These days I am thinking of two Holocaust survivors.
I had met with one today: 86 year-old Hedy Epstein and I had lunch at a local St. Louis caf?. The other is receiving an honorary doctorate tomorrow at Washington University: 82 year-old Elie Wiesel, who will also give the commencement address.
Mr. Wiesel and Ms. Epstein have in common the central experience of their lives: their families destroyed by the Nazi genocide. He survived the Auschwitz death camp, and she left Germany in 1939 on a Kindertransport to Great Britain.
After the war he moved to France, studied at the Sorbonne, and eventually became a journalist and novelist. After the war, she served as a research analyst for the U.S. government at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi doctors who conducted medical experiments; she then came to the United States.
In the 1990s I spent many hours reading Wiesel’s books and writing a study of his activism in light of his Holocaust experience. In the last decade I have spent many hours with Ms. Epstein: at peace vigils, meetings, demonstrations, and as part of the International Solidarity Movement in Israel’s occupied West Bank in 2003.
Wiesel is an internationally renowned icon, advisor to presidents (Carter, Reagan, and Clinton), guide to Oprah Winfrey at Auschwitz, and author of over forty books. Ms. Epstein has been known locally for decades as a speaker on the Holocaust and also as a grass-roots activist challenging U.S. militarism; more recently, she has become prominent nationally and internationally because of her work for Palestine.
Mr. Wiesel would agree with the working title of Ms. Epstein’s political memoir-in-progress, Remembering Is Not Enough. And I think that Ms. Epstein would agree with the following excerpt from his Nobel lecture in 1986: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”
Given what Martin Luther King, Jr. once called “the fierce urgency of now,” the crucial moral task is to refuse abstraction and embody such maxims in our specific political, economic, and cultural context.
For example, in the second volume of his 1999 memoirs, Mr. Wiesel admitted,
“Indeed, I can say in good faith that I have not remained indifferent to any cause involving the defense of human rights. But, you may ask, what have I done to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians? And here I must confess: I have not done enough. Is an explanation in order? In spite of considerable pressure, I have refused to take a public stand in the Israeli-Arab conflict. I have said it before: since I do not live in Israel, it would be irresponsible for me to do so. But I have never concealed how much the human dimension of the Palestinian tragedy affects me.”
The fact that he did not live in the Soviet Union, Bosnia, or Iraq did not stop him from speaking out about those urgent situations (he was a strong supporter of Bush’s invasion/aggression in Iraq in 2003). There is also the fact that, for over four decades, Mr. Wiesel has made the strongest, most ardent “public stand” of support for Israel, from the 1967 war to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon to its response to the intifada in the late 1980s. He forbade himself to criticize in public the Jewish state, but he certainly sang its praises and justified its actions.
Unlike the Nobel Peace laureate, Ms. Epstein has taken a public stand to oppose, not the “plight” of the Palestinians, but their oppression by Israel, steadfastly backed by the United States.
Since 2003 she has made five trips to the West Bank to work with peace, women’s and solidarity groups opposed to the now almost 44year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. In East Jerusalem, Mash’a, Al’ara, Hebron, Qalqilya, and Bil’in, she has joined the Palestinians, along with Israeli activists and other internationals, in nonviolent resistance to Israel’s intensive effort to ghettoize the Palestinians and to expropriate more of their land for Jewish settlers.
She has bore witness to Israel’s massive wall, declared illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004. She has received a very small but unforgettable taste of what the Palestinians experience every day, from being strip searched, water cannoned, tear gassed and sound bombed, as well as being declared a terrorist and security risk.
She stood face to face with the women, men and children of the West Bank and listened to their stories, memories, anguish, and hope.
In the last three years, she made four unsuccessful attempts to be one on the boats to break Israel’s sadistic siege of Gaza. She is scheduled to join scores of other U.S. citizens on the U.S. boat to Gaza in late June as part of the International Freedom Flotilla II.
By her words, but much more powerfully by her actions, Ms. Epstein is saying to us, Palestine is the center of the universe.
Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Mark Chmiel is a member of the Saint Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and author of Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001).