|Jennifer Loewenstein Archive
The Silence of Elie Wiesel
How to be a Good Victim
By M. SHAHID ALAM
At last Mr. Elie Wiesel has spoken of the 'dispossessed' in Palestine. It is appropriate that he should do so; that is what the world has long come to expect of him. A holocaust survivor and Peace Laureate, Mr. Wiesel has dedicated his life to preventing another holocaust, acting on the conviction that "...to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all..."
And so Mr. Wiesel speaks of the grief of dispossession in words that convey his deep empathy for the victims. In a NYT column of August 21, 2005, he writes about the "heart-rending" images of dispossession. "Some of them are unbearable. Angry men, crying women. Children led away on foot ." The victims are "obliged to uproot themselves, to take their holy and precious belongings, their memories and their prayers, their dreams and their dead, to go off in search of a bed to sleep in, a table to eat on, a new home, a future among strangers."
Some of you may be surprised at Mr. Wiesel's grief for the victims in Palestine. It appears uncharacteristic. Now, no one would accuse Mr. Wiesel of reserving his humanitarian work only for Jews. Indeed, according to his own testimony, he is not only a "devoted supporter of Israel," he has "also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, Argentina's Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia." In Mr. Wiesel's world, however, the Palestinians do not qualify as victims.
Rightly, Mr. Wiesel accuses the world of indifference -and silence- as the Nazis worked to exterminate the Jews. Yet, he too has chosen -and as a matter of principle- to maintain a deafening silence about the suffering of Palestinians. This is how he enunciated this principle many years ago: "I support Israel period. I identify with Israel period. I never attack, I never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel." Those words might suggest that the commitment to Israel is visceral; it is a strictly monogamous relationship.
It is not only that Mr. Wiesel will not criticize Israel when he is not in Israel. Israel can never do anything that could merit his criticism. "Israel didn't do anything except it reacted.... Whatever Israel has done is the only thing that Israel could have done I don't think Israel is violating the human rights charter. War has its own rules." Israel is not only above criticism: it has always been the victim of Arab and Palestinian wars. Israel is utterly innocent.
Sadly, there is no surprise in Mr. Wiesel's column; nothing to celebrate here. Mr. Wiesel has not renounced his high principle. The 'dispossessed' people in his column are not Palestinians: they are the illegal Jewish settlers in Gaza. Instead of commiserating with the Palestinians, Mr. Wiesel is engaging in a new game of blaming the victims and calling attention to a new form of Jewish victimization. Implicitly, this is his message: 'There never was any ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, 1967 or later. All this is a lie, an anti-Semitic slur. But look at what is real. It's happening right before your eyes: the ethnic cleansing of Jews in Palestine. You can see it everywhere, on Fox, CNN, CBS, the Washington Post and the NYT.'
This is merely the latest, most ingenious move in the splendid Zionist strategy to paint Israel and Israelis as victims. Israelis never dispossessed anyone. But Israelis are being 'dispossessed' today in their promised land, in their own country. How tragic: they are the only Jews to be ever dispossessed by their own army. If there were ever any misgivings about Israeli intentions towards Palestinians: the expulsion of Jews from Gaza should dispel them. Look, the Israeli government will even dispossess Israeli Jews to accommodate Palestinians.
In this new role as the 'dispossessed,' the Israelis have new opportunities too for blaming the real victims the Palestinians. What is the Palestinian crime now? Faced with "the tears and suffering of the [Israeli] evacuees," the Palestinians have chosen not to "silence their joy and pride " Instead, they have organized "military parades with masked fighters, machine guns in hand, shooting in the air as though celebrating a great battlefield victory." Mr. Wiesel is telling the Palestinians that they cannot enjoy even their hard-won little victories for which they have paid over the last eighty years in blood and tears.
The logic by which the Zionists have blamed the Palestinians is quite extraordinary. They demand that the victim must empathize with his tormentor; he must understand his tormentor's grief, the grief that drives him to torment his victims, and the terrible grief he feels even as he torments his victims. In other words, the victims of Israel must show saintliness that is even beyond saints. If the Palestinian hates his tormentors, he is anti-Semitic. If he resists his tormentor, he is a terrorist. If he celebrates his little victories, he is insensitive.
This is the language of racial superiority the doctrine that believes in a hierarchy of races, where the higher races have rights and inferior races are destined for extinction or a marginal existence under the tutelage of higher races. Under the Zionist doctrine, the Jews are a higher race. According to some versions this superiority is divinely ordained: God made his covenant with Israelites not with the Ishmaelites. This superiority is also empirically established: the Zionists wanted to take Palestine from the Palestinians and they made it a fact.
The Israelis are not only superior in their strength. They are superior in their magnanimity. The Palestinians still live: don't they? Isn't this proof of Israeli magnanimity. The Israelis merely pushed the Palestinians out of their lands; they did not incinerate them in ovens. They blow up their houses, but generally give them time to get out of the way. Aren't the Israelis incomparably kinder than the Nazis?
Let the Palestinians celebrate their extraordinary luck: they were not expropriated by the Germans or Anglo-Saxons. The Herero in Southwest Africa, the natives in the United States, or the Tasmanians were not half as lucky. 'Give up your futile terrorism,' the Zionists tell the Palestinians. 'Take the Bantustans we have created for you: and be grateful. We have both power and money: we can reward your gratitude. If you behave we might even give you passes for day jobs in Israel. You could make a good living scrubbing floors and washing toilets.'
The Zionists are incensed when the Palestinians reject this 'generous offer.' 'This is not in our script,' they scream. The outrage is understandable. They don't expect such insolence from inferiors. The Zionists find it hard to understand how any people could reject their claim to Palestine. But that is what the Palestinians have chosen to do; any other people in their condition would have done the same. It is this humanity of the Palestinians, ordinary yet incontrovertible, that is so galling to those raised in the logic of Zionism.
As this project has unfolded through wars, through ethnic cleansings, through expropriations, through an occupation that has involved an entire society in the relentless destruction of another people, how many Zionists can assert in sincerity despite the military successes of their project that their humanity is still intact, that Israelis today are better exemplars of the highest values of Jewish traditions than the generations of Jews who preceded them?
Israel has fashioned itself into a society whose primary vocation is to invent new stratagems, new walls, and new traps for imprisoning another people who by their will to resist continue to challenge and frustrate their will to expropriate. The Palestinians have stretched thin the ability of Israelis to retain their humanity in their role as occupiers. Those who have made it their life-long vocation to defend Israeli atrocities suffer a similar loss in their humanity. I suppose Mr. Elie Wiesel knows this all too well. Or is he so far advanced in this malady that he has become blinded to his own affliction?
M. Shahid Alam, professor of economics at Northeastern University, is a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org. Some of his CounterPunch essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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