Searching in Vain for a “Pure” Elie Wiesel

When they read Elie Wiesel’s Night, my Bible-belt students are regularly caught up short. They are flummoxed by the events about which Wiesel wrote; by the very fact that the Holocaust took place. But they are just as flummoxed by how Wiesel narrated his experiences, and especially about Wiesel’s account of the gradual attenuation of his faith in God while in Auschwitz. They think they know how religion works; but when they read of Wiesel’s offering “a prayer to this God in whom I no longer believed,” they must face their own ignorance. At that moment, they learn that not even God can be exempt from critique.

Wiesel never wrote that God answered his prayer, or that God revised God’s ways as my students have to revise theirs. But if Wiesel could not teach God, he could do the next best thing. He could teach Oprah.

Redemption is always around the corner for her (and for us, the audience). Trauma can always be put to rest once and for all. Kathryn Lofton has written about Oprah’s spiritual capitalism, in which consumption—of pashminas, makeovers, diet manuals, uplifting fiction, and so on—is the mechanism by which Oprah gives her audience “redemptive certitude, and … millennial promise.” Such certitude evaporated in her conversations with Wiesel about his experiences at Auschwitz.

In an interview that appeared in O magazine in the fall of 2000, she asked him, in her usual optimistic tone: “And is every person who survived proof that the human spirit can triumph over anything?” Tactfully and delicately, Wiesel broke the news to her: “It’s hard to say. Some persons survived because they wanted to, Oprah; I did not. . . I wish I could say that I wanted to live to tell the tale. But it wasn’t important then.”

Six years later, as she looked with Wiesel at infant clothes on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and listened to him talk about the infants and mothers who went directly to the gas chambers, she remarked “There is some grace in that [quick and unexpected death], don’t you think?”

Somewhere on the border between naïvely cute, idiotic, and obscene, Oprah’s question implies that divine grace would not be expressed through receiving more life (or surviving), and that God for some reason did not care for those men and women—including Wiesel himself—who did not die immediately upon entering Auschwitz. All Wiesel could do was sigh and reply, “I don’t know,” before patiently explaining to Oprah that there must have been some period of time, however brief, in which everyone who died at Auschwitz knew of their imminent deaths. To associate those moments with grace, or any divinely ordained meaning, is the height of offense.

Wiesel could also destroy his own redemptive hopes. In the first volume of his memoirs, All Rivers Run To The Sea, he quoted from entries he’d made (in Yiddish) in his diary while in Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day War. They began as a series of rhapsodic celebrations, as he exclaimed “now, more than ever we must begin with Jerusalem, city of a thousand generations of men who dreamed of deliverance and paved the way for today’s heroes.” But such joy soon fades into a forlorn pain as he reflected upon seeing conquered Arabs, observing that “for the first time in my life, children were afraid of me.” This was not a messianic moment after all.

But there was one issue that, for Wiesel, was beyond criticism and beyond reasoned debate: the State of Israel. Many of the remembrances that have already appeared in the days since Wiesel’s death have noted the disconnect between Wiesel’s stature, as, in President Obama’s words, “the moral conscience of the world,” and his position on the Israeli occupation.

Bernard Avishai, in The New Yorker, writes that “many of us who admired him in our youth became increasingly impatient with his inability to see the occupation for what it was.” Others have remarked on his alliances with right-wing organizations, like his support for the Jewish settlement in Silwan, or Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s use of Wiesel’s photo in several ads over the last few years—most notably one in support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress in 2015 criticizing the Iran arms deal, and another from 2014 during the Gaza conflict. (The latter ad was beautifully analyzed, shortly after it ran, by Seth L. Sanders for RD.)

It is tempting to take this as evidence of two Wiesels who died on Saturday: one, the thinker of radical and all-encompassing critique, and another, the thinker of Jewish power. It is tempting to write a piece chastising him for his inconsistencies, for being willing to throw one set of ideas out for the sake of the other (depending on his audience). It is tempting to turn to various political philosophers in order to argue that one of these Wiesels speaks the truth, and the other does not. Following any of these temptations is not wrong, but indulging them is of limited use. They bring no clarity about who Wiesel was as a thinker, writer, and political voice.

For Wiesel was quite aware that his own thinking, on issues great and small, was rooted in affect. (His writings remain powerful in part because he knew the affective power that narratives have.) He was no principlist, no systematician, no lover of reason. Indeed, at first he did not even listen to the reasoned exhortation of his cardiologist before his quintuple bypass!

And so his support for Israel was not grounded in any concrete first principle that we might know from political theory. It stemmed from an all-encompassing attachment to the story of the Jewish people that he could not see morphing into any other form.

But he would not have begrudged others, whether Jews or non-Jews, from taking different positions on Israeli politics than he did. Or at least he should not have done so, given what he stated in an interview with the International Herald Tribune from April 1980:

Do not ask me, a traumatized Jew, to be pro-Palestinian. I totally identify with Israel and cannot go along with leftist intellectuals who reject it. Perhaps another generation will be free enough to criticize Israel; I cannot. [Italics added.]

Was this a betrayal of his other broadly humanist commitments? Absolutely. There is no reason why critics should not continue to take Wiesel to task for what he said about Palestinians, or why they should not point out how especially unprepared Wiesel was for the recent growth of Israeli racism. But if we have anything to learn from Wiesel, it is that we human beings are a self-betraying lot.

From the very beginning of his writing career, Wiesel was worried that his testimony would somehow go wrong. In the 1970s, as he recollected the years before he published Night, he wrote: “I knew that the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. . . how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear?”

To search for a pure Wiesel is to search for a world in which humans do not err, in which they are politically consistent and correct in every way. That search repeats the sin of Oprah, the sin that expects redemption in just a few moments. It leads to the self-aggrandizing bemoaning of others’ faults, the hasty demand that others agree with me now because I have the answer, the quick naming of holy men and women who might free us from our own burden of making difficult decisions, and the premature end of deliberation.

If we were to truly defer redemption, as Wiesel did with Oprah, we would not cease to call one another to task. But we would expect all of us (including Wiesel!) to betray our better selves on a regular basis. For those of us who are humanists or social scientists, we might research how such betrayals—or, for those of us who love jargon, “dialectical reversals”—occur as a matter of course when we live out our commitments among people who disagree with us.

And all of us might come to realize that our acts of solidarity, whether with some of the living or with some of the dead, are not innocent. They all cause pain to someone, somewhere. Perhaps that pain can be minimized over time, but the magnitude of the labor needed is far more immense than we might suspect. It was at times too immense for Wiesel. Yet if we read him again, perhaps it will not be too immense for us.


I am deeply grateful to Ingrid Anderson, Robert Erlewine, and Shaul Magid, in addition to the editors of Religion Dispatches, for comments on a previous draft. – Martin Kavka