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Elie Wiesel and the Defense of Jewish Life

Like a lot of Jews, Peter Beinart says Elie Wiesel’s writings helped influence his development as a thinker and a writer. The same could be said of me. At this point, the Nobel Laureate Wiesel has made his mark on more than one generation of Jews who were raised on his novels and memoirs exploring both his experience in the Holocaust as well as Jewish traditions and the dilemma of modern Jewish life. But, as he writes in his latest Haaretz column, Beinart has no patience for Wiesel these days. Why? Because Wiesel has written a public letter, published as an ad in the New York Times and the Washington Post, supporting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to speak to Congress about the nuclear threat from Iran.

According to Beinart, this is just one more example of Wiesel being “blind to the harm that Jews cause.” Whatever your opinion about the wisdom of Netanyahu’s decision to give the speech (and I’ve repeatedly questioned it), the notion that an Israeli leader speaking up to urge the world to stop Iran obtaining the ability to threaten or to carry out another Holocaust is causing “harm” is not only outrageous. It speaks volumes about the mindset of Beinart and others like him who view Jewish self-defense with more alarm than the continued efforts of those who seek to slaughter Jews.

I think Netanyahu made a terrible tactical mistake by choosing to inject himself into a debate over Iran sanctions that the side he supported was already winning. President Obama’s efforts to spike those sanctions was given a major boost when, fairly or not, Netanyahu’s alleged breach of protocol became the issue, diverting the nation from the administration’s indefensible efforts to promote détente with Iran. But since Netanyahu is determined to go ahead with the speech, his critics are not so much focused on his blunder as on their desire to silence all discussion about the Iranian nuclear threat so as to give more room for Obama’s push for appeasement.

Beinart claims Wiesel made two unsupported statements in his letter. The first is that the U.S. and Iran are on the verge of a “terrible” deal. The second is that an Iranian nuclear weapon could mean the “annihilation and destruction” of Israel. Yet there’s not much to Beinart’s objections here.

There’s not much dispute about the terms the U.S. is currently offering Iran. Discarding his 2012 campaign promise to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama has already put on the table an offer that would allow the Islamist regime to retain thousands of centrifuges for enriching uranium as well as letting them keep control of their stockpile of nuclear fuel. Administration apologists claim that this is the best that the West can do in any bargain with Iran, but Beinart doesn’t even bother to make that weak argument but simply writes as if the much discussed terms of the negotiations are a mystery that will only be revealed at the signing ceremony. Such terms would not be much of a deterrent to stop Iran from building a bomb; the only question being whether a nuclear “breakout” would take a year or, as many intelligence sources insist, far less time. Nor does he deign to dispute that even if Iran initially abided by those terms, it would make Tehran a nuclear threshold state that would make this terrorist sponsoring government more powerful, aiding its drive for regional hegemony.

Even less convincing is Beinart’s claim that an Iranian nuke wouldn’t be an existential threat to Israel. Though he can quote some retired Israeli security officials downplaying the threat, he knows very well that the dispute in those circles is not so much about the danger but about the best way to counter it with many deprecating the possibility of an Israeli military strike.

Though Iran might not use such a weapon to destroy Israel, their possession of one does raise such a possibility for two reasons. One is that they are building ballistic missiles that could deliver such a bomb. The other is that leading figures of this unabashedly anti-Semitic regime have repeatedly stated their desire to annihilate Israel.

Put in that context, Wiesel’s assertions are unexceptionable. Indeed, if one goes back and reads many of President Obama’s statements about an Iranian weapon in his first term during which he pledged never to allow such a development to take place, Wiesel’s position actually seems in concert with that of the administration.

But Beinart’s real agenda here isn’t to make weak arguments in defense of the administration’s efforts to build a new entente with Tehran. Rather, it is to denounce Wiesel’s instinct to defend Israel’s government against efforts to delegitimize its attempts to defend the Jewish state. Because he thinks, or at least at one point thought, about the writer as a symbol of concern for human rights, Beinart is appalled that Wiesel thinks Israel shouldn’t be forced to make unilateral concessions or that Jerusalem should be divided. He thinks he should be in the forefront of those flaying Israel for its policies on the West Bank rather than defending its current government as he has its predecessors led by both Likud and Labor prime ministers.

But again, this tells us more about Wiesel’s grasp of the essence of the conflict than any alleged insensitivity to the sufferings of the Palestinians. To the contrary, Wiesel has always been outspoken about the need to respect the humanity and the rights of Palestinians. But at the same time he has celebrated Israel’s control over a united Jerusalem because that means for the first time in its history, all faiths have access to their holy places.

Moreover, Wiesel’s defense of Israeli efforts to defend its people against a continuing campaign of Palestinian terrorism isn’t insensitive to non-Jews. He grasps that it is the Palestinian national organizations that have perpetuated this conflict despite repeated Israeli offers of peace and independence that have been turned down flat by both Fatah and Hamas.

Beinart rightly senses that so long as an icon of humanity like Wiesel is willing to stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself and to not be forced into unilateral and suicidal concessions, non-Jews will understand that the Jewish state’s rights should be respected. Whatever one may think of the current government of Israel, the notion that its efforts to preserve the existence of the state and the security of its people “defile” Wiesel’s ideals is a monstrous distortion of the truth. For those who have wrongly come to view Israel as the villain in the Middle East conflict and who reflexively deny the Palestinians’ rejection of peace and coexistence, any defense of Israel is too much, even when it comes from someone whose bona fides as an authority on human rights dwarf those of a Peter Beinart.

In the context of the politics of either Israel or the United States, Wiesel is a not right-winger or an opponent of compromise, assuming that peace with the Palestinians were ever possible. He is, rather, a centrist who simply sticks to consensus issues like Iran and a united Jerusalem. But to the likes of Beinart, even those positions are anathema.

Beinart’s current niche in the secular media is as a Jewish writer who can be relied upon to denounce Israel’s government so it is little surprise that he would defend appeasement of Iran. But when he matches his puny stature as a critic of the Jewish state against Wiesel’s standing as an advocate of Jewish life, he is out of his depth. By bashing the famous survivor in this manner, he is doing more to damage his own tattered reputation than undermining that of Wiesel.

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One Response to “Elie Wiesel and the Defense of Jewish Life”

  1. PAUL FREEDMAN says:

    As we speak, Iran is refusing to permit the UN to analyze it’s past *military* research into nuclear weapons–all par for the course, whatever the inside baseball on how Bibi judged the U.S. political in-field–he isn’t always the best third base coach, true.

    But as far Beinart, since when did his self-anointed back-seat moral scolding rise to requiring serious analysis? The moral pretension in taking exception to the Purim archetype’s, “with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction… slew of their foes seventy and five thousand,” to seize warrant for decrying “the harm that Jews do” not only misses the tachlis of the story (yes, sometimes the Jews take vengeance, must take vengeance in self-defense).

    This destination puts into focus the gnawing unease caused by the self-indulgent sentimentality of the boxes previously checked off: pathos of Wiesel’s portrayal of Jewish suffering? check! repository of Jewish joy? check check!! teaching by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (of course!)that “not even the greatest are beyond challenge”? Check! And so on to the inevitable turning point, a recitation of iterative justifying ethical schmaltz: “In 1988, Hertzberg, himself from a family of survivors, himself a man immersed in Jewish tradition, and himself a passionate Zionist, challenged Wiesel’s apologies for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” CHECK!

    And then, after an exegetical excursus as to how Wiesel gave false witness on the ability of Arabs to purchase Jerusalem properties, an out of the door rectification: “N.B.: After this piece first appeared on the Internet, it was brought to my attention that in 2009, the regulations that legally barred Palestinian residents from purchasing an apartment on “state lands” were quietly lifted….” really? But this is almost besides the point.

    Wiesel, the ostensible topic, the praise of Wiesel, is entirely a stalking horse, an argumentative ploy to rehearse the same ahistorical premise of Jewish and Zionist stain, the O * C * C * U * P * A * T * I * O * N that has been rendered increasingly if not conclusively irrelevant over the decades by the very concrete behavior of *Palestinian* behavior Beinart so fastidiously avoids, in his keening threnody of high-minded roof fiddling.

    After all, it is in the service, really, not of the West Bank itself or its Arabs but the current political PR needs of the occupant of the White House, that our precious show poodle poops on the carpet.

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