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After the last memoir for her “Book Club” faced accusations of fraud (now confirmed to be true by the author), Oprah Winfrey came back quickly last week with another selection: Night by Elie Wiesel. As a public librarian I can already relate that many of her minions are already making their regular post-selection appearance at libraries throughout New York desperately trying to snatch up any remaining copies.
Few would deny that Night, a recollection of the Nazi holocaust, is a work well worth reading. Oprah herself had this to say about her selection, made on Martin Luther King Jr. day:
Like Dr. King, I have a dream of my own, too, that the powerful message of this little book would be engraved on every human heart and will never be forgotten again. That you who read this book will feel as I do that these 120 pagesshould be required reading for all humanity.
One could appreciate Oprah’s lack of ego and still agree that Night is indeed powerful reading. The Washington Post reports that Oprah will be modifying her tradition of having the author of her book-club in studio with her and will travel with Wiesel to Auschwitz next month.
The sight of Oprah and Wiesel at Auschwitz may bring tears to the eyes of her audience, yet the accusations of fraud attached to her previous selection should not be so quickly forgotten. Aside from whether or not Night should be considered a novella or memoir is the overall question of Wiesel himself.
It’s beyond debate that the Nazi holocaust is one of humanities greatest tragedies, one in which the world still seems not to have learned from considering events in Rwanda and Darfur. Yet Wiesel, widely hailed as a champion of human rights and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, falls consistently short when it comes to one of our other post-Nazi tragedies: The tragedy of Palestine.
While commenting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Wiesel, who has written fairly extensively on the conflict despite claiming “neutrality” and always, in his words, desiring peace while feeling “sadness” for it being out of reach, has consistently blamed the Palestinians completely for the conflict and, despite any notions of peace, has indirectly endorsed the worst of Zionist politics.
In a 2001 essay for the New York Times titled Jerusalem in My Heart, Wiesel began with the following:
As a Jew living in the United States, I have long denied myself the right
to intervene in Israel’s internal debates. I consider Israel’s destiny as mine as well, since my memory is bound up with its history. But the politics of Israel concern me only indirectly.
Those who know of Wiesel may question this alleged neutrality given his membership in Begin’s Irgun in the 1940s (or his 1982 statement “I support Israel-period. I identify with Israel-period”) but he goes on in the same essay to renounce any such neutrality on the question of Jerusalem:
Now, though the topic is Jerusalem. Its fate affects not only Israelis, but also Diaspora Jews like myself. The fact that I do not live in Jerusalem is secondary; Jerusalem lives in meThat Muslims might wish to maintain close ties with this city unlike any other is understandableBut for Jews it remains the first. Not just the first; the only.
This ode to fundamentalist thought, enhanced further by Wiesel pointing out that Jerusalem is mentioned more than 600 times in the Bible (a statement that ignores the fact that up to 20% of Palestinians are Christians), is followed by the blatant lie, now universally know to be false, that “incited by their leaders 600,000 Palestinians left the country (in 1948) convinced that, once Israel was vanquished, they would be able to return home”.
Wiesel then ends with a call to defer the question of Jerusalem until all other pending questions are resolved, perhaps for 20 years to allow “human bridges” to be built between the two communities- which would figure to leave the city completely in Israeli hands until these bridges are built or until the rest of the world accepts that it belongs there afterall.
Nearly five years later again in the New York Times (Aug 21st 2005), and some time after Wiesel was paraded through the spotlight by the Bush Administration to endorse the then imminent invasion of Iraq, Wiesel appeared with another putrid effort that spoke of peace while covertly praising the worst of Zionist mythology.
Titled The Dispossessed, referring to the last holdouts of Israeli settlements in Gaza that were evacuated last year, Wiesel writes:
The images of the evacuation itself are heart-rending. Some of them unbearable. Angry men, crying women. Children led away on foot or in the arms of soldiers. Who are sobbing themselves.
Left unsaid is that nearly all the Gaza settlers left peacefully with generous compensation packages. These “dispossessed” by Israeli soldiers were the hardcore remnant of a Greater Israel ideology more committed to fleeting territorial dreams than individual homes. Of this remnant Wiesel reminds his readers: “Let’s not forget: these men and woman lived in Gaza for 38 yearsin the eyes of their families they were pioneers, whose idealism was to be celebrated”. Given the complete lack of interest Wiesel displays to Palestinian feelings on the same issue can it be reasonably assumed that Wiesel shares that same sentiment?
When Wiesel does turn to the Palestinians it is to criticize a lack of gratefulness in the face of noble Israeli concessions:
And here I am obliged to step back. In the tradition I claim, the Jew is ordered by King Solomon “not to rejoice when the enemy falls”. I don’t know whether the Koran suggests the sameI will perhaps be told that when the Palestinians cried at the loss of their homes, few Israelis were moved. That’s possible. But how many Israelis rejoiced?
After this demonization, Wiesel again ends his essay with a call for a “lull” to allow “wounds to heal”- during which time Israel can presumably redraw the borders of the West Bank by finishing its “security” fence. Again, like in the previous, essay he mentions the sadness he feels over Palestinian hatred of Jews; so much for neutrality.
To this critique of Wiesel must be added his white-washing of the Israeli army’s culpability in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila; all of it shows that despite any longings for “peace” and claims of neutrality, Wiesel comes down on the side of quite warlike
One would like to expect someone with the platform and influence of an Oprah Winfrey, who Michael Moore ridiculously and at least semi-seriously endorsed for president, to present a balanced picture to her adoring audience. Perhaps it can be hoped that a tough question or two be asked at Auschwitz about charges that the Nazi holocaust is being exploited and perverted by elites (including Wiesel himself) for financial gain. Yet odds are long against such a scenario; in the world of corporate sponsorship and high income Oprah will play it safe and continue collecting millions without any risk.
On her website Oprah exclaims about Wiesel “I gain courage from his courage”. Unfortunately she seems to gain much more than courage from him and they appear to be a perfect match.
JOSEPH GROSSO is a librarian and writer living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org