The recent violence in Gaza reverberates around the world, leading to confrontations and wars of words, and testing tribal loyalties: are you with us or against us? As is often the case in times of trial for Israel, in the pitched battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are playing prominent roles.
A few weeks ago, Elie Wiesel, in an ad sponsored by Shmuley Boteach’s Values Network, accused Hamas of using children as human shields in recent fighting. “In my own lifetime,” proclaimed Wiesel, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.”
The ad, which appeared in several major American newspapers, including the New York Times, likened the Israel-Palestinian crisis to a clash of civilizations between “those who celebrate life and those who champion death,” pinning civilian deaths on the deliberate actions of Hamas.
Two weeks later, a group of 327 Holocaust survivors and their descendants unequivocally condemned the “massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation” and took the United States to task for funding recent attacks. In a half-page ad in the Times, they accused Wiesel of “abusing our history,” likening Israeli aggression to genocide.
We are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable: Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.
We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. We call for an immediate end to the siege against and blockade of Gaza. We call for the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. “Never again” must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!
That Holocaust survivors would be enlisted in the battle for American public opinion about Israel should come as little surprise. For groups vying for moral authority—the Christian right, gays and lesbians, and even captains of industry (such as when private equity titan Stephen A. Schwartzman said that asking financiers to pay taxes at the same rate as those who work for a living is comparable to Hitler’s invasion of Poland), associating oneself with the Holocaust has become a potent way to draw attention to an issue, claim moral authority, and elicit sympathy for one’s side of a conflict. (See my article, “Whose Memory? Whose Victimhood?“)
In a world of shades of gray, where it is often difficult for many of us to figure out where to stand, the genocide of European Jewry has come to symbolize absolute evil. Its survivors, in turn, have become revered figures, personifying heroism and moral authority.
Conservative critic Alvin Rosenfeld recently took left-leaning Holocaust survivors and their children to task in The Forward for criticizing Israel in the paid Times ad. Rosenfeld, a conservative objected to their political stance, charging that being a survivor “carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.”
The signatories to IJSN’s ad, however, invoke just such an entitlement as they ostentatiously pull rank as Holocaust survivors in condemning Israel. In inflating and exploiting a status they regard as privileged, they are guilty of doing precisely what they falsely accuse Elie Wiesel of doing: “manipulating the legacy of the Nazi genocide to justify the unjustifiable.” Their abuse of Jewish suffering for contemporary political ends comes especially to the fore whenever they proudly parade forth their pedigrees as survivors to defame Israel.
He’s partly right. Survivors are rarely heroic paragons of moral virtue; they’re just ordinary people who through luck, fortune, or fortitude, managed to endure, despite the odds. I know because my father, who settled here in the early 1950s, after losing his home, his family, and nearly his life, was one of them. After spending the war years on the run in Poland and Russia, he returned home to Warsaw to find everyone gone. For four decades afterwards, he tried his best to fit into his adopted nation, and shied away from politics. He was fairly typical of other survivors in that respect.
Rosenfeld is happy to listen to survivors who agree with his stance on Israel, like Elie Wiesel. When they disagree with it, like the signatories to the letter from the anti-Zionist survivors and their families, they are guilty of “moral emptiness.”
The problem is not that Holocaust survivors are using their status to make moral arguments about Israel’s recent actions in Gaza. The real problem is that quick and easy Holocaust analogies are easily used to shut down reasonable discussion. On the right, those who use Holocaust analogies tar critics of Israel, even thoughtful ones, with the brush of anti-Semitism, labeling them as self-hating Jews—and even charging them with inciting another Holocaust. Those on the left, on the other hand are too quick to liken Netanyahu to Hitler, and call his policies genocidal. Instead of encouraging debate, such talk discourages it. One can’t debate with Hitler, nor even, at times, with a Holocaust survivor.
Instead of enlisting Holocaust survivors as symbolic vehicles in an already polarized and all-too bloody conflict, we should honor them as the last links to a vibrant prewar Jewish world – a world that was once filled with the cacophonous sounds of debate about the future of the Jewish people. In that world, even though it was ravaged by centuries of anti-Semitism and on the verge of a yet-unknown cataclysm, there were spirited discussions about a host of issues, including the question of whether Jews should place their faith with visions of world socialism, with a national homeland, or simply with God.
Sadly, that tradition of debate and dissent hardly exists today, if the current state of organized Jewry is any indication in this country. Gone are the days when spirited discussions of Talmud and politics spilled out from synagogues onto the streets. Religious institutions, fearful of alienating their congregants, now shy away from controversy. Regrettably, so do most of our national Jewish organizations. Those who refuse to be quiet, like Brant Rosen, the suburban Chicago rabbi and unspoken critic of Israel who recently resigned his pulpit for fear of dividing his congregation, are among the casualties.
Instead, conversations about the Israel-Palestine issue are more likely to take place on Facebook, or in sponsored ads in our national newspapers today. They offer stark alternatives: are you with us or against us?
We people of the book are known for our fertile tradition of dissent and disagreement. While some may believe that times of war necessitate absolute loyalty, it is precisely now that we need dissent the most.