Elie Wiesel’s searing prose and testimonial eloquence made him a living symbol of the Holocaust that he survived, and the moral obligation to never forget what happened to the Jews of Europe during World War II. As he passes away, most of the world will simply remember him as a beacon of hope that decency and humanity can survive and overcome the darkest abuses people are capable of at their worst.
For many Arabs, though, the legacy of their encounter with Wiesel is far more complicated. Tribal suspicions, on both sides, stemming from the Arab-Israeli conflict, trumped the very humanitarian impulses Wiesel sought to exemplify.
Wiesel and the Arabs viewed each other across an impassable moat of mistrust and ultimately exclusionary group identification. Wiesel did not, and could not, ever really speak critically of Israel, which he saw as the embodiment of the Jewish people, and frequently expressed a refusal to criticize Israel. He did not see himself as a nationalist, but his identification with Israel was couched so strongly in ethnic and religious terms that one is obliged to conclude he was mistaken about this. The Arab resistance, and in some cases aversion, to the symbolic resonance attributed to Wiesel stems from an equally nationalistic affect.
For Palestinians in particular, their fraught relationship with Wiesel is a function of being in the philosophically, morally and politically untenable position of being, as Edward Said so precisely put it, “the victims of the victims” of modern Western history. The Holocaust was a culmination of centuries of European anti-Semitism that morphed from the folkloric and religious intolerance of the Middle Ages into the pseudoscientific racism and overt political agenda of the nineteenth century and ultimately led to the Nazis’ industrialized killing machine. For Zionists, and especially those who were Holocaust survivors like Wiesel, the birth of Israel in 1948 was an almost miraculous rebirth for people who had just faced near extinction as a culmination of centuries of persecution.
For Palestinians and other Arabs, however, the events of 1948 marked not the birth, let alone the rebirth, of a people, but the violent death of another community. However blame is apportioned, and according to whatever narrative, the society of the Arabs of the British Mandate of Palestine, who had come to define themselves as “Palestinians,” did not survive the conflagration that attended the establishment of Israel. Its population was largely displaced, its national institutions vanished, and most of its families — from the prominent to the obscure — spent the better part of the next two decades at least reconstituting their existence as exiles or refugees. What had been there was now gone, and something new and different had taken its place. And at every stage, from the U.N. partition debate of 1947 to the Israeli Declaration of Statehood of 1948, the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Europe was invoked.
In this context, the Holocaust — and therefore Wiesel’s testimony about it, from which he derived so much of his aesthetic and political authority — became exceptionally fraught and contested. As a number of crucial recent books, including “The Arabs and the Holocaust” by Gilbert Achcar and “From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust” by Meir Litvak and Ester Webman, have demonstrated, the range of Arab reactions to the Holocaust from the earliest days until now have run the gamut from compassion to dismissal and even, especially among Islamists, denial.
Wiesel, too, promoted narratives that negate established history. In 2001, he suggested in the New York Times that in 1948, “Incited by their leaders, 600,000 Palestinians left the country …” The historical record, including as established by prominent Israeli historians, debunked this myth long ago. The genesis of the Palestinian refugee problem was much more messy, complex and ugly than this comfortable fantasy allows. Just as mass dispossession is hardly the equivalent of mass murder, Wiesel’s denial of Israel’s role in the expulsion of Palestinian refugees is hardly the equivalent of Holocaust denial. But it is a retreat from a rather obvious and well-documented reality into reassuring fictions that protect ethnic sensitivities from unsettling truths. It is also a familiar pattern on both sides of this highly charged conflict.
One of the most common Arab responses to Wiesel’s attitudes toward the conflict with the Palestinians is a microcosm of a question that is asked more broadly of Jews in general: “How can a people who suffered this fate possibly be treating Palestinians so badly?” But the underlying assumption is irredeemably flawed. It presumes that people, whether individuals or collectivities, somehow learn from their negative experiences not to repeat them. In fact it’s more common for abuse to engender more abuse. Suffering is not ennobling. If it were, prisons would be epicenters of grace.
Equally unfair and invalid is another common Arab take on the Holocaust which holds that “Israel is doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews,” a hyperbole so indefensible it borders on calumny. There’s no denying Palestinian suffering, but comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is both ridiculous and, given Jewish history, gratuitously provocative. Palestinians have been dispossessed, exiled and occupied, not exterminated en masse — both are traumas but the chasm between them is immeasurable.
However, Israel and its supporters have a long history of flinging precisely the same set of accusations against the Palestinians and other Arabs, casting them as inveterate anti-Semites whose resistance to Zionism is a logical extension of Nazi genocidal mania. In particular, there have been persistent efforts to tarnish Arabs and Muslims in general, and Palestinians in particular, with the pro-Nazi affiliations of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the British-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, as if this one disgraceful individual can stand in for an entire people. Wiesel himself never explicitly compared Arabs with Nazis, but he did ground the Israeli national project, and wars such as 1967 and 1973, very firmly in the legacy of the Holocaust. Such rhetoric implicitly invites, if not mandates, precisely the sorts of perfidious analogies that recently reached their nadir with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the outrage of historians, claiming Hitler was inspired and instructed to commit the Holocaust by Husseini.
Wiesel’s tendency to tribalism, and even ethnocentrism, in the context of Israel is perhaps most starkly illustrated by his attitudes on Jerusalem, perhaps the most hotly contested issue between Israel and the Palestinians. In his 2001 New York Times editorial, he strongly suggested Jewish primacy in Jerusalem and strongly implied opposition to any territorial compromise in the city because “to compromise on history is impossible.” In that editorial, and again in a 2010 open letter to President Obama opposing U.S. efforts to secure an Israeli settlement freeze, he cited references to Jerusalem in Jewish Scripture and claimed it is not mentioned at all in the Qur’an, as if that were relevant to contemporary Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In his letter to Obama, he categorically stated that Jerusalem “belongs to the Jewish people,” and falsely asserted that “Christians and Muslims are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.” And in 2014, Wiesel signed an ad in Israel warmly praising Jewish settlers who were aggressively seizing properties in the flash point Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in the occupied eastern part of the city. These settlement efforts are widely regarded as among the most provocative and destabilizing in all of the occupied territories.
Many Palestinians have allowed the conflict with Israel to embitter them to the point that not acknowledging, learning about or engaging with the history of the Holocaust becomes a social and political imperative. This was most tragically illustrated in the experience of Prof. Mohammed S. Dajani, a Palestinian scholar with impeccable nationalistic credentials, who led the drive to teach Palestinian university students about the Holocaust and ultimately had to leave his university position because of the backlash against the simple teaching and learning of history. Many Palestinians do want to learn about and recognize the tragedy of Jewish history, but many more myopically can’t see past their own present-day suffering and recognize Jewish Israelis as anything other than their occupiers and oppressors.
The fraught relationship between Wiesel and his Arab contemporaries is characterized by a disheartening lack of compassion in the context of a conflict that often feels profoundly existential. Both Wiesel and his Arab detractors and antagonists all too often bought wholesale into the tribal narratives, patterns of psychic and historical exclusion, and implicit, or even explicit, assertions of priority or privilege over their national and tribal rival.
This does not, or at least should not, undermine, tarnish or invalidate Wiesel’s humanist legacy, given the singular enormity of the Holocaust. It’s unreasonable to expect Wiesel, or his Palestinian counterparts for that matter, to have “risen above” the ethnic and nationalistic identifications that define the modern era. That he did not do so is no slur on his memory. Instead it should serve to remind us that he, and all of us, are human; all too human.