Jews and non-Jews from all walks of life, from the world-famous to the most humble, have already written eloquent, pained obituaries for Elie Wiesel, whose death last Shabbat came upon us like a punch in the stomach for which we were ill-prepared, despite his illness. I humbly add these words.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to adequately assess Elie Wiesel’s impact on the Jewish community in the aftermath of the Shoah. With the publication of Night, his first and arguably most searing account of his experiences in Auschwitz as a young man, Wiesel not only brought the Shoah experience out of the Jewish communal closet and made it permissible, if not obligatory, to talk about it. He also began the impossible (by his own admission) process of developing a vocabulary and conceptual framework within which to process and give expression to its myriad horrors. Throughout his subsequently prolific writing career, Wiesel struggled with that challenge. How does one express that which defies expression and understanding? Is so doing, he gave us permission to struggle along with him, and to use the awareness of his own loss and pain to sharpen our capacity to empathize with an experience which was totally unlike any other, and with which we had no intimate familiarity.
The Shoah was not at all on the curriculum of my Yeshiva education in the 50’s and 60’s. Though some of my Jewish studies teachers had numbers on their arms, spoke with thick Polish accents and were clearly suffering from one version or another of PTSD, not a one of them ever even tried to educate us as to what they had gone through. It was, I have imagined, a combination of the fact that they simply couldn’t– they weren’t yet able– and that those guiding our education were themselves unsure as to whether or not their experiences should be spoken of with young children.
In my years at Camp Massad Bet as a teen, Tisha B’Av was essentially transformed into a mini-Yom Hashoah. I assume that, as the great hurban of our time, it was seen as a way to make the anniversary of the ancient destruction in Jerusalem more immediately relevant. On more than one occasion I remember watching Alain Resnais’ documentary “Night and Fog,” which terrified me. The grainy black and white images of smokestacks and piled of bodies were not anything I knew how to handle.
It was for these reasons and many more that reading Night as a young boy was nothing less than transformational for me, as it was for so many in the Jewish community. Now there was a name, a face, a voice whose personal story gave shape and form to the images I had only seen on screen. Elie Wiesel gave us the courage to confront the horror, and virtually commanded us to talk about it so as to never forget it, or allow it to recur.
How sad it is that voices emanating from the Palestinian community have used Wiesel’s death to challenge his greatness, saying that his failure to speak out on Palestinian victimhood and suffering proved the limits of his legitimacy as a moral voice. An article by Hussein Ibish in the most recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine titled “Elie Wiesel’s Moral Imagination Never Reached Palestine” quoted Edward Said lament about the victims suffering at the hands of the victims. Where was Wiesel’s outrage at Palestinian suffering?
Elie Wiesel never denied the suffering of Palestinians. He addressed it privately with Israeli leaders, and wrote openly of it in a public plea to Palestinian youth. But to know and appreciate his greatness is to understand that victimhood was a state of being that his entire life as a survivor was a rejection of. He transformed his having been a victim of the Nazis into a dynamic and positive commitment to preventing a future genocide. The Palestinians have adopted victimhood as an integral component of their narrative, and to Wiesel, that could not lead to any positive movement forward, and certainly not to peace. His “moral imagination” recognized Palestinian suffering, but also embodied a fierce and unshakable commitment to Israel’s peace and security. He was nothing if not a proud Jew, and Zionist.
Think for a moment of how many people you could name– how many individuals– whose lives have changed the world. How many people are there whose “moral imagination” and personal story has inspired people of all faiths and cultures. The answer is a simple one; very few.
I humbly add my voice to those who grieve for Elie Wiesel, one of the more remarkable people that the world has ever known. May the values and commitments for which he stood continue to inform the way we live our lives, and may we never succumb to indifference, which he regarded as the greatest sin. Y’heh zihro barukh… May his memory ever be a source of blessing.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.