Hussein Ibish on Elie Wiesel

Here’s an excellent piece by Hussein Ibish in Foreign Policy on the mixed legacy of Elie Wiesel. I’d be hard pressed to find a sentence in it that I disagree with. I found this paragraph particularly poignant and admirable:

Many Palestinians have allowed the conflict with Israel to embitter them to the point that not acknowledging, learning about or engaging with the history of the Holocaust becomes a social and political imperative. This was most tragically illustrated in the experience of Professor Mohammed S. Dajani, a Palestinian scholar with impeccable nationalistic credentials, who led the drive to teach Palestinian university students about the Holocaust and ultimately had to leave his university position because of the backlashagainst the simple teaching and learning of history. Many Palestinians do want to learn about and recognize the tragedy of Jewish history, but many more myopically can’t see past their own present-day suffering and recognize Jewish Israelis as anything other than their occupiers and oppressors.

Until recently, Professor Dajani taught here at Al Quds University. I regret that I won’t be able to meet him. I particularly regret why I won’t be able to meet him.

As it happens, I once “met” Elie Wiesel, sometime in the mid 1980s. I was a high school student in Hillside, New Jersey when Wiesel appeared at a nearby college (Kean College) to give a speech, which I attended. Completely wowed by the speech (not a word of which I now remember), I asked a question in the Q&A about what Wiesel thought about the situation in (then) apartheid South Africa. I’d wanted to ask a question about Palestine, but was given the impression that it was the wrong question to ask in this context (and like the good boy that I was at the time, I complied with expectations and ditched it). In any case, Wiesel condemned South African apartheid in general terms, and left it at that. Though I tried to see the profundity in his remarks, I was in fact disappointed by their banality, and ended up blaming myself for asking Wiesel “the wrong question”–an overly topical one.

In retrospect, I have a feeling that it wasn’t the wrong question. It was the right question asked of the wrong person. I had just assumed that because Wiesel had lived through the Holocaust, he must at some level be an expert on every conceivable form of injustice: he’d have deep insight into the evils of apartheid, and predictive knowledge about the political strategy that would most effectively end it. That was how he was often represented to us in school, and how the study of the Holocaust was itself represented to us there. Once you read Night (the message seemed to be), you knew everything you needed to know about man’s inhumanity to man. All the lessons were there, and all of them generalized to everything. It was a tempting falsehood, but a falsehood all the same. It took awhile to figure that out. Problem is, I’m not entirely sure that everyone has. Another problem: I have a feeling that some of the ones who haven’t are educators.

Postscript, July 13, 2016: Another  excellent piece on Elie Wiesel, essentially consistent with Ibish’s, by Bernard Avishai in The New Yorker.

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