The news of Elie Wiesel’s death in the early morning of July 2 ushered in veneration and reflections from figures across the political spectrum, from Bill Clinton and Donald Trump to Benjamin Netanyahu and George W. Bush. The outpouring of high-level praise aimed at consolidating Wiesel as the eternal voice of the Holocaust and the central preceptor of its lessons. Those who criticized his legacy or pointed out his moral contradictions, meanwhile, were ferociously attacked by the forces he helped inspire.
Back when I was in junior high school, the rabbi of my family’s synagogue urged me to read Wiesel’s book Night as part of my Bar Mitzvah preparations. The story offered a look at the existence of Jews deported to Auschwitz and Buchenwald that was as harrowing as it was accessible. Reading Night while studying a Torah portion that chronicled Israelite captivity in ancient Egypt helped cement the Holocaust as a central component of my Jewish identity. Countless other Jews my age experienced Wiesel’s work in a similar fashion and many came to idolize him. Like me, few of them knew much about the man beyond the tribulation he endured in Hitler’s death camps.
Though my experience was particular to American Jewish life, the general public has been familiarized with Wiesel over the course of several generations through educational curricula and an expansive commercial apparatus. In 2006, after Oprah Winfrey’s embarrassing promotion of James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to be a fabrication, her book club made Night its monthly selection. The public relations maneuver drove the book onto the national bestseller list and centered its author in the celebrity limelight. Soon after, Oprah joined Wiesel on a tour of Auschwitz, where he spoke before a camera crew in mystical terms about the souls of those were exterminated and how he communed with them as he stepped across the hallowed ground.
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Through Oprah, Wiesel secured his brand as the high priest of Holocaust theology, the quasi-religion he introduced some 30 years earlier in a New York Times op-ed: “The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event,” he insisted, “the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know.”
Reflecting on the impact of Wiesel’s work, Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin wrote that he had “turn[ed] the Holocaust into an industry of middlebrow morality and manipulative sentimentality” while sacralizing “the ovens [as] our burning bush.” For the masses of Jewish Americans who subscribed to Wiesel’s secular theology, he was a post-war Moses who interceded between the Western world and a catastrophe that substituted for a merciful God.
While Wiesel leveraged his literary talents to win sympathy for Jewish victims of genocide, he sought to limit the narratives of other groups subjected to industrial-level extermination. As a member of the advisory council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992, he lobbied against recognizing LGBTQ and Roma victims of the Holocaust. A decade earlier, when the Israeli Foreign Ministry demanded Wiesel exclude Armenian scholars from a conference on genocide, fearing damage to the country’s relations with Turkey, he resigned from his position as chair rather than defend the scholars. (It was not until 2008 that Wiesel called the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a genocide.)
Wiesel seemed to view these other victimized groups as competitors in an oppression Olympics, fretting that widespread recognition of the atrocities they suffered would sap his own moral power. The universalist’s credo — “Never again to anyone” — was a threat to his saintly status, his celebrity and his bottom line.
Defending Israel, Crimes and All
By popularizing an understanding of the Holocaust as a unique event that existed outside of history, Wiesel helped cast Jews as history’s ultimate victims. In turn, he fueled support for the walled-in Spartan state that was supposed to represent their deliverance, and defended everything it said it had to do for their security. “My loyalty to my people, to our people, and to Israel comes first and prevents me from saying anything critical of Israel outside Israel,” Wiesel wrote.
In the face of increasingly unspeakable crimes against Palestinians, Wiesel counseled silence. “I must identify with whatever Israel does — even with her errors,” he declared.
Wiesel’s unwavering commitment to Israel undoubtedly influenced his vocal support for President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. “We have a moral obligation to intervene where evil is in control. Today, that place is Iraq,” he proclaimed in a 2003 op-ed. He went on to demand American-orchestrated regime change in Syria, Libya and Iran. “To be Jewish in this world is to always be concerned,” he told an audience on Capitol Hill, endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push for a U.S. attack on Iran. Wiesel’s support for successive assaults on Middle Eastern countries — always on the grounds of defeating “evil” — made him a key asset of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike.
Since 9/11, Wiesel’s figure has helped keep America’s imperial designs safely shrouded in the ghosts of Buchenwald and Babi Yar. As the literary critic Adam Shatz wrote, “the author of Night has gone from being a great victim of war crimes to being an apologist for those who commit them — all while invoking his moral authority as a survivor.” Even after the invasions Wiesel advocated for spurred the deaths of some 100,000 Iraqi civilians and the rise of ISIS, his aura remained intact, keeping him insulated from accountability.
Embracing Hustlers and Demonizing Palestinians
When federal authorities busted Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme in 2008, Wiesel lost the millions he had amassed through his career as writer and lecturer on the Holocaust. To recoup his losses, he turned to the furthest shores of the American right-wing, forging mutually beneficial relationships with a coterie of pro-Israel hate preachers and hustlers.
Just months after losing his investments with Madoff, Wiesel accepted $500,000 from Pastor John Hagee for a single speech. Addressing Hagee’s congregation in San Antonio, Texas, Wiesel heaped praise on the Christian Zionist preacher who once described Hitler as a “half-breed Jew,” then called him his “dear pastor” in a subsequent interview. Hagee’s rants against gays and the indisputably antisemitic passages that prompted John McCain to rescind the preacher’s endorsement during his 2008 presidential campaign were of little relevance to Wiesel as he scrambled to regain his fortune.
Around this time, Wiesel fell in with Shmuley Boteach, a self-styled celebrity rabbi who functioned as a liaison for Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. (Adelson began funding Wiesel’s foundation in 2007 with a donation of $1 million). Boteach operated as Wiesel’s de facto agent, arranging high-profile — and likely high-paying — speaking gigs with figures ranging from Baywatch star Pamela Anderson to Senator Ted Cruz. In return, the ethically tainted Boteach was able to bask in the presence of a man regarded with near-universal veneration.
I met Wiesel for a brief moment at New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life in February 2014. He had just shared a stage with Boteach, Adelson and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan strongman whose M23 proxy militia helped fuel the Congolese genocide. During the event, which was as surreal as it was outrageous, Kagame’s security team brutally ejected a lone audience member who took Wiesel’s call to challenge injustice as a cue to rise from his seat in protest against the Rwandan dictator. Afterward, I approached Wiesel and asked him about his vehement support for Jewish settlers ejecting Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. He told me to contact his office and shuffled away.
That July, Israel embarked on its most lethal operation to date against residents of the besieged Gaza Strip, destroying or damaging some 100,000 homes and killing over 2,200 people, including 551 children. At the height of the assault, a shockingly Islamophobic full-page ad appeared in the New York Times under the banner of Boteach’s World Values Network non-profit, which has received substantial funding from Adelson.
“Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’s turn,” the ad declared. Hammering on the common pro-Israel myth that Palestinians do not value their children’s lives as much as Israelis do, the ad denigrated the besieged residents of Gaza as “worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.” The text concluded with the signature of its author, Elie Wiesel, the man who would be eulogized by fellow Nobel Prize-winner Barack Obama as “one of the great moral voices of our time.”
With Wiesel’s death, the elites who relied on him for moral cover leapt at the opportunity to claim his legacy. Meanwhile, the teachings and testimonies of Holocaust survivors who insisted on applying the lessons of the genocide universally — including to Palestinians — remained confined to the margins.
Destroying the Dissidents
Among the Jewish dissidents to emerge from the nightmare of World War Two Europe was Marek Edelman, a member of the Warsaw ghetto resistance who published an open letter to Palestinian resistance fighters during the Second Intifada, addressing them respectfully as “Palestinian Partisans” while beseeching them not to attack civilians. There was also Hajo Meyer, who spent months in Auschwitz, where he lost his parents, and spent his later years writing slashing critiques of the Zionist movement’s base exploitation of the Holocaust. Like Meyer, Hedy Epstein invoked her experience surviving genocide (she escaped on the kindertransport) to emphasize the urgency of her activism for Palestinian rights. In her final years, she embarked on an aid flotilla to the besieged Gaza Strip and participated in countless demonstrations for human rights, even getting arrested protesting police brutality in St. Louis, Missouri.
Many Israeli Jews who had fled Europe during the 1930’s banded together in radical organizations like the Socialist Bund, Matzpen and the communist party known as Maki to challenge the military occupation of Palestinians that began inside Israeli territory in 1949. One of the earliest leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, Meir Vilner, used his position in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to expose the massacre by Israeli soldiers of 47 innocent Palestinian farmers in 1956 in the town of Kfar Kassem, where Prime Minister David Ben Gurion had ordered a media blackout.
“What we wanted to escape in Vilna [Lithuania] we found here [in Israel],” Vilner said after uncovering the atrocities Israel’s military had committed. “There, hatred was directed against Jews; here against Arabs.”
When these dissidents could not be ignored, they have been denigrated by pro-Israel forces as self-haters, race traitors and even frauds. This year, when the Austrian parliament invited Hedy Epstein to participate in an event on women survivors of the Holocaust, she was smeared by Efraim Zuroff, a self-styled “Nazi hunter” who headed the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office. “She is not a survivor in the classical sense,” Zuroff claimed, suggesting that Epstein’s support for Palestinian rights nullified her experience of escaping genocide. The Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal piled on, painting Epstein as a “pro-Hamas, anti-Israel Jew” and attempting to link her to Iranian Holocaust deniers. As a result of the pressure, the parliamentary event was canceled. Epstein died three months later at age 91.
On the day of Wiesel’s death, those who took a critical view of his legacy were subjected to the same wrath as the survivors who challenged the segregationist principle he represented. Condemning his anti-Palestinian tirades was painted by right-wing and pro-Israel outlets as tantamount to Holocaust denial, and invited a torrent of incitement and death threats transmitted through social media. (A quick browse through my Twitter interactions will show an almost endless stream of disturbing imprecations).
With Elie Wiesel gone, his most zealous defenders have set out to destroy those who embraced the message he espoused in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but which he ultimately failed to uphold: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”