To be a Jew in America today is to know the commandment to never forget the atrocities our people endured, and to ensure that never again can such horrors come to be.
- The tragedy of Elie Wiesel
- Why Elie Wiesel never caught on in Israel
- The essential Elie Wiesel reading list: 8 must-reads by 'the conscience of the world'
There is perhaps no one more prominently associated with that ethos than Elie Wiesel, whose commitment to the project of memory deeply influenced our upbringings. We read “Night” in school, we revisited excerpts while standing on the train tracks of Auschwitz on our youth trips to Poland, we came to hear him speak at our synagogues.
The Nobel laureate brought to the world the commitment “never again,” and seemed to turn the incomprehensible pain of the Holocaust into a heroic promise. His departure leaves a gap and a pain as if this were the loss of our own family.
But as with our relatives, the truth is not so simple. We must reckon with Wiesel’s erasure of others’ suffering as seriously as we embrace the remembrance of our own.
As college students, we met Palestinian, Armenian and black students, and realized the significance of having our collective suffering recognized. We know the tragedy of hate and racism, the violence of plunder and expulsion, the horror of genocide, of yearning for home and for people.
Thanks to the work of Wiesel and others like him, our generation does not know the compounding trauma of a world deaf to your terror, pain, grief, and hope.
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. In an age where our community has achieved relative privilege and security, this memory moves us toward solidarity with those who still suffer.
That is why we cannot stay silent when the promise of “never again” seems to apply only when it does not compromise our comfort.
And so we see that Wiesel represented not only his generation’s greatest triumph, but perhaps also its greatest failing. As Wiesel demanded we set ourselves apart, he closed his eyes to reality and denied Palestinian suffering.
What are we to do with the fact that while touring our Hillels, synagogues and communities, 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? Or of his fierce opposition to the hard truths in the Goldstone report?
Wiesel, the man who wrote “the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” signed a letter as the chairman of Elad that actively cheered on Jewish settlers who had evicted a Palestinian family from their home in Silwan.
Wiesel’s ad read, “We are happy to congratulate the dozens of Jewish families that are joining the Israeli settlement of Ir David by your act of settlement you make us all stand taller.”
“Never again” means reckoning with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and lives. For many of us, it means facing heartbreak as we discover that the place we were told was a safe haven and a homeland is destroying Palestinians’ homeland, making their lives a living nightmare.
Many of our community’s greatest choose to look away from the painful facts of Israeli occupation.
As Wiesel himself said of documented human rights abuses during the 2008 war in Gaza, “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be.” And yet, it is. We must resist our own indifference to these hard facts.
Maybe it makes sense that Wiesel could not bear to believe that our people, who had been hurt so deeply, could be capable of replicating this pain on others. Maybe that was in fact more than we could ever demand of him. So it is what we must demand of ourselves.
What we wish we could explain to Wiesel and others who choose to look away is that we listened deeply to their stories. We carry them with us wherever we go. And we wish they might understand that when we meet Palestinians, we meet the oppressed Jews of their stories and our pasts.
To remember Elie Wiesel fully means to continue to mourn the unspeakable violence our people endured, to celebrate our resilience and triumph against all odds, and to fight to ensure our calls for never again are not a sign of our insularity and callousness but rather a true call for empathy and solidarity.
Simone Zimmerman is an activist and organizer based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a leader of IfNotNow, an emerging movement of young American Jews working to end their community's support for the occupation. Follow her on Twitter: @simonerzim
Jacob Plitman is former Deputy Director of J Street U and currently volunteers with Syrian refugees in Greece. He tweets at @jacobplitman