Why Elie Wiesel Never Caught on in Israel

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel may have been the most famous Holocaust survivor in the world. But, ironically, that never gained him a huge following in Israel.

Elie Wiesel, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the joint Congress Session in Washington DC, U.S., March 3, 2015.
Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Elie Wiesel, who died this weekend at age 87, may have been the most famous Holocaust survivor in the world. But, ironically, that never gained him a huge following in Israel. 

His best-known book “Night,” an account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald – required reading at high schools around the United States – has never been incorporated into the Israeli school curriculum.  

“We have a few copies in our library,” says Zeev Degani, the principal of Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya, the oldest Hebrew high school in the country. “But I would assume that the number of students who’ve actually read it is close to zero.”

Jackie Feldman, a professor of anthropology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, has accompanied dozens of Israeli high-school students on trips to Auschwitz – the place where Wiesel spent the pivotal months of his life – as part of his academic research. "‘Night’ was not one of the books they were reading,” he relays. “At one point it was Ka-Tsetnik [the pen name for Holocaust survivor and author Yehiel De-Nur, and at another time Primo Levi had become popular. But never Wiesel.”

This lack of recognition had other manifestations as well. For example, only two of the hundreds of honorary doctorates bestowed on Wiesel over the years from around the world, notes Yad Vashem’s chief historian Dina Porat, came from Israeli universities. “And even then, it hardly made any news,” she laments.

“Outside Israel, Elie Wiesel was a total icon,” observes Porat, who also serves as head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University. “But in Israel, much less so. He never enjoyed the same degree of admiration and appreciation here.”

Viewed around the world as a moral authority, Wiesel often drew fire from Israeli leftist activists and intellectuals for not speaking out against their government. “He always took Israel’s side, no matter what,” says Porat. “For him, withholding criticism was a matter of principle. Whenever he was questioned about it, he’d say that because he doesn’t live here, he didn’t feel he has the right to criticize.”

By contrast, Degani believes it was Wiesel very universal message that was difficult for many Israelis, particularly those on the right, to stomach. “He was an intellectual who took the Holocaust out of the ghetto and used it to teach the world about racism,” he says. “He didn’t talk about revenge or hate, and he wasn’t a fear mongerer. That didn’t suit the isolationist agenda of many Israelis, and that’s why I believe he never became anything more than a footnote in this country.”

The fact that he lived abroad, observes Degani, also worked to his detriment. “There is an attitude here that you have no right to teach us about human rights and the Holocaust if you don’t live here.”

Twice Wiesel was offered the symbolic position of president of the state of Israel, and both times he turned it down. But Porat cautions against making too much out of these offers. “They were extended not because of his standing in Israel, but rather, because of his international standing.”

Perhaps the main reason Wiesel never achieved as much distinction in Israel, surmises Porat, is that he simply did not stand out as much. “You have to realize that here in Israel, there were tens of thousands of survivors, among them many great writers – Aharon Appelfeld for example – so he was not a unique phenomenon here,” she notes. “True, he wasn’t alone in the United States either, but you didn’t have the concentration of writer-survivors there that you had here. Besides that, some believe that the quality of some of the writing coming out of Israel was even better, and that could be true.”

Feldman, of Ben-Gurion University, believes that Wiesel emerged on the scene at the wrong time for many Israelis. “In the early 1970s, he put the figure of the Holocaust survivor on the map, and it really caught on with the American public,” he notes, “but the Israeli public wasn’t there yet. At that time, the only people who could really speak in the name of the Holocaust for Israelis were the partisans and the ghetto fighters, and even though things began to shift after the Eichmann trial in 1960, I don’t think the full shift took place until Menachem Begin came into power in 1977.  Until then, I don’t think the suffering survivor could become an iconic figure.”

Neither did Wiesel’s literary language resonate well with Israelis of that generation, in Feldman’s view.  “He used a religious language, almost of mystification, in speaking about the Holocaust, and I don’t think there was an acceptance of this sort of language in Israel at the time,” he says. “In ‘Night,’ he puts God on trial. That’s not something that would be considered acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox, and for secular kibbutzniks, who don’t believe in God, it’s meaningless.  Until the 1980s, the religious-secular divide in Israel was so wide that there was no room for someone speaking in those terms.”

What also turned Israelis off to Wiesel, Feldman believes, was basic sibling rivalry.  “There was an attitude here that only those survivors who came to make their life in Israel – those who embodied the principle of ‘from destruction to rebirth’ – have the right to speak. In other words, not those living in the comfort of the United States.”

Holocaust and genocide scholar Yair Auron concurs. “I have no doubt that jealousy was behind it,” he says. “It wasn’t only that Wiesel chose not to live in Israel, but also, that he succeeded in a big way abroad.