Reprinted from Alternet
The 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.
Back 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.
Though 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 ground.
Through 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."
Reflecting 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.
While 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 genocide.)
Wiesel 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.
Defending Israel, crimes and all
By 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," Wiesel wrote.
In the face of increasingly unspeakable crimes against Palestinians, Wiesel counseled silence. "I must identify with whatever Israel does -- even with her errors," he declared.
Wiesel's 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, Libya and 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 alike.
Since 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 Shatz wrote, "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.
Embracing hustlers and demonizing Palestinians
Just 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.