Monday, February 12, 2007

The compromised moral authority of Elie Wiesel

Note: This diary was cross-posted at DailyKos on February 12, 2007. As a result of the at times heated discussion there, I became aware of serious flaws in argument and presentation. The DailyKos version has been substantially revised, but this version remains unchanged so that readers may have access to an unedited version of my inexpert first effort to present this information. For my current thinking on this subject, you should check out my DailyKos diary.

There was a dailykos diary a few days ago about an unpleasant incident Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel suffered in a San Francisco hotel. Wiesel was reportedly accosted by a man who forced him out of an elevator and tried to usher him into a room of the hotel. Wiesel screamed for help, the man fled, and Wiesel was unharmed.

The assailant is a Holocaust denying blogger, who by his own subsequent blog admission had been stalking Wiesel for "weeks;" his intention had been to force from Wiesel a videotaped statement that the Holocaust was a myth.

The man is sick, unable to recognize or accept the historical reality of the world we live in. Denying the Holocaust, whatever the denier's intent, has the effect of authorizing the wanton slaughter of the Jewish people perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War.

It would be easy, and quite morally satisfying, to portray this incident as an encounter between the evil Holocaust denier and the pure Holocaust victim. In fact, the first diary on the event painted it in exactly those terms. Unfortunately, the truth is a lot more complicated, and the complication here has to do with Wiesel, not with the man who attacked him.

Wiesel, it turns out, is not so morally pure himself. For example, in 1948 -- after he had survived the Nazi concentration camps -- Wiesel had moved to Palestine and begun work as a journalist. According to Daniel McGowan, the director of Deir Yassin Remembered, Wiesel:

knows from personal experience that on April 9, 1948 Arab civilians, including women and children, were murdered in cold blood in the village of Deir Yassin on the west side of Jerusalem by Jewish terrorists known as the Irgun and the Stern Gang. Wiesel worked for the Irgun, not as a fighter, but as a journalist and knows the details of this infamous (but not the only nor the largest) massacre of Arabs by Jews. And while he piously demands public apologies for atrocities committed against Jews (for example in 1946 at Kielce, Poland), he has never been able to apologize for the atrocities committed by his own employer.

Wiesel's biographer Mark Chmiel wrote in a 2002 article in Tikkun:

While Wiesel did express his existential empathy with Palestinian suffering he refused to examine the historical and political causes of their suffering, except to blame the Arab nations or the Palestinians themselves. In bearing witness, he instead expressed paeans to Israel (as after the 1967 war), or, when things got out of hand, confessed anguish and sadness (as after the Lebanon invasion and the intifada). As he desired that Israel be a land of poets and dreamers, he did not really reckon with Israel as a powerful state, enthusiastically backed by the United States, with the same capacity for realpolitik characteristic of other governments in the international state system. In his various defenses of Israel, Wiesel alleged that any assertion that the victim had now become the victimizer was tantamount to anti-Semitism, a useful rhetorical strategy for neutralizing criticism. The historical record and ample documentation of Israel's policies of exclusion, dispossession, and violence -- from the U.N., international human rights groups, and Israeli human rights groups -- could then be quickly dismissed as another expression of the world's contempt for the Jews. Wiesel may have been personally incapable or unwilling to penetrate the systematic distortions in the Israeli narratives and to criticize Israeli practices towards the Palestinians. But in his silence he opened himself to the criticism that his moral maxims -- for which he has been accorded respect both by powerful and powerless alike -- were suspended when it came to his own favorite state of Israel.

Wiesel often says that he will not criticize Israel "outside of Israel." Yet, as Chmiel points out, in his memoirs Wiesel cited Albert Camus to the effect that "not to take a stand is to take a stand." In other words, he is aware that his silence on Israel has a broader effect, an effect of endorsing Israel's actions towards the Palestinians.

Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Nation in 2001, has called Wiesel a liar and a denier of the Nakba:

In a propaganda tour of recent history, he asserts that in 1948, "incited by their leaders, 600,000 Palestinians left the country convinced that, once Israel was vanquished, they would be able to return home."

This claim is a cheap lie and is known by Wiesel to be a lie. It is furthermore an utterly discredited lie, and one that Israeli officialdom no longer cares to repeat. Israeli and Jewish historians have exposed it time and again: Every Arab broadcasting station in the region, in 1947 as well as 1948, was monitored and recorded and transcribed by the BBC, and every Arab newspaper has been scoured, and not one instance of such "incitement," in direct speech or reported speech, has ever come to light. The late historian and diplomat Erskine Childers issued an open challenge on the point as far back as the 1950s that was never taken up and never will be. And of course the lie is a Big Lie, because Expulsion-Denial lies at the root of the entire problem and helps poison the situation to this day. (When Israel's negotiators gingerly discuss the right of return, at least they don't claim to be arguing about ghosts, or Dead Souls.)

The historical evidence available today is overwhelmingly conclusive: Israeli historians working independently of each other have confirmed time and again that Zionist* armies in 1948 systematically expelled hundreds of thousands of noncombatant Palestinian villagers from their homes. The Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe have both argued that the cleansing was coordinated at the highest levels of Zionist leadership, in accordance with a worked plan of creating an ethnically pure Israel; Pappe in fact paints a portrait of a handpicked group of advisors meeting on a weekly basis with Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion to plot strategy and direct the cleansing operations on the ground. Benny Morris, whose Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is probably the best-known work documenting the ethnic cleansing campaign, does not agree with Kimmerling and Pappe that the campaign was coordinated. Nevertheless, his book documents in chilling detail a brutal and horrific campaign punctuated by extrajudicial assassinations, massacres, rape, and other atrocities. In interviews granted in 2004, Morris indicated that he now believes Ben-Gurion himself was implicated in the cleansing campaign -- while he still insists there was no direct coordination from above, he spoke of an "idea in the air" in which the "entire officer corps understands what is required of them."

Morris believes 700,000 Palestinian noncombatants were expelled in this campaign, while Pappe sets the figure somewhat higher at 850,000. Everyone agrees that the approximately 4 million Palestinians living in refugee camps throughout the Middle East today are descended from these individuals initially expelled by the Zionist armies. The historical evidence is clear that Israel expropriated the real and liquid property of the refugees, which was then used to finance some of the initial expenses of organizing the Zionist state.

The point here is not to exculpate the Palestinians from any responsibility for bringing about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinians clearly were hostile to the idea of an Israeli state from the beginning, and some Palestinians carried out attacks, and conducted atrocities, against Zionist settlers from the earliest stages of the conflict.

The intent of this diary, rather, is to insist that the MidEast conflict is a moral minefield. Neither side wears white hats, and the degree of historical culpability on the Israeli side is at least as great -- and perhaps even greater -- than that on the Palestinian side. As for those Palestinian noncombatants expelled from their homes, denied access to their livelihoods, and robbed of their property, it is hard to see them as anything other than innocent victims. Yet Israel to this day refuses to acknowledge any responsibility for the crimes committed by its armies in 1948, and still officially denies that any ethnic cleansing took place.

Wiesel is a solid brick in that Israeli wall of official denial. From him we get a restating of the Zionist foundation myth, that the State of Israel redeems the world of the Holocaust, and that therefore no public criticism of Israel is necessary. Even in his much publicized dialogues with Palestinians, Wiesel winds up -- in the words of his biographer Chmiel -- "blaming the Palestinians and averting his eyes from the political causes of their grievances."

Wiesel, in other words, "feels the pain" of Palestinian victims but refuses to acknowledge either his own or Israel's responsibility in causing their suffering. In a very real sense, his silence serves as a denial that the ethnic cleansing campaign even occurred -- even though he was employed by one of the principal organizations conducting cleansing operations.

He is a Holocaust exceptionalist -- he appears to believe that Jewish suffering trumps all other suffering. It is a very comfortable position for one, like Wiesel, in a position of power. One can hardly be surprised, however, that the powerless who suffer are enfuriated by such an attitude.

*The word Zionist is used here in place of Israeli, as the cleansing campaigns began, in some accounts, before the State of Israel came into existence. In any event, the creators of the State of Israel self-identified as the leaders of a Zionist movement, and believers in the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state still call themselves Zionist (e.g. here) today.

No comments: