Elie Wiesel spoke out eloquently against violence and injustice… except when he endorsed them.
Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 to a prominent Jewish family in Romania. By the age of 15, he found himself in Auschwitz concentration camp, where his parents and one of his three siblings died. After the liberation of the camp, he spent time in France.
After a short time, Wiesel went to work as a translator for Irgun, a terrorist group that had a reputation for bombing and shooting innocent Arab Palestinians. It was during Wiesel’s Irgun days that the group participated in the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre, in which over 250 unarmed Palestinian civilians were brutally murdered.
For ten years after the war, Wiesel says he would not speak or write about his experiences. Eventually he wrote a memoir, which was later abridged and translated into English as Night. Despite questions about its truthfulness (“in its central, most crucial scene, Night isn’t historically true, and at least two other important episodes are almost certainly fiction”), It has become a classic.
Eventually, Wiesel became a prominent advocate for peace and justice around the world.
His activism included speaking out for Soviet, Ethiopian, Romanian, and Ukranian Jews, as well as Vietnamese boat people, victims of South African apartheid, genocide in Bosnia, Darfur, and Armenia, and other at-risk groups around the world.
In 1986, Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end violence, oppression, and racism. The Nobel Committee stated: “Wiesel’s commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples and races.” His profound experiences, and his profound response, birthed in him the words of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
…When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant…that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe…There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person…one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.
In The Watchtower (June 15, 1995), he declared,
The duty of the survivor is to bear testimony to what happened . . . You have to warn people that these things can happen, that evil can be unleashed. Race hatred, violence, idolatries—they still flourish.
Mr. Wiesel must have forgotten his own advice, because in the ensuing years, he missed many opportunities to speak out, to bear testimony – opportunities that were literally right under his nose.
For example, in 1999 he endorsed NATO bombs that were blowing up civilians and journalists in Yugoslavia; in 2003 he advocated for war against Iraq, declaring it a necessary moral act because the situation was “a moral crisis similar to 1938.”
And Wiesel was consistently unmoved when the victims under his nose were Palestinian.
The phenomenon of ignoring Palestinian victims, known in activist circles as PEP—Progressive Except Palestine—is a primary enabler of the ad nauseum occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza, and the systemic oppression of Palestinians within Israel itself. Many groups and individuals that are devoted to justice stop short of defending the oppressed people of the Holy Land.
Mr. Elie Wiesel, the “messenger to mankind,” ought to have been above that kind of limited thinking, but he was not.
Like many, he viewed Israel through rose-colored glasses, despite his first hand knowledge. Wiesel could have, should have spoken out against the oppression of Palestinians, but instead sided with the oppressors. It has become the task of others to correct a Nobel Laureate.
Exhibit A, the Goldstone Report, 2009
Elie Wiesel chose the wrong side when it came to the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the United Nations. The independent fact-finding team, which began its work in April 2009, was headed by Jewish (and Zionist) South African Richard Goldstone. Its task was to investigate alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during Operation Cast Lead. Although the scope of work was originally to examine Israeli actions only, Goldstone insisted on probing the Palestinian side as well.
The 3-week conflict, also known as the Gaza War and the Gaza Massacre, was Israel’s attempt to stop rocket fire and weapon smuggling by Palestinians. Casualties included over 1,400 Palestinians dead and 13 Israelis – 4 from friendly fire.
Prime Minister Netanyahu called the whole investigation a “kangaroo court,” and Israel refused to cooperate with the team or to grant visas for the investigation.
The report, presented in September 2009, concluded that both the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militants had committed war crimes, charging that Israel’s military campaign was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate, and terrorize…and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.” It also accused Israel of collective punishment in the years-long economic blockade of Gaza.
The report described “an overall policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population…possibly with the intent of forcing a change [in its support for Hamas].”
(As an aside, the use of violence against civilians to force a political change is the definition of terrorism.)
The report continued:
[T]here appears also to have been an assault on the dignity of the people…in the use of human shields and unlawful detentions… vandalizing of houses…obscenities and often racist slogans, all constituted an overall image of humiliation and dehumanization of the Palestinian population.
The mission further considers that the series of acts that the series of acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy, could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.
Israel rejected the report, while Hamas reluctantly accepted it.
Ian Kelly of the US State Department complained that the report (which, keep in mind, addressed a conflict in which Palestinian deaths were 100 times higher than Israeli deaths), “focuses overwhelmingly on Israel’s actions.” Nobel Peace laureate and former prime minister Shimon Pares considered the report a “mockery of history” and accused the team of failing to “distinguish between the aggressor and a state exercising its right to self-defense.”
Elie Wiesel joined in the criticism of the Goldstone Report:
One thing is clear to me, that document was unnecessary.
Without explaining his first statement, he added, significantly,
I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be.
(No doubt the families of the 1,400 dead Palestinians – half of them civilians, 252 of them children – would dispute this statement.)
American Jewish journalist Peter Beinart took Wiesel to task for these statements:
Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is…“We are making the lives of millions unbearable,” declares one former Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, in the film “The Gatekeepers.” In the West Bank, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force,” notes another, Avraham Shalom. A third, Yuval Diskin, calls the occupation a “colonial regime.”
These men don’t hate Israel; they have dedicated their lives to protecting it. But unlike Wiesel, they are discussing the real Israel, not the one they have constructed in their minds. Why is Elie Wiesel, one of the world’s great champions of human rights, denying the human rights abuses to which even Israel’s own former Shin Bet chiefs have testified?
Rabbi Brant Rosen concurred:
As far as I’m concerned, Justice Richard Goldstone is precisely the kind of courageous Jewish moral hero that Wiesel himself purports to be: someone committed to advocating for universal human rights even when doing so might mean holding our own community painfully to account. As for Wiesel, I’m finding his words and actions increasingly craven. No one begrudges him his opinions – but it’s time he dropped the pretense that he’s somehow beyond the political fray.
Under great pressure from the Jewish community in his home of South Africa, Goldstone eventually backpedaled somewhat on one of the charges. However, he failed to address new evidence that actually reinforced his original findings, as well as a report on Israel’s failure to investigate its violations of the laws of war.
Wiesel declined to acknowledge Israel’s need for censure, expressing that
[Richard Goldstone] has a good name, and I’ve known him for years… He should have refused to head the committee, because of the anti-Israel mandate under which it was established.
This refusal to stand up for the oppressed contradicts the vow he made in his commencement speech at Washington University, St. Louis:
In fact it is the otherness of the other that makes me who I am. I am always to learn from the other. And the other is, to me, not an enemy, but a companion, an ally, and of course, in some cases of grace, a friend. So the other is never to be rejected, and surely not humiliated.
and the words of his Nobel acceptance speech:
None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims. War dehumanizes, war diminishes, war debases all those who wage it. The Talmud says, “Talmidei hukhamim marbin shalom baolam” (It is the wise men who will bring about peace).
One might expect Mr. Wiesel to lay low for a good, long time after such blatant duplicity. One would be mistaken.
Exhibits B and C: Visit to the White House and public/open letter to Obama, 2010
In May of 2010, Elie Wiesel was invited to the White House for lunch with Israel’s greatest benefactor, the President of the United States. Wiesel, master of persuasion and nuance, decorated for his efforts to end violence, oppression, and racism, had the ear of the leader of the free world.
Wiesel once said,
But instead of speaking of peace, he chose as his topic of conversation, “don’t pressure Israel to cease settlement activity in Jerusalem.”
Mankind needs peace more than ever…Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.
President Obama, who strongly opposed settlements, simply listened politely.
For good measure, Wiesel also undertook a PR campaign in the form of a public letter, which appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He painted an idyllic picture of his homeland of Israel:
“[F]or the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.”
It didn’t take long for the record to be set straight—by prominent Jewish Jerusalemites—who published a letter of their own in the New York Review of Books, correcting Wiesel’s false statements:
We write to you from Jerusalem to convey our frustration, even outrage…We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name.
We invite you to our city to [see that] Arabs are not allowed to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem. You will see the gross inequality in allocation of municipal resources and services…Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes to make room for a new Jewish neighborhood… Silwan, where dozens of houses face demolition because of the Jerusalem Municipality’s refusal to issue building permits to Palestinians.
Another Israeli who weighed in on the housing issue was former Israeli Cabinet Minister Yossi Sarid, who addressed Wiesel in Ha’aretz,
Someone has deceived you, my dear friend. Not only may an Arab not build “anywhere,” but he may thank his god if he is not evicted from his home and thrown out onto the street with his family and property.
Israeli Daniel Seidemann, a “one-man early-warning system” for changes in Jerusalem that undermine the peace process, called Wiesel’s words “factually inaccurate” and “morally specious.” He gave specific examples:
So while Wiesel may purchase a home in anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, a Palestinian cannot.
Due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington’s National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City’s al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.
Another Israeli who called Wiesel out for inaccuracies was Ha’aretz writer Gideon Levy:
If I were Elie Wiesel, such a famous Holocaust survivor, a Nobel Prize laureate whose voice is heard in high places, I would ask my friend in the White House, for the sake of peace, Israel’s future and world peace: Please, Mr. President, be forceful. Israel depends on you as never before. Isolated as never before, it’s as good as dead without American support. Therefore, Mr. President, I would say to Obama over the kosher meal that was served, be a true friend of Israel and extricate it from its misfortune…
Instead…Wiesel haggled for wholesale postponement…To postpone. Postpone and postpone, like Netanyahu, who sent him, asked him to do.
And finally, both European and American Jewish leaders—some of whom had lived in Israel—circulated petitions garnering thousands of signatories,
The European petition, “A Call To Reason,” signed by over 5,000, stated that
the occupation and the continuing pursuit of settlements in the West Bank and in the Arab districts of Jerusalem . . . are morally and politically wrong and feed the unacceptable de-legitimation process that Israel currently faces abroad.
The American petition, “For the Sake of Zion,” echoed the European document, adding,
[W]e abhor the continuing occupation that has persisted for far too long; it cannot and should not be sustained. [W]e call upon Israel immediately to cease construction of housing in the disputed territories.”
Wiesel was apparently unconvinced, rendering hollow his earlier pronouncement that
the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead. (US News & World Reportt, 27 October 1986)
Exhibit D: Ha’aretz ad congratulating settlers in East Jerusalem, 2014
Due to his global fame, Elie Wiesel was offered positions on boards of directors all over Israel. The one he chose to accept was the chair of the board of Elad.
Elad is a right-wing NGO which operates in East (Arab) Jerusalem. The organization has two objectives: to settle Jews in the primarily Arab neighborhood of Silwan, and to operate tourist and excavation sites. The settlement aspect of the project involves expelling Palestinians. Richard Silverstein dubbed Elad’s aggressive settler movement “Jewish jihad, literally a Jewish struggle for dominance of the Holy City.” (For details, read this.)
In early October, 2014, Ha’aretz had reported that Elad was in the market for Israeli Jews to temporarily live in 25 recently-purchased apartments in Silwan, guarding them until the new Jewish settlers moved in. The job description: “In principle, you’re supposed to be quiet and simply occupy the compound…As far as we’re concerned, you live in the house, but it’s better if you have a weapon.”
Silwan’s Palestinian residents have, in the last two decades, been subject to eviction, home demolition, and aggressive buy-outs, transforming their neighborhood a Jewish-Israeli controlled enclave. According to Ha’aretz, “Life in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan has become unbearable, both for the Jewish settlers who would like to be able to leave home without being stoned and the Palestinians who suffer the heavy hand of the police and the settlers’ security guards.”
Wiesel and the organization he headed, Elad, placed the following announcement in Ha’aretz on October 10, 2014:
On the eve of Sukkot, we are happy to congratulate the dozens of Jewish families that are joining the Israeli settlement of Ir David [the settlers’ name for Silwan]. We salute the Zionist work of those who take part in this mission. Strengthening Jewish presence in Jerusalem is the challenge for all of us, and by your act of settlement you make us all stand taller.
Ha’aretz once again put the matter in perspective:
We must reckon with Wiesel’s erasure of others’ suffering as seriously as we embrace the remembrance of our own…The memory of our collective suffering, articulated by Wiesel and others, grants us the ability to see and to understand the collective pain of others…What are we to do with the fact that…Wiesel was head of the board of Elad, an organization at the forefront of expelling Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem? That he worked to further a violent religious nationalist agenda?
In fact, Wiesel’s work with Elad was at odds with not only social justice, but even with his own words. In 2011 he had declared at the commencement of Washington University in St. Louis,
The greatest commandment, to me, in the Bible is not the Ten Commandments…My commandment is, “Thou shall not stand idly by.” Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by. When you hear of a person or a group being persecuted, do not stand idly by…You must intervene. You must interfere. And that is actually the motto of human rights…And therefore wherever something happens, I try to be there as a witness.
(Except, of course, when the persecuted are Palestinian.)
Exhibit E: Open letter regarding Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, 2015
Early in 2015, as President Obama was hammering out a nuclear agreement with Iran, PM Benjamin Netanyahu wished to bend Congress’ ear to halt the negotiations. Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell essentially arranged the speech behind Obama’s back, to “make sure that there was no interference.”
Once word got out, President Obama declined to attend the speech. Elie Wiesel then went into action, publishing – with the help of pro-Israel Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – an open letter:
Many centuries ago a wicked man in Persia named Haman advised, “There exists a nation…It is not in our interest to tolerate them.” And the order went out to all the provinces to “annihilate, murder, and destroy the Jews. Now Iran, modern Persia, has produced a new enemy…
Should we not show our support for what might be the last clear warning before a terrible deal is struck [between the US and Iran]?…As one who has seen the enemies of the Jewish people make good on threats to exterminate us, how can I remain silent?…Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?
Ha’aretz stepped up to challenge Wiesel’s assumptions, pointing out that he
makes two assertions, neither of which he makes any effort to prove. The first is that the United States and Iran are on the verge of “a terrible deal.” What makes the deal, which has not even been struck, “terrible?” Wiesel doesn’t say. The second is that a nuclear Iran would likely mean “‘the annihilation and destruction’ of Israel.” This, too, requires evidence that Wiesel does not provide.
The Ha’aretz authors also point out that Wiesel’s appeal to the biblical story of Esther is flawed because it is incomplete. The account states that after Haman fell from power, Persia’s Jews
“with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction… slew of their foes seventy and five thousand.”
If the Book of Esther offers a haunting warning of the violence Jews can suffer, why does it not also warn us of the violence Jews can inflict? And if Wiesel is so alarmed by threats of nuclear annihilation, why does he keep embracing his former patron Sheldon Adelson, who in 2013 urged the United States to drop an “atomic weapon” in the Iranian desert, and then, if the Iranians don’t halt their nuclear program, drop one “in the middle of Tehran” so the Iranians are “wiped out.”
Progressive Jewish American organization J Street reacted strongly to the scheduled speech behind which Wiesel stood so firmly. Responding to Netanyahu’s claim that he would be speaking as a representative of all Jewish people everywhere, the group created a petition entitled “I’m a Jew. Bibi does NOT speak for me.” 20,000 signatures indicated that not all Jews favored his Iran policies or his relationship with the White House.
Wiesel wanted to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of Iran, ignoring the irony of Israel’s own nukes at the ready, and the incongruity of Israel’s de facto “it is not in our interest to tolerate” position toward Palestinians.
But again, Wiesel’s own words were even more haunting than the witness of thousands of other Jews.
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world.
We ask, over and over, how a people who have suffered so much could inflict so much suffering on another people. We wonder how a man who has so precisely described evil could not recognize it in front of him, how he could speak so eloquently about compassion but fail to have a morsel of it for his neighbors.
Hussein Ibish, writing for Foreign Policy, makes sense of the moral quagmire of Elie Wiesel’s mind:
[T]he underlying assumption is irredeemably flawed. It presumes that people, whether individuals or collectivities, somehow learn from their negative experiences not to repeat them.
Of course, that is not the case. “Hurt people hurt people.” Maybe Elie Wiesel was too broken by his experiences to see clearly what his Israel was doing. Maybe he deserves a pass.
In that case, it behooves the new generation of Israelis and pro-Israel individuals and groups to do what Wiesel could not: take off the rose-colored glasses; do the hard work of acknowledging past and present wrongs. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. As Wiesel once said,
I have to be self-conscious of what I’m trying to do with my life.
Kathryn Shihadah is a staff writer for If Americans Knew.