Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor and 'moral compass' Elie Wiesel dies – but doesn't escape criticism
Elie Wiesel addresses the United Nations in 2005 (AFP / Don Emmett)
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One of the moral and intellectual giants of the last century, Elie Wiesel died yesterday at the age of 87.
The Holocaust survivor, author of Night, The Trial of God and 40 other works of literature , Wiesel was a highly respected voice on peace and human rights. When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he spoke passionately about the importance of speaking out against injustice wherever it happened, and urged against impartiality and silence.
Elie Wiesel swore to never be silent on human suffering in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech pic.twitter.com/a3qJ4BU6rc— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) 2 July 2016
But in spite of the outpouring of feeling following Wiesel’s death – testament, if any were needed, of his significance and strength – several commentators today disputed the usual narrative of his legacy.
As a fierce advocate for the state of Israel, Wiesel tended to support the more hardline policies of the Israeli government. He campaigned for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, even praising the activities of illegal settlers, denied the credibility of the Nakba, and was on the board of the NGO Monitor, a controversial group which criticises the work of pro-Palestinian NGOs.
During the Gaza war of 2014, Wiesel gave his voice to a contentious advert urging Hamas to stop using children as shields and describing the conflict as “between those who celebrate life and those who champion death... a battle of civilization versus barbarism.” Though it urged coexistence, it was criticised for echoing the dehumanising rhetoric often aimed at Gazans and failing to hold Israeli forces to account, effectively cheering the Gaza bombardment which killed more than 2,000 people, over 500 of whom were children.
His letter prompted a reply, by more than 300 Holocaust survivors and their descendents, which condemned Israel's bombing of Gaza and stated that “We are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history […] to justify the unjustifiable.”
Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it's Hamas's turn pic.twitter.com/5luIobnv6p— Dolores Testerman (@DoloresTesterma) 1 August 2014
In the hours following his death, several commentators offered criticisms and assessments of Wiesel’s legacy. Some were rather less sensitive than, perhaps, should have been appropriate.
Elie Wiesel will be remembered by Palestinians for his racism and his propaganda services to their oppressors, ethnic cleansers and killers.— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) 3 July 2016
Other commentators offered a thoughtful analysis of the Holocaust survivor's legacy – considering how his message of avoiding impartiality and taking sides may have blinded his moral eye to the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people.
Eli Wiesel supported human rights for everyone but for Palestinians, where he advocated for most Israeli policies against our people.— Xavier Abu Eid (@xabueid) 3 July 2016
My thoughts on the passing of holocaust survivor & Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, z"l. His legacy comes with a warning. pic.twitter.com/xuFlaBDHH5— (((AbrahamGutman))) (@abgutman) 2 July 2016
To be clear, it is possible to appreciate Elie Wiesel's struggle, legacy & literature while also being repulsed by his support for settlers— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) 2 July 2016
The criticism is not to say that Wiesel was totally blind to the Palestinian people. In his Nobel speech, he said he was sensitive to their plight but deplored their methods. “Violence and terrorism are not the answer,” he said. “Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people.”
But for many Palestinians and their supporters, the legacy of Wiesel will always be characterised by his apparent blindness to the oppressions exacted by the Israeli state. Even the most respected moral compasses, it seems, cannot point in the right direction for everyone, all the time.