Yesterday, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87. In homage, the BBC credited his dedication to “ensuring that the atrocities committed under the Nazis were never forgotten”, while Ronald Lauder mourned the loss of “the most articulate witness to history’s greatest crime”. Wiesel’s seminal work, Night, chronicled his horrifying experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a child, experiences in which his mother, father and sister were all killed.
In the immediate post-war era, Wiesel helped to associate the word ‘Holocaust’ with the crimes of the Nazis, and tirelessly pursued educational reforms to ensure that the Holocaust was never forgotten by successive generations. In this, he deserves our praise.
But outside of his educational activism, Wiesel would come to sully his own standing by repeatedly endorsing death, war and violence on behalf of successive Israeli governments, and by the end of his life, he would become a consistent supporter of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Like Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, Wiesel will go down in history as a progressive pioneer. But also like Teresa and Gandhi, the truth behind the headlines is far harder to swallow.
I first came across Wiesel in 2014, when his infamous “child sacrifice” advertisement appeared in many of the world’s newspapers. In it, Wiesel invoked the memory of the Holocaust to denounce Hamas’ supposed use of children as human shields, comparing their “barbarism” to that of the Nazis. The ad was so vitriolic in content that even right-wing British newspaper The Times refused to print it.
In response to his ad, 327 Jewish Holocaust survivors responded in kind, publishing an open letter which called for a boycott of Israeli goods and denounced Wiesel’s “abuse of our history”. The ad even indirectly accused him of colluding with genocide in Palestine, and it ended with the line: “Never again must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE”. For them, Wiesel performed an unspeakable u-turn on his humanitarianism.
Wiesel also once drew ire from his long-time friend, Arthur Hertzberg, who attacked his silence in the face of home demolitions, collective punishment, and terror campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza. Wiesel was happy to condemn Palestinians during the First Intifada, but he had nothing to say about Israel using attack helicopters on children. Wiesel also praised Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem for “strengthening the Jewish presence” in the city, as they seized homes from Palestinian civilians.
“Elie Wiesel went from a victim of war crimes to a supporter of those who commit them” – Max Blumenthal
In fact, Wiesel occasionally even came close to demanding unquestioned support for the actions of Israel, another huge departure from his commitment to challenging all authority. In a London Jewish Chronicle article published in 1982, Wiesel condemned those who were critical of Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon (to date, there have been five), explaining that “our love for Israel ought to have deepened, become more whole-hearted, and our faith in Israel more compelling, more true” in response to the war, “regardless of the suffering endured by the population of Beirut”. For Wiesel, the great humanitarian, patriotism was the only reasonable response to a government bombing innocent civilians.
In his later years, Wiesel’s hypocrisy deepened, and he became a staunch neoconservative.
In 2015, Wiesel shared a stage with far-right Texan Senator Ted Cruz, who was in the midst of his aggressive war propagandism against Iran, in order to reiterate the seriousness that Iran poses to the existence of Israel, and to demand that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu be allowed to speak before Congress. Cruz should also be remembered as the Presidential candidate who would go on to suggest that areas of high Muslim population should have a constant police presence – a ghettoising, racist policy similar to those used by fascist regimes throughout history. Yet again, Wiesel remained silent about this.
In summation, there is a veritable cornucopia of missteps and unforgivable mistakes that Wiesel made during his illustrious career. From refusing to memorialize LGBT and Romani victims of the Holocaust, to denying the Nakba, to honouring a Rwandan genocidist, to taking money from a hate preacher who called Hitler a “half breed Jew”, Wiesel often behaved extremely bizarrely, and repeatedly betrayed the humanitarian ideals that he wrote so beautifully about.
So now, as we remember his legacy, we must also remember how far he fell from grace. He was, by the time he died, a gross hypocrite who abandoned his commitment to compassion in favour of aggressive Zionism and neoconservatism. To unquestionably honour him in death without assessing his positions does a great disservice to those who are still alive, those who he turned his back on when they needed his help the most. Too often, he did not live by his own words.
We must not do a disservice to his detractors, or to the people whose humanity he abandoned, by letting him become another Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi – whitewashed and sanctified in death, their missteps and crimes scrubbed from the record in order to make for tidy headlines. I think we can safely do this all while recognizing the laudable contribution he made to keeping the horrors of the Holocaust alive in our minds.
Let us learn from his words. Let us do better than he did.