appearances to the contrary, repudiation of and contempt for the moral value of work was and is essential to the Fascist myth in all its forms. Under all militarism, colonialism, and corporatism lies the precise determination of one class to exploit the work of others, and at the same time to deny them any human worth. This determination was already clear in the anti-worker character that Italian fascism assumed from the beginning, and it continued to assert itself, with increasing precision, in the evolution of fascism in its German version, up to the vast deportation to Germany of workers from all the occupied countries. But it reached its crowning achievement and, at the same time, its reduction to the absurd in the universe of the concentration camp.
It is also important to mention here Levi’s much-discussed formulation of the “Gray Zone” which is a central thesis in his magisterial final book The Drowned and the Saved; a profound philosophical-moral interpretation of his experiences of the debased Concentration Camp universe:
We tend to simplify history, too, although we cannot always agree on the outline within which to organize facts, and consequently different historians may understand and construct history in incompatible ways. But our need to divide the field between “us” and “them” is so strong – perhaps for reasons rooted in our origins as social animals – that this one scheme, the friend-enemy dichotomy, prevails over all others. Popular history, and even history as it is traditionally taught in schools, reflects this Manichean tendency to shun nuance and complexity, and to reduce the river of human events to conflicts, and conflicts to duels, us and them, the Athenians and the Spartans, the Romans and the Carthaginians. (Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2430)
A few pages later he provides a precise formulation of how this Manicheanism is essentially false:
The truth remains that in the concentration camps and outside them, there are people who are gray, ambiguous, and quick to compromise. The extreme tension of the camp tends to augment their numbers. They bear their own share of guilt (increasing in proportion to their freedom of choice), in addition to which there are the vectors and instruments of the system’s guilt. The truth remains that most of the oppressors, during or (more often) after their actions, realized the evil they were doing or had done, and may have had misgivings, felt uneasy, or may have been punished, but their suffering is not enough for them to be counted among the victims. By the same token, the mistakes and capitulations of the prisoners are not enough to align them with their jailers: the inmates of the camps – hundreds of thousands of people from every social class and every country in Europe – represented an average, unselected sampling of humanity. Even if we leave aside the infernal environment into which they had been abruptly plunged, it is illogical to expect from them – and rhetorical and false to claim that everyone always practiced – the behavior of saints and Stoic philosophers. (Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2440)
Levi’s “Gray Zone” is a bold attempt to analyze human motivations and behaviors in a complex and nuanced manner that might still seem somewhat shocking to our simplistic sensibilities as we ponder the nightmare that is presented by Auschwitz and how it operated.
The “Gray Zone” is a very difficult philosophical idea that was not possible in Wiesel’s vision of Auschwitz, but does indeed reflect Levi’s deeply rational and transparent vision of what he saw and experienced.
And in contradistinction to Wiesel’s adamant refusal to criticize Israel, Levi remained fully committed to his moral vision of Universal Justice.
At the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 Levi wrote a heatedly polemical article “Who Has Courage in Jerusalem?” that was published in Turin’s La Stampa, Levi’s hometown newspaper, which had been publishing his columns, stories, and essays since 1968.
It is worth citing the following passage from this very courageous article:
I fear that this undertaking, with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure, and will damage its image. I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional link with Israel, but not with this Israel.
The Palestinian problem exists: it can’t be denied. It can’t be resolved in the Arafat manner, by denying Israel the right to exist, but it cannot be resolved in the Begin manner, either. Anwar Sadat was neither a genius nor a saint; he was only a man endowed with imagination, common sense, and courage, and he was killed because he had opened up a pathway. Is there no one, in Israel or elsewhere, who is capable of continuing it? (Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2597)
In one of the closing sections of the Complete Works, “Notes on the Texts,” Domenico Scarpa recounts that Levi soon joined other Italian Jewish intellectuals in calling for Begin’s resignation:
Although Levi could not have wanted it or predicted it, [his novel] If Not Now, When? came out at a bitter historical moment, shortly before the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon. He and other intellectuals of Jewish origin distanced themselves from those acts of war. Levi went so far as to call for the government of Menachem Begin to resign. On July 11, 1982, advertisements for the novel came out with the headline “Tyre Sidon Beirut, June-July 1982,” referring to the cities where the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians had taken place. (Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2860)
Scarpa notes that the ads for the book provided two Biblical quotes addressed to each of the warring parties.
Levi refused to check his morality at the door when it came to Israel. Though an ardent Zionist for many years, he was not a man who could stand idly by and not speak his mind when he thought that things were wrong.
For his outspoken and courageous stand on the Lebanon War, Levi found himself attacked by Fernanda Eberstadt in the October 1985 issue of Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary magazine. Shockingly, Eberstadt does not consider Levi “Jewish” enough:
As a writer, Primo Levi represents a relatively unfamiliar combination in the literature of the Nazi concentration camps. He is a survivor without Jewish—or, more specifically, without East European—inflections, a memoirist endowed with all the fruits of a classical Mediterranean education, an aesthete, a skeptic, a mild, equable, and eminently civilized man who is more at home in Dante and Homer than in the Bible. Some of the qualities he brings to his work—secularism, cultivation, elitism (coupled with an attitude of amused affection toward the common man), and a lack of deep familiarity with Jewish history or religion—are typical of his generation of Italian Jewish writers. Virtues that are his alone include precision, economy, subtlety, a dry and rueful wit, an intimate understanding of the dramatic potential of understatement, and a certain frigidity of manner which combines effectively with the explosiveness of his subject matter.
Levi responded to the vicious attack in Commentary with a scathing letter to the editor that was published in the February 1986 issue. The letter has now been republished in the Complete Works, volume 3, pp. 2719-2721.
Eberstadt never once explicitly mentions Levi’s attack on Begin and Israel’s Lebanon Invasion, but, in addition to the standard Anti-Sephardi racism, the article seethes with the a pent-up hostility towards those Jews who do not tow the party line.
It was a lesson that Wiesel understood very well, and it is well-nigh impossible to imagine him addressing the Israeli government as Levi did in 1982, just as it is difficult to imagine him speaking of the Holocaust in a way that does not emphasize a strictly Jewish ethnocentrism.
The Holocaust has been used in ways both legitimate and illegitimate and it has often been difficult to ferret out the differences. At one point Zionists were silent on the issue of the Holocaust, seeing European Jews as cowards, but over time began to realize that the tragedy could be used for HASBARAH purposes.
The catastrophe of the Holocaust is one that will continue to eat away at all of us and our reading of the texts of survivors like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi will serve as a key entry-point in dealing with what is often an unspeakably painful examination of the very depths of human depravity.