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A Response to Elie Wiesel

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Mr. Wiesel,

I read your statement about Palestinians, which appeared in The New York Times on August 4th. I cannot help feeling that your attack against Hamas and stunning accusations of child sacrifice are really an attack, carefully veiled but unmistakable, against all Palestinians, their children included.  As a child of Holocaust survivors—both my parents survived Auschwitz—I am appalled by your anti-Palestinian position, one I know you have long held. I have always wanted to ask you, why? What crime have Palestinians committed in your eyes? Exposing Israel as an occupier and themselves as its nearly defenseless victims? Resisting a near half century of oppression imposed by Jews and through such resistance forcing us as a people to confront our lost innocence (to which you so tenaciously cling)?

Unlike you, Mr. Wiesel, I have spent a great deal of time in Gaza among Palestinians. In that time, I have seen many terrible things and I must confess I try not to remember them because of the agony they continue to inflict.  I have seen Israeli soldiers shoot into crowds of young children who were doing nothing more than taunting them, some with stones, some with just words. I have witnessed too many horrors, more than I want to describe. But I must tell you that the worst things I have seen, those memories that continue to haunt me, insisting never to be forgotten, are not acts of violence but acts of dehumanization.

There is a story I want to tell you, Mr. Wiesel, for I have carried it inside of me for many years and have only written about it once a very long time ago. I was in a refugee camp in Gaza when an Israeli army unit on foot patrol came upon a small baby perched in the sand sitting just outside the door to its home. Some soldiers approached the baby and surrounded it. Standing close together, the soldiers began shunting the child between them with their feet, mimicking a ball in a game of soccer. The baby began screaming hysterically and its mother rushed out shrieking, trying desperately to extricate her child from the soldiers’ legs and feet. After a few more seconds of “play,” the soldiers stopped and walked away, leaving the terrified child to its distraught mother.

Now, I know what you must be thinking: this was the act of a few misguided men. But I do not agree because I have seen so many acts of dehumanization since, among which I must now include yours. Mr. Wiesel, how can you defend the slaughter of over 500 innocent children by arguing that Hamas uses them as human shields?  Let us say for the sake of argument that Hamas does use children in this way; does this then justify or vindicate their murder in your eyes? How can any ethical human being make such a grotesque argument?  In doing so, Mr. Wiesel, I see no difference between you and the Israeli soldiers who used the baby as a soccer ball. Your manner may differ from theirs—perhaps you could never bring yourself to treat a Palestinian child as an inanimate object—but the effect of your words is the same: to dehumanize and objectify Palestinians to the point where the death of Arab children, some murdered inside their own homes, no longer affects you. All that truly concerns you is that Jews not be blamed for the children’s savage destruction.

Despite your eloquence, it is clear that you believe only Jews are capable of loving and protecting their children and possess a humanity that Palestinians do not. If this is so, Mr. Wiesel, how would you explain the very public satisfaction among many Israelis over the carnage in Gaza—some assembled as if at a party, within easy sight of the bombing, watching the destruction of innocents, entertained by the devastation?  How are these Israelis different from those people who stood outside the walls of the Jewish ghettos in Poland watching the ghettos burn or listening indifferently to the gunshots and screams of other innocents within—among them members of my own family and perhaps yours—while they were being hunted and destroyed?

You see us as you want us to be and not as many of us actually are. We are not all insensate to the suffering we inflict, acceding to cruelty with ease and calm. And because of you, Mr. Wiesel, because of your words—which deny Palestinians their humanity and deprive them of their victimhood—too many can embrace our lack of mercy as if it were something noble, which it is not. Rather, it is something monstrous.

Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University.

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