The Tragedy of Elie Wiesel

Why does such a great man keep apologizing for a government that betrays his ideals?

"Night," which Elie Wiesel wrote in 1955, may have changed the world. But the book of his that most changed me was comparatively obscure. It’s called "Sages and Dreamers," and it is a series of highly personal essays on Biblical characters, Talmudic sages and Hasidic masters that he published in 1991.

Until I read it, I had thought of Wiesel primarily as a symbol of Jewish suffering. But when I read "Sages and Dreamers," I realized that he was also a tremendous repository of Jewish joy – the joy that comes from deep intimacy with our tradition. Reading Sages in my early twenties helped me realize that there are other ways of honoring the memory of the Shoah, which do not involve monuments or plaques or photographs of emaciated figures behind barbed wire. One of them is by experiencing Jewish joy, by coming close enough to Jewish texts to feel some of the warmth and beauty that radiates through Wiesel’s pages. I realized then that Wiesel’s brilliance lay not merely in his ability to convey what Jews endured at Auschwitz but in his ability to convey the riches that they brought with them, riches that future generations must not squander.

I am grateful, as a young person, to have felt some of Wiesel’s greatness. And I am grateful to have been taught, at around the same time, by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, that in our tradition, not even the greatest are beyond challenge.

In 1988, Hertzberg, himself from a family of survivors, himself a man immersed in Jewish tradition, and himself a passionate Zionist, challenged Wiesel’s apologies for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Noting the Kotzker Rebbe’s observation that “when the Evil One wants to destroy us, he tempts us not through our wicked desires but through our most virtuous inclinations,” Hertzberg argued that Wiesel’s laudable desire to believe the best about the Jewish people and the Jewish state was blinding him to the Jewish capacity for evil. Almost three decades later, sadly, it still is. 

Last week, The New York Times and Washington Post ran an open letter by Wiesel supporting Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming speech to Congress. In it, Wiesel 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. After all, Benny Gantz, who just retired as Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has argued that while an Iranian nuke would be dangerous, “The Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”

One of his predecessors in that job, Dan Halutz, has said that, “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.” Earlier this month, former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy added that, “I think it is a terrible mistake to use the term ‘existential threat’ because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel.”

Curent Mossad head, Tamir Pardo, has also warned that “the term existential threat is used too freely.”

For years now, Israeli security officials have debated the nature of the Iranian nuclear threat. Wiesel, however, does not debate; he simply asserts.

But the deeper problem with Wiesel’s letter is the one Hertzberg identified three decades ago: Wiesel is acutely, and understandably, sensitive to the harm Jews suffer. Yet he is largely blind to the harm Jews cause. In his open letter, Wiesel notes that the Iranian threat is particularly vivid now because Jews will soon celebrate Purim, when they read about “a wicked man in Persia named Haman” who tried to “annihilate, murder and destroy the Jews.” But on Purim Jews also read about what happens after Haman’s fall from power, when 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.” 

This tendency to whitewash Jewish behavior is a feature of Wiesel’s previous statements on Israel too. In 2010, when the Obama and Netanyahu governments tussled over settlement growth in East Jerusalem, Wiesel wrote a public letter celebrating Jewish control over Jerusalem because “for 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.” 

Wiesel’s motivations for believing the best about Jewish control of the holy city may have been commendable. But his claims were blatantly untrue. In a detailed rebuttal, Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer specializing in Jerusalem land claims, noted that one-third of East Jerusalem and almost all of West Jerusalem is “state land,” available for residence only to Israeli citizens and Diaspora Jews eligible to become Israeli citizens. And since the “Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categoriesWiesel may purchase a home anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, [but] a Palestinian cannot.” Seidemann also dismantled Wiesel’s claims about religious access, noting that, “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.” 

Again and again, 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. “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be,” Wiesel said in 2010. But these are not questions of faith. Israel is a decent country composed of decent young men and women who, in the West Bank, are obliged to police people who lack basic rights. And in such circumstances, decent people do indecent things. “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? Because the occupation – Israel’s control for almost 50 years of millions of human beings who lack the basic rights proclaimed by its own declaration of independence – stains everything it touches, not only in Israel but across the Jewish world. It turns organizations founded to fight bigotry into apologists for it; it forces rabbis to choose between obeying their conscience and keeping their job; it leads gentiles of goodwill to fear that if they criticize Israel they’ll be called anti-Semites. And in an inversion worthy of the Kotzker Rebbe, it turns Elie Wiesel’s great love of the Jewish people and the Jewish state into public relations for a prime minister whose policies defile the ideals Wiesel has spent his life championing.

“You belong among those who speak the truth, even to Jewish power,” wrote Hertzberg. More than a quarter-century later, Elie Wiesel still does. Were he to speak forcefully about the injustice Israel is perpetrating in the West Bank, many others would find their voice. On moral questions, Elie Wiesel speaks louder than any Jew alive. Which makes his silence loudest too.

N.B.: After this piece first appeared on the Internet, it was brought to my attention that in 2009, the regulations that legally barred Palestinian residents from purchasing an apartment on “state lands” were quietly lifted. In practice, however, it remains extremely difficult for Palestinians to buy homes in Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, and the numbers who have done so are minuscule.