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Archive for July, 2016

Elie Wiesel, R.I.P.

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

Elie Wiesel at Yad Vashem, 18 December 1986 (photo: AFP/Archives/Sven Nackstrand)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

I have nothing in particular to say about him that isn’t being said by everyone else. One salutes him as a witness to the Holocaust and for the role he played in instilling the memory of this—of the greatest crime in the history of the modern world—in the collective consciousness (in Europe and North America at least). As it happens, I am presently teaching a section on the Second World War in France—in which I naturally cover the Holocaust and history of antisemitism—in a course for American undergraduates on a summer program in Paris. The day before yesterday we went to the Père Lachaise cemetery, mainly to see the steles and memorials to the wartime deportees and other victims of Nazi barbarism. We lingered for a minute at the stele to the memory of those who perished at the Auschwitz III-Monowitz Buna slave labor camp, where Elie Wiesel was deported to at age 15, before the transfer to Buchenwald in the final months of the war.

Wiesel was not without blemishes, taking regrettable positions on a number of issues, e.g. supporting the Iraq war, uncritically apologizing for Israel. As Peter Beinart, entre autres, has covered that well, I won’t. The obituary in The Forward by Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, “Elie Wiesel, the moral force who made sure we will never forget evil of Holocaust,” is worth reading. Note, in particular, Berenbaum’s discussion of Wiesel’s Francophilia

Offered French citizenship upon his arrival [in France in 1945], Wiesel did not understand the question and consequently refused the invitation. His statelessness and the intricacies of traveling without a passport was the reason he stated for becoming an American citizen a decade later. Thus, unlike many survivors who immigrated to the United States, Wiesel regarded France – and not America – as the land in which he rebuilt his life in freedom.

Those who worked with him in France remembered his intense desire to learn French and to absorb French literature and the thrills of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the purveyors of French existentialism. He had a passion for music, and earned his meager living by leading a choir and to his final days he loved to sing. He was determined to master the language. Jack Kolbert wrote that “Wiesel chose to write in French just as a convert chooses a new religion.”

Wiesel wrote: “I owe France my secular education, my language and my career as a writer… It was in France that I found compassion and humanity. It was in France that I found generosity and friendship. It was in France that I discovered the other side, the brighter side of mankind.”

Wiesel was kinder than many French Jews – and even many contemporary Frenchmen and women – who recoil at the French cooperation with the Germans in the deportation of Jewish children and the betrayal of non-citizens and even French Jews.

Like Samuel Beckett, Wiesel chose to write in his adopted language French – neither Yiddish even though Yiddish was his native tongue, nor Hebrew, the sacred tongue in which he pursued his journalistic career. And not even English, the language of the land in which he lived for more the last three score years of his life.

Also see the obituary in The New York Times by Joseph Berger.

UPDATE: I asked Holocaust scholar and friend Marc Masurovsky for his thoughts on Elie Wiesel. His response:

Elie Wiesel? He created a persona and fell into the trap of that persona. I give him tremendous credit for having put into accessible words the trauma that he survived. But I fault him for not having done enough for the cause of restitution. In fact, he never spoke out on behalf of those who sought looted art. If he had, I believe that Holocaust educational institutions would have been placed in an uncomfortable position and would have had to choose whether or not to heed his message. That’s how influential he has been and will continue to be. I do credit him for having dissented with the pre-Holocaust museum board for having presented a more spiritual vision of what a Museum should look like. But then, that’s why we don’t put poets in charge of policy and politics.

Following up

One more point. The US Holocaust Memorial Council almost threw Elie out because he threw his support behind the first iteration of the New York-based Museum for Jewish Heritage, at a time when the USHMM was not even built. Also, he supported a competing design for the museum, proposed by Israeli architects which would have been a superb memorial, devoid of content.

2nd UPDATE: The well-known gauchiste political scientist Corey Robin, playing the empêcheur de tourner en rond, has fired off a dissenting view on Elie Wiesel on his blog.

3rd UPDATE: Another Holocaust scholar friend of mine, who asked not to be named here—as he doesn’t wish to publicly debate the issue—wrote this to me about Elie Wiesel:

I deliberately didn’t post anything on Wiesel, besides the Beinart piece from Haaretz. Weisel was blind to the nature and extent of Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, and what made this so lamentable was the fact that he was the public face of defending human rights and “never again.” The letters to Weisel by Arthur Hertzburg reveal the hypocrisy or lack of moral clarity on Weisel’s part. Regarding Holocaust Studies, among specialists Weisel was regarded as a pop culture bullshit artist, claiming he had read everything there is on the subject, while remaining pretty shallow when he appeared in academic forums. Of course, there was his personal experience on which to draw, but not much more than that (despite a huge expanse of scholarly analysis). On television, he was always predictable with that studied sad, perplexed expression. One of my close friends was on the original Holocaust Museum committee, and almost quit over how much campaigning there had been to get Weisel a Nobel prize, sometimes side tracking the work at hand. During the last Gaza war, I tried to get a few of the younger Holocaust scholars to join me in addressing an open letter to Weisel, very much along the lines that Hertzberg already had laid out. No one dared to do so, though they were embarrassed by Weisel’s silence and deflecting the crucial moral issues regarding how a Jewish state, born of the Holocaust, could act with such indifference to the taking of innocent lives. That said, before the Holocaust had become a major issue and a field of study, Weisel stood almost alone in keeping the subject from passing into oblivion like so much of what had happened to civilians during World War Two. Weisel personified and embodied Jewish suffering in Europe; he was an important symbol. Eventually, in my view, his moment had passed, but he could not accommodate himself to a place outside the limelight. I tended to switch the channel whenever he was on television, rather than endure his repetitions and posturing.

4th UPDATE: Writer, business consultant, and liberal Zionist Bernard Avishai has a remembrance of Elie Wiesel in The New Yorker. Money quote

Remarkably, however, there is not a word in the Times obituary about the occupation of the Palestinian territories. That is not an oversight. To the dismay of Israeli peace activists, and their supporters abroad, who’ve seen Wiesel’s unique international stature grow over two generations—and sought his support—he rarely if ever publicly raised his voice against any Israeli actions: not the bombings of Beirut in 1982; not the subsequent massacre, by Lebanese Phalangists, at Sabra and Shatila, within the perimeter held by the Israeli Army; not the disgraceful behavior of settlers in Hebron; not the encirclement by Israeli ministries of Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood; not the obstacles placed before international efforts to restore potable water and electricity to the residents of Gaza. Many of us who admired him in our youth became increasingly impatient with his inability to see the occupation for what it was. Primo Levi, also a survivor of Auschwitz, condemned Menachem Begin’s war in Lebanon as “success achieved with an unprincipled use of arms.” For Levi, evil was too explicably human to be absolute: “I feel indignant toward those who hastily compare the Israeli generals to Nazi generals, and yet I have to admit that Begin draws such judgments on himself . . . I fear that this undertaking [in Lebanon], with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure . . . I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel.”

5th UPDATE: Riki Lippitz, cantor of the Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange NJ—with whom I was acquainted in high school (I was, and remain, friends with her sister, Lori)—shared her personal memories of Elie Wiesel on WNYC News.

6th UPDATE: Lebanese-American writer and pundit Hussein Ibish—who is presently Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington—writes in Foreign Policy that “Elie Wiesel’s moral imagination never reached Palestine: The great writer’s humanitarianism knew no bounds — except where it met his nationalism.”

See also the op-ed in Haaretz by Simone Zimmerman and Jacob Plitman—both activists in progressive Jewish organizations—”Remembering Elie Wiesel means recognizing Palestinian suffering even if he never could.”

7th UPDATE: Two pieces on Wiesel from past years, which have been making the rounds on social media: Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, “Response to Elie Wiesel [on his statement on Hamas],” in the gauchiste CounterPunch (September 9, 2014); and Arthur Hertzberg, “An open letter to Elie Wiesel [in regard to his declarations on the Intifada],” in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 1988) (h/t Eric Goldstein).

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery , Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris

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