Elie Wiesel and the Museum of Tolerance

Bernard Avishai in a postscript to the recent NYT obituary for Elie Wiesel introduces a note of disquiet. He observes that while Wiesel “… condemned the burnings of black churches in the United States, and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and on behalf of the tortured political prisoners of Latin America… denounced the massacres in Bosnia … condemned the slaughters in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur … (remarkably) there is not a word in the Times obituary about the occupation of the Palestinian territories. That is not an oversight. To the dismay of Israeli peace activists…he rarely if ever publicly raised his voice against any Israeli actions…” Avishai contrasts him with Primo Levi who expressed concern over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians: “I fear that this undertaking [in Lebanon], with its frightening cost in lives, will inflict on Judaism a degradation difficult to cure . . . I sense in myself, not without surprise, a profound emotional bond to Israel, but not to this Israel”.

This article is one of several, such as Max Blumenthal’s much more strident piece, in which Wiesel has been called out for his alleged blind spot regarding Palestinians. I find something profoundly distasteful in this rush to judge; the time is wrong and the perspective skewed. It feels like a kind of maliciousness at play.

Yet the spirit of these comments has rekindled a memory from several years ago when, stuck in Los Angeles on, of all days, Yom Ha Shoah, I decided to visit the Simon Wiesenthal Centre/Museum of Tolerance. Where else could I have spent the day? I am struck now by how my impressions and thoughts at that time so closely parallel the themes and arguments implicit in the emerging “debate” over Wiesel’s legacy, and alleged lack of attention to the Palestinians. I am moved to revisit what I wrote on that Yom Ha Shoah a few years ago…

The Museum, a large edifice near Beverly Hills, was bustling with school groups, hundreds of adults, VIPs with guides headed every which way, and sundry others. The Centre comprises two distinct wings: one devoted to the Holocaust and the other to the promotion of Tolerance. I started my tour in the Tolerance wing. At the entrance one is asked to choose between a door marked “prejudiced” and a door marked “not prejudiced”. The second door doesn’t open. A corny first lesson – we are, all of us, prejudiced.

Many exhibits were high-tech, glitzy, a bit Hollywood – but at the same time they were cleverly engaging, especially for the masses of school-kids who appeared to be quite engrossed by the content. The Museum covered a comprehensive range of topics from hate speech, sexism, racism and the American civil rights movement to genocides and refugees from all parts of the world. In the lecture-hall style “Millennium Room” there was a multi-screen interactive setting for education about refugees – with multiple-choice questions allowing participants to compare their knowledge, beliefs and behaviours to that of their peers. “What is the commonest cause of refugee deaths?” I selected starvation. Wrong – land mines! Then came questions like: “Would you be willing to let more refugees in to the US alleviate the problem? What about increases in taxation to pay for it?”

I continued past posters and installations dealing with a wide range of refugee groups. Slowly something dawned on me. I walked around again just to make sure I wasn’t mistaken. The displays were great, but there was indeed a group of refugees who were, at least for me, conspicuous by their absence from the Museum – Palestinians.

From one perspective, the Museum’s silence on this topic was hardly surprising. The issue of Israel-Palestine is of deep concern to many in the Jewish community who view it primarily through the lens of territorial or even existential conflict, rather than as an issue of refugees or human rights. Beyond the military conflict, dispute over the attribution of moral responsibility for the genesis and perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee problem is a political and ideological (and to a lesser extent academic) battleground.

Some might ask why the Tolerance wing of a Jewish Museum should even consider providing a platform for a group who had once made common cause with the Nazis, in a sense endorsing the very tragedy commemorated in the other wing of the museum. Today, whether through violence or through Boycott, some Palestinian groups are still perceived to be seeking to undermine the political existence of the Jewish State. Of direct relevance to a Holocaust Museum, Palestinian and broader Arab responses to the Holocaust have included accusations of Jewish complicity in, and manipulation of the Holocaust for political gain, as well as outright denial. Perhaps more challenging is the appropriation of the language and imagery of the Holocaust to imply equivalence between the Palestinian experience and the Shoah.

For these and other reasons, a Palestinian exhibit in the Museum of Tolerance may be distressing for Holocaust survivors and their families. Thus, as important as education about Palestinian dispossession might be, a Holocaust museum may not be the right place for it. It’s just too hard.

But this is not “just” a Holocaust Museum.

The Centre is described on its website as “…a symbol of society’s quest to live peacefully together… an important resource on how to achieve that goal…”

It is supposed to be a Jewish Museum of Tolerance. An educational facility. Could it – should it – not have something to say about Palestinian refugees and self-determination? I turned to the Vision Statement on the museum website.

Recipient of the Global Peace and Tolerance Award from the Friends of the United Nations, the Museum of Tolerance (MOT) is a human rights laboratory and educational center dedicated to challenging visitors to understand the Holocaust in both historic and contemporary contexts and confront all forms of prejudice and discrimination in our world today.

In his address at the dedication of the Museum of Tolerance in 1993 Federico Mayor, Director General of UNESCO said: “…it is crucial for all of us to give new meaning to the word ‘tolerance’ and understand … our ability to value each and every person is the ethical basis for peace, security and intercultural dialogue… A peaceful future depends on our everyday acts and gestures. Let us educate for tolerance in our schools and communities, in our homes and workplaces and, most of all, in our hearts and minds…”

… The (Museum’s) daunting task was to create an experience that would challenge people of all backgrounds to confront their most closely-held assumptions and assume responsibility for change…

Daunting indeed!  The Museum undoubtedly provides a valuable educational resource, widely utilised by the broader community. It would be cynical and mean-spirited not to respect an organization that values teaching not only its own difficult history, but is energised by that history to promote a more universalistic message.

However, to really teach tolerance, should the museum not open us up to “the other” by challenging us, rather than ignoring our fears and preconceptions?

On the other hand, to what extent should a major Jewish institution really be expected to challenge its own founding community’s beliefs, fears and prejudices on such a hotly contested issue?

At the time I visited the Museum there had been media coverage of a Palestinian Professor at Al Quds University, Mohammed Dajani, who had courageously led a group of Palestinian students on an educational visit to Auschwitz – courageous because it attracted enormous criticism back home. One of the students who travelled with Dajani said of the group: Although the public outcry has silenced most of them, they all went to Auschwitz out of the belief that deepening their knowledge of the Holocaust could help pave the road to peace. Not only did they choose to reject ignorance, but they displayed remarkable moral courage by choosing to respect the past suffering of “the other.”

One of Dajani’s many critics, a news commentator writing on the website for a television station in Ramallah, condemned the Palestinian “pilgrimage” to Auschwitz-Birkenau: “Let us first pay attention to our martyrs and their families.” One of Dajanai’s students explained: “When my fellow Palestinian travelers talk among themselves and with friends and family about the accusation that they “sold out to the Jews” by visiting Auschwitz, they tend to cite their love for their country, noting that their travel makes them no less patriotic or nationalistic than their critics.”

Around the same time, J-Street’s bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations had just been rejected. There were similar efforts to prevent progressive Jewish organisations such as the New Israel Fund from participating in the Celebrate Israel parade. Jewish organizations are rejected when they are not considered to be sufficiently loyal, or at least do not express their loyalty in an acceptable manner. Expressions of empathy with the narrative of “the enemy” invite communal rejection on both sides of the conflict.

On Yom Ha Zikaron Israelis remember those who have fallen in battle defending their country, as well as victims of terror. In recent years an “alternative ceremony” has been held in Tel Aviv, organized by a left-wing group, Combatants for Peace. I attended an alternative Yom Ha Zikaron ceremony in Tel Aviv several years ago. What makes this event alternative is that it is a joint commemoration including both Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Outside the event, a small but vocal group of protesters called the Jews attending the event “traitors”. When the Jewish-Israeli singer Achinoam Nini sang at the event, she found herself the subject of a threatened blackban for supporting such a “treacherous” event. Joint events are also rejected by many on the Palestinian side.

It was moving and uplifting to mark a common humanity with those with whom we are in conflict. At the same time I felt an ambivalence- perhaps I shouldn’t be there. Families and communities- Israelis and Palestinians alike, have a need for, indeed are entitled to, a space within which to memorialize their own losses, honour their heroes and share communal solidarity. At a time of mourning, to bring into ones midst the kin of those associated with that loss is deeply challenging – an aspirational gesture perhaps best left for a time after reconciliation.

Compassion for one’s enemy and tolerance for their grievances and narratives do not come easily. Both sides in this conflict understandably have difficulty seeing the position of the other and are quick to label expressions of compassion as naivety and even disloyalty. Palestinians are abused for travelling to Poland to learn about the Holocaust, progressive Jewish groups are excluded from roof bodies, hatred is expressed towards Jews and Palestinians who consider a memorial day as an opportunity to make common cause.

These responses are predictable, and perhaps understandable. It is also possible to understand how representing the plight of Palestinian refugees within a Holocaust Museum, or even a Jewish Museum of Tolerance, may evoke similar emotional responses.

However, if the Museum of Tolerance deals only with issues that are far away in time and place, if they present no sense of cost or personal confrontation, if they fail to challenge deeply and experientially, then the Museum may be failing to provide the most profound lesson.

By not tackling an area of greatest discomfort to the Jewish community, the Museum seems to be missing an opportunity to do something not just worthy, but something really outstanding.

Professor Daoudi, in response to fellow Palestinians critical of his visit to Auschwitz, said: “I do not regret for one second what I did. As a matter of fact, I will do it again if given the opportunity. I will not hide, I will not deny. I will not be silent. I will not remain a bystander even if the victims of the suffering I show empathy for are my occupiers.” Such acts and statements resonate in ways that can transform perceptions in an instant. In the end, I don’t know whether a Jewish Museum of Tolerance is a fitting place for learning about Palestinians.

But just imagine if the Museum could somehow find space for this most challenging of subjects. Then the experience of the Museum would be not just informative, but somehow transformative.

It is this sense of hope that is evoked at the end of Avishai’s post-script. Quoting his wife Sidra (a “scholar of Holocaust literature): “After representing so eloquently the victims of history’s injustices in Nazi and then Soviet Europe, Mr. Wiesel would surely, we assumed, turn to the injustices perpetrated by his own people, and cry out against the tragic occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people,” Avishai concludes “Imagine if, the Jew that he was, he had.”

About the Author
Andrew is a medical specialist working in a cancer hospital in Melbourne, Australia. He is a regular visitor to Israel and a member of an egalitarian shul. He occasionally suffers from thought bubbles that transmogrify into written form. He lives with his wife and three sons.
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