Elie Wiesel: Paradoxical Legacy of a ‘Human Rights Icon’
Since the commencement of the Nobel Peace Prize, the most prestigious award in the world, only 129 good men and women have been awarded. Elie Wiesel who passed away on July 2nd was the most famous of all Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.
His passing and the ensuing international tributes and censures highlighted clashing perceptions and a profound cognitive dissonance. The fiercest debate may have taken place on social media where much of it was based on whether or not Elie Wiesel deserved to be a Nobel Laureate. A moot point and, yes he did. But that should not close the case on this historic figure.
I had to restrain myself in order to allow his family, friends and fans a little time to deal with their grief or write their obituaries. Now that the storm of raw emotions has somewhat settled, I would like to share my thoughts.
Mr. Wiesel has indeed met the criteria to become a Nobel Laureate, but not the criteria to be considered international human rights guru. That image was a byproduct of strategic branding and selective omission.
Greatness is in the eye of the beholder
As an Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, as the author of Night the most compelling memoir, as someone with personal friendships with prominent figures in high places, and as someone who was relentless in his advocacy for Holocaust education, Wiesel was unquestionably the most important ambassador for Jews around the world and for the state of Israel.
And according to President Barack Obama—his “dear friend” a fellow controversial Nobel Laureate—Wiesel was “the conscience of the world.” He was someone whose mission was to summon leaders of goodwill to help save humanity from its own evils.
However, once these words are weighed against Wiesel’s record of ethnocentric resolve to weed out any history that could undermine the exclusive victimhood narrative, they would prove hyperbolic at best.
“His objection to including Roma victims (the gypsies) at the Holocaust memorial, in his denial of the Palestinian Nakba, and his support for the Israeli settlement project that forces Palestinians off their land” underscores his unbalanced scale of justice.
On the balance
If intensely crafted and passionately spoken words were the only measurement of greatness of the soul, tenderness of the heart, and love for humanity, then Elie Wiesel indeed deserved all accolades awarded to him. But we must match words with deeds.
Wiesel was the tender façade of ruthless Zionism, the royal advocate of the Apartheid-like state of Israel, and a prominent enabler of systematic genocide of the Palestinian people by making life unbearable or by uprooting them to make space for settler expansion.
Regardless of the Wiesel brand that connotes compassion and integrity, he was hardly as principled on human rights and peace as his fellow Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu. And not even like Aung San Suu Kyi—another Laureate and Myanmar government’s de facto leader—who took a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach to the sufferings of the Rohingya people. Though she still remains silent on these atrocities, she has not been actively dehumanizing them as Mr. Wiesel did to the Palestinian people throughout his public life.
As a faithful Zionist, he was devoted to the motto ‘Never again!’ But, contrary to his media persona, Mr. Wiesel did not find in that slogan the inspiration to champion moral pushback against racist ideologies and oppression against all people. “This ostensible messenger of peace supports an organization that evicts Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem,” wrote Israeli former Member of the Knesset, Yossi Sarid.
In an open letter condemning Elie Wiesel’s support of zealous Jews bent on cleansing Palestinians out of Jerusalem, Mr. Sarid wrote: “Someone has deceived you, my dear friend. Not only may an Arab not build “anywhere,” but he may thank his god if he is not evicted from his home and thrown out onto the street with his family and property.”
Trial by his own words
Elie Wiesel could pen words that could make the foundation of our collective conscience tremble: “We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children….Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not.” Pitifully, due to lack of adequate empathy, he could not see how these words were also so prophetic in describing today’s most oppressed people on the face of the earth- the Palestinian people.
If Wiesel was truly, as many considered him, the world’s moral conscience and a human rights champion, he was heartlessly self-serving when it came to the Palestinian sufferings under Israeli occupation and their right to self-defense. He was no Albert Einstein—a fellow Jewish Nobel Prize winner of and one of the greatest minds in recorded history—who wrote “It would be my greatest sadness to see Zionists do to Palestinian Arabs much of what Nazis did to Jews.”
Wiesel’s life is a teachable moment on human altruism and selfishness, righteousness and folly. Hence it is critical to resist the urge to teach it based on partiality or emotional impulses.
As a brilliant writer, passionate speaker and storyteller, and more importantly, as someone who had firsthand experience of the savagery of human evil, Wiesel had the right platform to help elevate our collective conscience against oppression and injustice regardless of who might be on the receiving end. But he opted to succumb to his ethnocentric impulses, and he was never ambivalent about his bias.
In his sense of judgement, the state of Israel could never do wrong. To him, Israel was the sacred embodiment of triumph against oppression; therefore, could never turn into an oppressive political entity.
It is very difficult to find a statement that could fairly encapsulate his iconic, paradoxical, life for posterity. And we must be fair to posterity- we owe it to them. So let the tomb dedication read: Here lies an extraordinary man who lived a profoundly tragic, resilient, humane, ethnocentric, and a hypocritical life!