It Is Important to Have Perspective on Elie Wiesel's LegacyRoundup
tags: Elie Wiesel
... 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 madeNight 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 resignedfrom 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. ...
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