Elie Wiesel, who died earlier this week, was a survivor of Auschwitz. Yet Wiesel came to symbolise all that is
wrong with the Holocaust as we understand it.
Unlike Hajo Meyer
who died earlier this year, Wiesel drew no lessons from the Holocaust because
he argued that it defied human understanding. As Peter Novick observed in The
Holocaust in American Life Wiesel NBC’s Holocaust because:
|Hajo Meyer – Dutch survivor of Auschwitz and an anti-Zionist|
‘Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can
it be visualized. The Holocaust
transcends history. The dead are in
possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable
of recovering. . . . The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event, the
ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were
there know what it was; the others will never know.
Wiesel transformed the Holocaust from an act of barbarity, a genocide and
attempted extermination of a whole people, into a theology which cannot be
comprehended. Not for nothing it has
been said that for Jewish people, the Holocaust has become their new religion. And because it is a religion, there is no use
trying to understand it. It has no
lessons for us because it cannot be understood.
It can only be used as a kind of talisman for the Israeli state. The slogan ‘Never Again’ is to be interpreted
as ‘Never Again for the Jews.’
|disabled child at the gates of Auschwitz|
Wiesel reserved for the Jewish people alone the concept of genocide and
holocaust. In 1982 he attempted to abort
a conference on the Holocaust and Genocide in Tel Aviv because it included
sessions on the Armenian Genocide. The
Israeli state didn’t wish its relations with the Turkish state to be
compromised and so pressure was exerted to have the conference aborted. Wiesel, ever the faithful Zionist, not only
pulled out but tried to persuade others, including holocaust historian Yehuda
Bauer to withdraw. [Norman Finkelstein,
Holocaust Industry, pp. 69-70] The US
Holocaust Museum virtually eradicated all mention of the Armenians after
Israeli pressure and has also done the same with respect to the extermination
of the Gypsies.
Wiesel was above all a Zionist. At
the same time as criticising the world’s silence over the holocaust, Wiesel
demanded silence over Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Transylvania, which was then part of Hungary but is now in Rumania. In March 1944 the Nazis invaded Hungary and
proceeded to round up the Jews of the provinces. Wiesel confirmed that ‘We were taken just 2
weeks before D-Day, and we did not know that Auschwitz existed… everyone knew
except the victims.’ .
Wiesel asked ‘Why didn’t we know? To
this day I try to understand what happened.
If ever there was a tragedy that could have been prevented, it was that
In fact Wiesel knew very well why the Jews of Hungary didn’t know. It came out in the Kasztner Trial in Israel
when the leader of Hungarian Zionism Rudolph Kasztner lost a libel trial after
having been accused of being a collaborator by the survivors of the Hungarian
holocaust. As Wiesel said, the Jews
didn’t know where they were being transported to. The reason for this was because the Hungarian
Zionist leadership had suppressed the Auschwitz Protocols of the Jewish
escapees from Auschwitz, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. Escape would have been relatively easy because
Rumania was by then effectively neutral.
Wiesel wrote about this is his review
of Tom Segev’s book The Seventh Million which was published in the LA Times of
23rd May 1993.
shortcomings of the “Yishuv”–as the Jewish community in Palestine
was then called–and its leaders. Playwright and novelist Ben Hecht wrote a
violently polemical work, “Perfidy,” dealing with the Kastner trial
in the early 1960s. Through it, he attacked the Zionist establishment’s
timorous policy during the war and went so far as to accuse its major players
of collaborating with the Germans.
while American Jewry fought to organize an economic boycott of Nazi Germany,
the leaders of the Palestinian Yishuv entered into active, though unofficial,
negotiations with Berlin regarding the transfer of German Jews and their
wealth–some 30 million pound sterling–to the Holy Land.
words were not contradictory–needed money to finance its development, but this
brazen pragmatism went against the political philosophy of a majority of world
Jewry. There developed a growing perception that instead of supporting and
strengthening the boycott, Palestine was, in fact, sabotaging it.
poor and needed financial input and yes, this course of action provided a
chance to save German Jews who might otherwise have decided to “wait and
see” and let the last possible opportunity of salvation go by.
devastating evidence, that later, even as Germany carried out its Final
Solution–liquidating one ghetto after another, one community after
another–the Jewish leaders of Palestine never made the rescue of European Jews
into an overwhelming national priority. We know that Zionist leader Itzhak Gruenbaum,
a future Minister of the Interior in David ben Gurion’s first cabinet,
considered creating new settlements more urgent than saving Jews from being
sent to Treblinka and Birkenau.’
Despite knowing that the Zionist movement had betrayed the Hungarian Jewish
community, his own family perished in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel became
their holocaust spokesman. Unlike other
holocaust survivors, Wiesel did not show empathy with others, in particular the
Palestinians. Time and time again he
refused to speak out about Israel’s crimes or the racism which mirrored much of what had happened in
Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
|Wiesel’s despicable Guardian advert|
The most despicable incident occurred in 2014 when Wiesel placed an advert,
on behalf of Rabbi Boteach and his group in major newspapers at the time of
Israel’s murderous attack on Gaza, in which over 2,000 people were murdered,
including 551 children. Instead of
condemning the use of American fighter jets, missiles and explosives against a
defenceless Palestinian population, Wiesel tried to place an advert accusing
the Palestinians of Gazas of ‘Child Sacrifice’.
According to Wiesel’s warped logic the death of Palestinian children was
because they were ‘human shields’ used by their parents to defend
themselves. The idea is barely worth
commenting on even now. The Israelis
pounded Gaza’s civilian infrastructure – water treatment plants, schools
clinics, hospitals and residential housing.
To blame the victims for their own deaths is no different from the Nazis
who blamed the Jews for having brought the Holocaust on themselves.
Literally Wiesel had come full circle, the victim of the extermination camps
had now become the ardent supporter of mass murder.
Even the Times (but not the Guardian) rejected
Wiesel’s ‘Child Sacrifice’ Ad London Times Rejects Elie
Wiesel Anti-Hamas ‘Child Sacrifice’ Ad
Wiesel also became thoroughly corrupt and in his effort to earn a large
return from his considerable fortune, lost it all when Bernie Madoff’s ponzi
scheme collapsed in 2008.
Below are a couple of articles looking at Wiesel and also comparing Wiesel
with a genuine hero, Primo Levi, who did retain his critical faculties and did
not hesitate to condemn Israel’s war crimes.
Levi too was a former inmate of Auschwitz but unlike Wiesel was not
prepared just to condemn Jewish deaths and ignore those who died at the hands
as a moral giant, Wiesel provided cover to the invasions and occupations that
have devastated the Middle East.
|Sacrifice of Isaac Caravaggio|
news of Elie Wiesel’s death in the early morning of July 2 ushered in
veneration and reflections from figures across the political spectrum, from Bill
Clinton and Donald
Trump to Benjamin
Netanyahu and George
W. Bush. The outpouring of high-level praise aimed at consolidating Wiesel
as the eternal voice of the Holocaust and the central preceptor of its lessons.
Those who criticized his legacy or pointed out his moral contradictions,
meanwhile, were ferociously attacked by the forces he helped inspire.
when I was in junior high school, the rabbi of my family’s synagogue urged me
to read Wiesel’s book Night as part of my Bar Mitzvah
preparations. The story offered a look at the existence of Jews deported to
Auschwitz and Buchenwald that was as harrowing as it was accessible. Reading Night
while studying a Torah portion that chronicled Israelite captivity in ancient
Egypt helped cement the Holocaust as a central component of my Jewish identity.
Countless other Jews my age experienced Wiesel’s work in a similar fashion and
many came to idolize him. Like me, few of them knew much about the man beyond
the tribulation he endured in Hitler’s death camps.
my experience was particular to American Jewish life, the general public has
been familiarized with Wiesel over the course of several generations through educational
curricula and an expansive commercial apparatus. In 2006, after Oprah
Winfrey’s embarrassing promotion of James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little
Pieces, which turned out to be a fabrication, her book club made Night
its monthly selection. The public relations maneuver drove the book onto the
national bestseller list and centered its author in the celebrity limelight.
Soon after, Oprah joined Wiesel on a tour of Auschwitz, where he spoke
before a camera crew in mystical terms about the souls of those were
exterminated and how he communed with them as he stepped across the hallowed
Oprah, Wiesel secured his brand as the high priest of Holocaust theology, the
quasi-religion he introduced some 30 years earlier in a New York Times op-ed:
“The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event,” he insisted, “the ultimate mystery,
never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it
was; the others will never know.”
on the impact of Wiesel’s work, Brooklyn College political science
professor Corey Robin wrote
that he had “turn[ed] the Holocaust into an industry of middlebrow morality and
manipulative sentimentality” while sacralizing “the ovens [as] our burning
bush.” For the masses of Jewish Americans who subscribed to Wiesel’s secular
theology, he was a post-war Moses who interceded between the Western world and
a catastrophe that substituted for a merciful God.
Wiesel leveraged his literary talents to win sympathy for Jewish victims of
genocide, he sought to limit the narratives of other groups subjected to
industrial-level extermination. As a member of the advisory council of the U.S.
Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992, he lobbied against recognizing LGBTQ and
Roma victims of the Holocaust. A decade earlier, when the Israeli Foreign
Ministry demanded Wiesel exclude Armenian scholars from a conference on
genocide, fearing damage to the country’s relations with Turkey, he resigned
from his position as chair rather than defend the scholars. (It was not until
2008 that Wiesel called the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces a
seemed to view these other victimized groups as competitors in an oppression
Olympics, fretting that widespread recognition of the atrocities they suffered
would sap his own moral power. The universalist’s credo—”Never again to anyone“—was
a threat to his saintly status, his celebrity and his bottom line.
Israel, crimes and all
popularizing an understanding of the Holocaust as a unique event that existed
outside of history, Wiesel helped cast Jews as history’s ultimate victims. In
turn, he fueled support for the walled-in Spartan state that was supposed to
represent their deliverance, and defended everything it said it had to do for
their security. “My loyalty to my people, to our people, and to Israel comes
first and prevents me from saying anything critical of Israel outside Israel,”
the face of increasingly unspeakable crimes against Palestinians, Wiesel
counseled silence. “I must identify with whatever Israel does—even with her
errors,” he declared.
unwavering commitment to Israel undoubtedly influenced his vocal support for
President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. “We have a moral obligation to
intervene where evil is in control. Today, that place is Iraq,” he proclaimed
in a 2003 op-ed.
He went on to demand American-orchestrated regime change in Syria,
Iran. “To be Jewish in this world is to always be concerned,” he told
an audience on Capitol Hill, endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu’s push for a U.S. attack on Iran. Wiesel’s support for successive
assaults on Middle Eastern countries—always on the grounds of defeating
“evil”—made him a key asset of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists
9/11, Wiesel’s figure has helped keep America’s imperial designs safely
shrouded in the ghosts of Buchenwald and Babi Yar. As the literary critic Adam
“the author of Night has gone from being a great victim of war crimes to
being an apologist for those who commit them—all while invoking his moral
authority as a survivor.” Even after the invasions Wiesel advocated for spurred
the deaths of some 100,000 Iraqi civilians and the rise of ISIS, his aura
remained intact, keeping him insulated from accountability.
hustlers and demonizing Palestinians
federal authorities busted Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme in 2008, Wiesel lost
the millions he had amassed through his career as writer and lecturer on the
Holocaust. To recoup his losses, he turned to the furthest shores of the
American right-wing, forging mutually beneficial relationships with a coterie
of pro-Israel hate preachers and hustlers.
|Rabbi Shmueli Boteach|
months after losing his investments with Madoff, Wiesel accepted
$500,000 from Pastor John Hagee for a single speech. Addressing Hagee’s
congregation in San Antonio, Texas, Wiesel heaped praise on the Christian
Zionist preacher who once described Hitler
as a “half-breed Jew,” then called him his “dear
pastor” in a subsequent interview. Hagee’s rants
against gays and the indisputably antisemitic passages that prompted John
McCain to rescind the
preacher’s endorsement during his 2008 presidential campaign were of little
relevance to Wiesel as he scrambled to regain his fortune.
this time, Wiesel fell
in with Shmuley Boteach, a self-styled celebrity rabbi who functioned
as a liaison for Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. (Adelson began funding
Wiesel’s foundation in 2007 with a donation of $1 million). Boteach operated as
Wiesel’s de facto agent, arranging high-profile—and likely high-paying—speaking
gigs with figures ranging from Baywatch star Pamela Anderson to Senator Ted
Cruz. In return, the ethically tainted Boteach was able to bask in the presence
of a man regarded with near-universal veneration.
met Wiesel for a brief moment at New York University’s Bronfman Center for
Jewish Life in February 2014. He had just shared a stage with
Boteach, Adelson and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan strongman whose M23 proxy militia
helped fuel the Congolese genocide. During the event, which was as surreal as
it was outrageous, Kagame’s security team brutally ejected a lone audience
member who took Wiesel’s call to challenge injustice as a cue to rise from his
seat in protest against the Rwandan dictator. Afterward, I approached Wiesel
and asked him about his vehement support for Jewish
settlers ejecting Palestinians from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
He told me to contact his office and shuffled away.
July, Israel embarked on its most lethal operation to date against residents of
the besieged Gaza Strip, destroying or damaging some 100,000 homes and killing
over 2,200 people, including 551 children. At the height of the assault, a shockingly
Islamophobic full-page ad appeared in the New York Times under the
banner of Boteach’s World Values Network non-profit, which has received
substantial funding from Adelson.
rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’s turn,” the ad
declared. Hammering on the common pro-Israel myth that Palestinians do not
value their children’s lives as much as Israelis do, the ad denigrated the
besieged residents of Gaza as “worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from
that of the Molochites.” The text concluded with the signature of its author,
Elie Wiesel, the man who would be eulogized
by fellow Nobel Prize-winner Barack Obama as “one of the great moral voices of
Wiesel’s death, the elites who relied on him for moral cover leapt at the
opportunity to claim his legacy. Meanwhile, the teachings and testimonies of
Holocaust survivors who insisted on applying the lessons of the genocide
universally—including to Palestinians—remained confined to the margins.
the Jewish dissidents to emerge from the nightmare of World War Two Europe was
Marek Edelman, a member of the Warsaw ghetto resistance who published
an open letter to Palestinian resistance fighters during the Second
Intifada, addressing them respectfully as “Palestinian Partisans” while
beseeching them not to attack civilians. There was also Hajo
Meyer, who spent months in Auschwitz, where he lost his parents, and spent his
later years writing slashing critiques of the Zionist movement’s base
exploitation of the Holocaust. Like Meyer, Hedy
Epstein invoked her experience surviving genocide (she escaped on the kindertransport)
to emphasize the urgency of her activism for Palestinian rights. In her final
years, she embarked on an aid flotilla to the besieged Gaza Strip and
participated in countless demonstrations for human rights, even getting
arrested protesting police brutality in St. Louis, Missouri.
Israeli Jews who had fled Europe during the 1930’s banded together in radical
organizations like the Socialist
Bund, Matzpen and
the communist party known as Maki to challenge the military occupation of
Palestinians that began inside Israeli territory in 1949. One of the earliest
leaders of the Israeli Communist Party, Meir Vilner, used his position in the
Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to expose the massacre by Israeli soldiers of 47
innocent Palestinian farmers in 1956 in the town of Kfar Kassem, where Prime
Minister David Ben Gurion had ordered a media blackout.
we wanted to escape in Vilna [Lithuania] we found here [in Israel],” Vilner
said after uncovering the atrocities Israel’s military had committed. “There,
hatred was directed against Jews; here against Arabs.”
these dissidents could not be ignored, they have been denigrated by
pro-Israel forces as self-haters, race traitors and even frauds. This year,
when the Austrian parliament invited Hedy Epstein to participate in an event on
women survivors of the Holocaust, she was smeared by Efraim Zuroff, a
self-styled “Nazi hunter” who headed the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem
office. “She is not a survivor in the classical sense,” Zuroff claimed,
suggesting that Epstein’s support for Palestinian rights nullified her
experience of escaping genocide. The Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal piled
on, painting Epstein as a “pro-Hamas, anti-Israel Jew” and attempting to
link her to Iranian Holocaust deniers. As a result of the pressure, the parliamentary
event was canceled. Epstein died three months later at age 91.
the day of Wiesel’s death, those who took a critical view of his legacy were
subjected to the same wrath as the survivors who challenged the segregationist
principle he represented. Condemning his anti-Palestinian tirades was painted
by right-wing and pro-Israel outlets as tantamount to Holocaust denial, and
invited a torrent of incitement and death threats transmitted through social
media. (A quick browse through my Twitter interactions will show an almost
endless stream of disturbing imprecations).
Elie Wiesel gone, his most zealous defenders have set out to destroy those who
embraced the message he espoused in his Nobel Prize acceptance
speech, but which he ultimately failed to uphold: “Silence encourages the
tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives
are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and
sensitivities become irrelevant.”
Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet,
and the award-winning author of Goliath
and Republican Gomorrah.
His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in
Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.
MENCARINI MARCELLO/AFP/Getty Images)
late Elie Wiesel was an immensely complicated figure who helped raise public
awareness of the Holocaust, but who also became consumed by his own celebrity
and the immense power he wielded in the world.
is hard not to compare the careers of Wiesel and the Italian-Sephardi Primo
Levi who both survived the hell of Auschwitz, but who took very different paths
to express their witness.
stark contrast between their approaches could not be more pronounced: Levi was
very much a man of rationalism, science, and literature who sought to provide a
more humanistic understanding of the tragedy he experienced, while Wiesel
emphasized Jewish ethnocentrism and remained wedded to the alienated Ashkenazi
view of the world. Wiesel was a tortured believer, while Levi was very
much a non-believer who provided a more panoramic view of culture and
was a key part of the Abe Foxman/Alan Dershowitz institutional axis, while Levi
continued in the intellectual path of the Sephardic tradition and could be seen
in the line of great writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Umberto
Levi vision is on full display in the many writings contained in the massive Complete
Works which was recently published in a handsome three-volume edition
have commented on Levi as a Sephardic writer in the
following article and said “the writing of Primo Levi continues to present
a much-needed contrast to the dark fatalism of Ashkenazim like Elie
Wiesel.” The differences between Wiesel and Levi and their approaches to
the Holocaust and to the world are very much a product of the
lived his life in a way that reflected the Shtetl mentality of the Eastern
European Jews. No matter how far he had moved in physical terms from the
nightmare world of the Nazis, or how much public fame he garnered, his
extensive advocacy on Holocaust matters and on human rights was always tied to
these formative Ashkenazi foundations and its religious-theological
complexities and muddled contradictions.
on the other hand represented the cultural pluralism of the Sephardic tradition
and its innate Cosmopolitan values.
was an assimilated European Jew who was sometimes attacked by Ashkenazi
ethnocentrists for not being “Jewish” enough, while Wiesel was intimately tied
to the Jewish establishment that has so ill-served our people.
was unfortunate, but not altogether unexpected, to see Wiesel victimized in
the Bernie Madoff swindle. Like many members of the American Jewish
establishment, Wiesel was hoodwinked by Madoff who presented himself as a solid
member of the Zionist tribe, a loyal adherent of what has now become the
primary cause of the Jewish community. Wiesel was bilked out of his personal
fortune as well as money earmarked for his charitable foundation. He once
famously compared Madoff to God.
Primo Levi shied away from the spotlight and was often made uncomfortable by this
alienated Jewish ethnocentrism, Elie Wiesel was always front-and-center in the
establishment Jewish community, and fully devoted to promoting its reactionary
e-mail newsletter from Arutz Sheva reminded us of the high esteem that
Wiesel is held in the Settler community. The newsletter contained no less
than four separate
articles on Wiesel.
the looks of it, Wiesel is a figure much-beloved in the Settler community and
by Hard-Line Zionists more generally. He famously refused to speak out on
behalf of the suffering inflicted by Israel on the Palestinian community,
preferring instead to rubber-stamp official Israeli policy and remain silent on
the issue of Jewish persecution of others, at the same time that he was
extremely vocal on the issue of human rights for other oppressed groups in the
is interesting to note that the lengthy New
York Times obituary made no mention of the Palestine Question in
Wiesel’s very extensive record of human rights advocacy:
a critical look at Wiesel’s career there is the excellent article
at Mondoweiss by Marc Ellis that does raise these troubling issues.
Braiterman provides a valiant,
but often incoherent PILPUL argument trying to justify Wiesel’s many
hypocrisies and moral failings.
has been a rush to attack those who use Wiesel’s own moral values to criticize
him, and then there are those who wish to valorize him at any cost.
the final assessment, Wiesel contributed a great deal to our understanding of
the Holocaust, while presenting this history in a framework fraught with the
many problems and complications of the Ashkenazi experience and its difficult
contrast, Levi’s struggle against Fascism always had the Universal as its
his text “Arbeit Macht Frei” we see that this universality was
always uppermost in his mind.
Holocaust was not strictly limited to Jews and Judaism, though it is obvious
that Anti-Semitism played an oversize role in the barbaric Nazi movement.
Levi consistently presented the matter in the framework of a
universalistic concern for humanity.
following is a key passage from the essay that typifies Levi’s understanding of
the nefarious Nazi ideology:
reality, and despite appearances to the contrary, repudiation of and contempt for
the moral value of work was and is essential to the Fascist myth in all its
forms. Under all militarism, colonialism, and corporatism lies the
precise determination of one class to exploit the work of others, and at the
same time to deny them any human worth. This determination was already
clear in the anti-worker character that Italian fascism assumed from the
beginning, and it continued to assert itself, with increasing precision, in the
evolution of fascism in its German version, up to the vast deportation to
Germany of workers from all the occupied countries. But it reached its
crowning achievement and, at the same time, its reduction to the absurd in the
universe of the concentration camp.
is also important to mention here Levi’s much-discussed formulation of the
“Gray Zone” which is a central thesis in his magisterial final book The
Drowned and the Saved; a profound philosophical-moral interpretation of his
experiences of the debased Concentration Camp universe:
tend to simplify history, too, although we cannot always agree on the outline
within which to organize facts, and consequently different historians may
understand and construct history in incompatible ways. But our need to
divide the field between “us” and “them” is so strong – perhaps for reasons
rooted in our origins as social animals – that this one scheme, the
friend-enemy dichotomy, prevails over all others. Popular history, and
even history as it is traditionally taught in schools, reflects this Manichean
tendency to shun nuance and complexity, and to reduce the river of human events
to conflicts, and conflicts to duels, us and them, the Athenians and the
Spartans, the Romans and the Carthaginians. (Complete Works, volume 3, p.
few pages later he provides a precise formulation of how this Manicheanism is
truth remains that in the concentration camps and outside them, there are
people who are gray, ambiguous, and quick to compromise. The extreme
tension of the camp tends to augment their numbers. They bear their own
share of guilt (increasing in proportion to their freedom of choice), in
addition to which there are the vectors and instruments of the system’s guilt.
The truth remains that most of the oppressors, during or (more often) after
their actions, realized the evil they were doing or had done, and may have had
misgivings, felt uneasy, or may have been punished, but their suffering is not
enough for them to be counted among the victims. By the same token, the
mistakes and capitulations of the prisoners are not enough to align them with
their jailers: the inmates of the camps – hundreds of thousands of people from
every social class and every country in Europe – represented an average,
unselected sampling of humanity. Even if we leave aside the infernal
environment into which they had been abruptly plunged, it is illogical to
expect from them – and rhetorical and false to claim that everyone always
practiced – the behavior of saints and Stoic philosophers. (Complete
Works, volume 3, p. 2440)
“Gray Zone” is a bold attempt to analyze human motivations and behaviors in a
complex and nuanced manner that might still seem somewhat shocking to our
simplistic sensibilities as we ponder the nightmare that is presented by
Auschwitz and how it operated.
“Gray Zone” is a very difficult philosophical idea that was not possible in
Wiesel’s vision of Auschwitz, but does indeed reflect Levi’s deeply rational
and transparent vision of what he saw and experienced.
in contradistinction to Wiesel’s adamant refusal to criticize Israel, Levi
remained fully committed to his moral vision of Universal Justice.
the time of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 Levi wrote a heatedly
polemical article “Who Has Courage in Jerusalem?” that was published in Turin’s
La Stampa, Levi’s hometown newspaper, which had been publishing his
columns, stories, and essays since 1968.
is worth citing the following passage from this very courageous article:
fear that this undertaking, with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on
Judaism a degradation difficult to cure, and will damage its image. I
sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional link with Israel,
but not with this Israel.
Palestinian problem exists: it can’t be denied. It can’t be resolved in
the Arafat manner, by denying Israel the right to exist, but it cannot be
resolved in the Begin manner, either. Anwar Sadat was neither a genius
nor a saint; he was only a man endowed with imagination, common sense, and
courage, and he was killed because he had opened up a pathway. Is there
no one, in Israel or elsewhere, who is capable of continuing it?
(Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2597)
one of the closing sections of the Complete Works, “Notes on the Texts,”
Domenico Scarpa recounts that Levi soon joined other Italian Jewish
intellectuals in calling for Begin’s resignation:
Levi could not have wanted it or predicted it, [his novel] If Not Now, When?
came out at a bitter historical moment, shortly before the Israeli Army invaded
Lebanon. He and other intellectuals of Jewish origin distanced themselves
from those acts of war. Levi went so far as to call for the government of
Menachem Begin to resign. On July 11, 1982, advertisements for the novel
came out with the headline “Tyre Sidon Beirut, June-July 1982,” referring to
the cities where the bloodiest clashes between Israelis and Palestinians had
taken place. (Complete Works, volume 3, p. 2860)
notes that the ads for the book provided two Biblical quotes addressed to each
of the warring parties.
refused to check his morality at the door when it came to Israel. Though
an ardent Zionist for many years, he was not a man who could stand idly by and
not speak his mind when he thought that things were wrong.
his outspoken and courageous stand on the Lebanon War, Levi found himself attacked
by Fernanda Eberstadt in the October 1985 issue of Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary
magazine. Shockingly, Eberstadt does not consider Levi “Jewish” enough:
a writer, Primo Levi represents a relatively unfamiliar combination in the
literature of the Nazi concentration camps. He is a survivor without Jewish—or,
more specifically, without East European—inflections, a memoirist endowed with
all the fruits of a classical Mediterranean education, an aesthete, a skeptic,
a mild, equable, and eminently civilized man who is more at home in Dante and
Homer than in the Bible. Some of the qualities he brings to his work—secularism,
cultivation, elitism (coupled with an attitude of amused affection toward the
common man), and a lack of deep familiarity with Jewish history or religion—are
typical of his generation of Italian Jewish writers. Virtues that are his alone
include precision, economy, subtlety, a dry and rueful wit, an intimate
understanding of the dramatic potential of understatement, and a certain
frigidity of manner which combines effectively with the explosiveness of his
responded to the vicious attack in Commentary with a scathing letter to
the editor that was published in the February 1986 issue. The letter has
now been republished in the Complete Works, volume 3, pp. 2719-2721.
never once explicitly mentions Levi’s attack on Begin and Israel’s Lebanon
Invasion, but, in addition to the standard Anti-Sephardi racism, the article
seethes with the a pent-up hostility towards those Jews who do not tow the
was a lesson that Wiesel understood very well, and it is well-nigh impossible
to imagine him addressing the Israeli government as Levi did in 1982, just as
it is difficult to imagine him speaking of the Holocaust in a way that does not
emphasize a strictly Jewish ethnocentrism.
Holocaust has been used in ways both legitimate and illegitimate and it has
often been difficult to ferret out the differences. At one point Zionists
were silent on the issue of the Holocaust, seeing European Jews as cowards, but
over time began to realize that the tragedy could be used for HASBARAH
catastrophe of the Holocaust is one that will continue to eat away at all of us
and our reading of the texts of survivors like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi will
serve as a key entry-point in dealing with what is often an unspeakably painful
examination of the very depths of human depravity.
Journal of Palestine Studies, XXXII no. 1 p.88.
Anti-Semitism: A History of Hate, London: Jason Aronson Inc., 1993 353. Braham suggests that
Bauer used ‘questionable psychological
arguments’ in suggesting that Hungary’s
Jews had been informed about the Holocaust without having ‘internalised’
it. Bauer had ‘selectively cited the
recollections of some young Zionist couriers and community leaders, whereas the
problem was that the survivors were not only ‘left in the dark about the
secrets of Auschwitz, but in fact were misinformed
while most of the leaders escaped…’ ‘Rescue
Operations in Hungary: Myths &
Realities, p.27. Yad Vashem
Studies XXXII 2004
the Holocaust’, p.10. citing Wiesel’s introduction to Braham and Bel Vago, The Holocaust in Hungary 40 Years Later (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1985),