Saturday, July 2, 2016

On Elie Wiesel

It would take a special kind of moral idiot to greet the death of Elie Wiesel with anything other than despair. Night has become the first and unfortunately often the last book anyone reads about the Holocaust. Unlike the reprehensible Schindler's List and Life is Beautiful, Wiesel's work sets a proper example for the seriousness with which one should approach genocide or any atrocity. Wiesel, a symbol of a generation whose last member will die in less than ten years, stood up for the rights of most of the oppressed, for the victims of mass killings, for Tibetans, Cambodians, and the victims in Darfur. He knew that he had to tolerate the idiocy of mainstream culture for the greater good: Oprah Winfrey, in all her epic narcissism and willingness to commodify absolutely anything, wrote about how Wiesel's courage gave her the courage to visit Auschwitz. Wiesel kept his mouth shut and smiled. I wished more ninth graders went on to Primo Levi or Aharon Appelfeld, or historians like Raul Hilberg, or Wiesel's other writings on human rights. But Night's spareness gives it power. In terms of moral influence, it may be the most important book of the last 100 years.

The larger culture considered him a saint. He wasn't. One day, someone will write a good, non-hysterical book on the politics of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. On that day, we will have a better understanding of how much Wiesel defined the museum's mission. Did he really make sure the Romany would be mentioned as little as possible in the museum's exhibits?   I can understand why someone with his experience would be appalled by those who equated the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza with the suffering of Jews in Auschwitz, or at least those who would make those comparisons without any acknowledgement of the problems involved with those claims. But his politics on Israel were ugly. He lent moral credibility to a worldview that has left thousands dead and will probably kill thousands more. 

Many people who've read Night have gone on to defend the indefensible, indiscriminate bombings of civilians, torture, and alliances with monsters. The human race has not seen its last genocide and the Jews stand a good chance of being the victims of another one. So yes, Wiesel's life and work may have changed the world's conscience for the better...but not by much. 

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