My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

by Corey Robin on July 3, 2016

Trigger Warning: This post may upset you.

Elie Wiesel’s death has prompted much discussion on social media. I’ve written—quite negatively—about Wiesel in the past:

It’s long been remarked that the Holocaust and Israel have replaced God and halakha as the touchstones of Jewish experience and identity. The Holocaust is our deity, Israel our daily practice.

You get a sense of this in a New York Times oped Elie Wiesel wrote on the day that NBC first aired its mini-series Holocaust. That was in April 1978.

All Jewish families, mine included, watched it. One Jewish magazine even said that watching it “has about it the quality of a religious obligation” for Jews. Like the Six-Day War, it was a founding moment of contemporary Jewish identity.

I remember it vividly. I watched all nine and a half hours of it. I developed a mad crush on one of the characters, a beautiful, dark-eyed Jewish partisan in the forests of Poland or Soviet Russia (played, I realized much later in life, by a much younger Tovah Feldshuh). During one scene, of a synagogue packed with Jews being set ablaze by the Nazis, I ran out of my parents’ room, sobbing uncontrollably.

It was terrible TV; I tried to watch it years later and couldn’t make it past the first half-hour.

But Wiesel didn’t complain about the aesthetic quality of the show; it was the desacralization of the Holocaust he objected to. As quoted by Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life:

It transforms an ontological event into soap-opera…..We see long, endless processions of Jews marching toward Babi Yar….We see the naked bodies covered with “blood”—and it is all make-believe….People will tell me that…similar techniques are being used for war movies and historical re-creations. But the Holocaust is unique; not just another event. This series treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event….Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized….The Holocaust transcends history…..The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering…..The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know.


It’s all there. The Holocaust not as an event in secular history but as a leap into transcendence; it cannot be explained, it can only be circled, like a holy fire. Auschwitz is our Sinai, the ovens our burning bush. Like the Jews receiving God’s commandments, the Jews of the camps experienced a sacred mystery, received a secret message, which we can only approach at a distance, with awe and trembling. I, the Holocaust, am your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Last night, on Facebook, I reiterated my longstanding concerns:
 

I know Elie Wiesel is beloved by many, Jews and non-Jews alike. But as someone who’s written about—and against—him over the years, I feel like I have to issue a dissent.

(Please don’t tell me today’s not the day. Unless you’ve complained about what I said about Christopher Hitchens upon his death or a great many others. If you don’t want to read any criticism of Wiesel, I completely understand. I honestly do. Might I suggest then that you stop reading what I’m about to say?)

Set aside Wiesel’s stance on Israel/Palestine, which was often indefensible.

More than anyone, Wiesel helped sacralize the Holocaust, making it a kind of theological event that stood outside history. “The ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,” was how he once put it.

At the same time, he helped turn the Holocaust into an industry of middlebrow morality and manipulative sentimentality.

Primo Levi had a special dislike for Wiesel’s ways and means, which makes Wiesel’s infamous verdict on Levi’s suicide (“Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”) all the more grating.

Decades ago, in a scorching essay, “Resistance to the Holocaust,” Philip Lopate caught the measure of the man: “Sometimes it seems that ‘the Holocaust’ is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday Times.”


An interesting discussion ensued.

After I was accused on another thread of being insensitive to the claims of survivors, to how a survivor chooses to represent himself and his experience, to how my position only reflects the fact that I was not There nor even near There, I followed up with this statement from the Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész, who was a survivor (he died earlier this year), from his essay “Who Owns Auschwitz?“:

I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of ‘civilization’ as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust. Here I have in mind those representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience.

But I’ll confess that while my reaction to Wiesel and his brand (Wiesel once said that “the universe of the concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.”) is informed by and reflects Kertész’s position, a more visceral distaste is awakened in me by these kind of strictures from Wiesel. And the negative reactions of people to criticism of Wiesel.

Reading this piece from Haaretz this afternoon, on how Wiesel was received in Israel, helped concretize my feelings. The article shows how little standing Wiesel actually has in Israel. Both the right and the left dislike him, for different reasons. And his particular brand—a survivor who shrouded his experience, and the Holocaust as a whole, with an aura of religiosity—just didn’t sell there for many years, if ever.

What the article shows, by implication, is that the hushed tone we’re all expected to adopt, here in the US, when speaking of Wiesel and his work actually has less to do with the Holocaust or even Israel than with the pervasive sentimentality of American culture and argument, the notion that trauma confers privilege and precludes judgment or argument, that when it comes to the most terrible matters of history, we’re all supposed to act as if we’re in church.

Lopate’s essay, which came out in the late 1980s, really expressed some of these concerns quite well. I’ll just quote from it:

When I was small, a few years after World War II had ended, my mother would drag me around Brooklyn to visit some of the newly arrived refugees; they were a novelty. We would sit in somebody’s kitchen and she would talk with these women for hours (usually in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand) to found what what it was like. After we left, she would say in a hushed voice, “Did you see the number on her arm? She was in a concentration camp!” I didn’t understand why my mother was so thrilled, almost erotically excited, when she spoke these words, but her melodramatic demand that I be impressed started to annoy me…

“Holocaust stands alone in time as an aberration within history,” states Menachem Rosensaft. And Elie Wiesel writes that “the universe of concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.” What surprises me is the degree to which such an apocalyptic, religious-mythological reading of historical events has come to be accepted by the culture at large—unless people are just paying lip service to the charms of an intimidating rhetoric.

I just don’t get why both New York City and Washington, D.C., should have Holocaust memorial museums. Or why every major city in the United States seems to be commemorating this European tragedy in some way or another. An Israeli poet on a reading tour through the States was taken into the basement of a synagogue in Ohio and proudly shown the congregation’s memorial to the 6 million dead: a torch meant to remain eternally lit. The poet muttered under his breath, “Shoah flambé.” In Israel they can joke about these matters.

These monuments have an air of making the visitor feel bad, at the same time retaining a decorously remote and abstract air—all the more so when they are removed geographically from the ground of pain.

Will the above seem the ravings of a finicky aesthete? I apologize. But remember that it is an aesthetic problem we are talking about, this attempt to make an effective presentation of a massive event. The dead of Auschwitz are not buried in Yad Vashem; believe me, I am not insulting their memories. Yad Vashem is the product of us the living and as such is subject to our dispassionate scrutiny and criticism.

Theodor Adorno once made an intentionally provocative statement to the effect that one can’t have lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Much as I respect Adorno, I am inclined to ask, a bit naively: Why not? Are we to infer, regarding all the beautiful poetry that has been written since 1945, that these postwar poets were insensitive to some higher tact? Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker, has explained what Adorno really meant by this remark: any art from now on that does not take Auschwitz into account will be not worthy as art. This is one of those large intimidating pronouncements to which one gives assent in public while secretly harboring doubts. Art is a vast arena; must it all and always come to terms with the death camps, important as they are?

It has also been argued that the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews calls for an aesthetic approach of an entirely different order than the traditional mimetic response. This seems to me nothing more than a polemic in favor of certain avant-garde or antinaturalist techniques, hitched arbitrarily to the Holocaust….

Art has its own laws, and even so devastating an event as the Holocaust may not significantly change them. For all its virtues, the longeurs, repetitions, and failures of sympathy in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are not exonerated, no matter what its apologists may argue, by the seriousness of the subject matter, as though an audience must be put through over eight hours of an exhaustingly uneven movie to convince it of the reality of the Holocaust. A tight film would have accomplished the same and been a stronger work of art. Lanzmann might reply that he is indifferent to the claims of art compared to those of the Holocaust; unfortunately, you cant’ play the game of art and not play it at the same time.

False knowledge. Borrowed mysticism. By blackmailing ourselves into thinking that we must put ourselves through a taste of Auschwitz, we are imitating unconsciously the Christian mystics who tried to experience in their own flesh the torments of Christ on the cross. But this has never part of the Jewish religion, this gluttony for empathic suffering. Though Jewish rabbis and sages have been killed for their faith, and their deaths recorded and passed down, Judaism has fought shy in the past of establishing a hagiography based on martyrdom. Why are we doing it now?

In certain ways, the Jewish American sacramentalizing of the Holocaust seems an unconscious borrowing of Christian theology. That one tragic event should be viewed as standing outside, above history, and its uniqueness defended and proclaimed, seems very much like the Passion of Christ.

{ 62 comments }

1

jake the antisoshul soshulist 07.03.16 at 8:57 pm

I can’t really comment on Wiesel, but the Holocaust is just another of the many atrocities committed by humans on other humans. It is one of the most horrendous. But, unfortunately, it is one of many. I do believe it must be remembered along with the “killing fields, the ” trail of tears” etc.
It may not be my place to say this, but I am not certain that it is good for survivors to allow themselves be defined as victims. Especially for generations after. Except to dedicate themselves to preventing the like to happen to anyone.

2

jake the antisoshul soshulist 07.03.16 at 8:58 pm

Strike out the just in the first sentence. It distorts my meaning.

3

milx 07.03.16 at 9:05 pm

Critics of Wiesel often respond to him not as a flawed human being but as someone whose every flaw in representation and politics undermined what should have been a sacred individual – sanctified by the camps. The expectation of flawless testimony inevitably produces disappointment, much like the sacralization of the Holocaust must necessarily lead to kitsch as the supposed transcendent evil fails to be transcribable. It’s hard to imagine someone in any other political realm but Israel/Palestine to receive the kind of disapprobation that Wiesel has. Ultimately he was a survivor who did his best with the traumas that were inflicted on him. People who cannot get past his disagreement on Levantine politics on the day of his death are guilty of far more than he ever was – in particular guilty of the very absence of empathy they accuse him of lacking.

Adorno turned out to be right about “poetry after Auschwitz” as well – not because Auschwitz is necessarily the incomprehensible void/evil that Adorno was delineating but for more pragmatic reasons: because for whatever reason since after the war literature and poetry have failed to – either in the popular imagination, or aesthetically – measured up to much in the pre-war corpus. WW2 did something to humanity that has made all contemporary poetry pitiable – but maybe that is just its coincidence with the emergence of post-modernity.

4

Sherman 07.03.16 at 9:38 pm

I find some value in Elie Wiesel’s work, certainly far from the only way one can approach the Holocaust; in the end, he was an iconically American symbol of survivors and remembrance. I suppose you can be disproportionately irritable about Wiesel, or irritable about those who find far more of value in his work than you do, or irritable about what this may portend about the belated obsession about the Holocaust with many American Jews (I vaguely recall seeing some dates in the early 1960s about it, I guess prompted largely by Eichmann’s trial). Probably not worth it: Every culture has its kitsch; good luck finding one that has neither kitsch nor those enculturated in the culture who hate the kitsch.

5

Um 07.03.16 at 10:49 pm

Is this necessary?

Could it wait?

What is the point, exactly?

6

Prender 07.03.16 at 11:12 pm

Suppose it’s important to demystify the mass murder of Jews now, so that when it happens again thanks to policies you supported, you can more easily minimize it.

7

Michael 07.03.16 at 11:47 pm

I think you are absolutely right to reject the sacralizing of the Holocaust. The reason, for me, is a simple one: if you place it outside history, you imagine that it cannot happen in ordinary time at the hands of ordinary people in ordinary history. But if it is worth remembering, it is because it could happen again, it could happen here, wherever ‘here’ is, and it could happen at the hands of ordinary people.

So, for example, it could begin in a place where civility has for a moment been broken and the constant underground stream of racism given license to go out onto the streets for once. It could begin, in ever so small a way, where a Muslim/Jewish/Black/Christian/Continental European person — you pick the minority, I’ll show you the place — suddenly feels fearful to walk in the street or get on the bus. Could it happen even in green and pleasant concrete Engerland? Yep.

8

mbrave 07.04.16 at 12:06 am

Trigger warning: what you’re about to read may upset Corey Robin, who just never seems to hit bottom no matter how low he aims. Dissent, indeed. The con job begins with the title: “My Resistance…” Turns out, it’s other people’s resistance. Phillip Lopate? Since when is he an expert on history, the Holocaust, Wiesel, or even his own biography? How are his childhood memories as a sheltered youth in Brooklyn relevant or edifying? Or is Robin impressed because they remind him of his own misspent Westchester pucelage? Is that why he can’t be bothered to spell out his “critique” and opts for “registering” it by recycling the hollow musings of others?

Well, some of us did not experience the erotic surge Lopate attributes to what he surely perceived in retrospect as the middlebrow sentimentality of fellow Brooklynites. Some of us had relatives perish in the Holocaust, or survive and live out their days with those numbers in countries where the popular sentiment was stated baldly, and daily: “too bad the Germans didn’t finish the job.” It was not, I can assure Professor Robin, a thrill of any sort to look at those tattoos. Nor was it a political spectacle, justification, or claim to victimhood to be pimped as a demand for special treatment. Quite the contrary. Most of the time, it was a source of deep anxiety, shame, guilt, continuous fear, and worse. If Robin is put out by claims of victimhood or attempts to convey the suffering to others, he might do well to keep it to himself. Or talk to his rabbi.

The reality, however, is that Robin has no real objection to Wiesel, as evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t actually offer any. Instead, he offers a few hackneyed complaints about the culture industry and American sentimentalism, buoyed by sundry convenient quotations. His real target, as usual, is Jews who raise the Holocaust as a key reason for supporting Israel, which he detests on moral principle. Apparently, merely demonstrating that a genocide is not by itself sufficient to legitimize a specifically Jewish state in Palestine (or, presumably, anywhere anyone has ever lived) is not good enough; Robin must undermine the very historical experience of genocide to achieve his aim. That he does so by attacking representations of the event is telling, given that he knows perfectly well the extent to which all historical representations are inherently deficient and partial (in every sense). After all, he has readily sanctified the atrocities committed against Africans, Indians, Palestinians, and others—all by means of partial representations of the events in question. But by all means, let’s take the Holocaust down a notch or two, even if doing so means spitting in an open grave. And why not? To let Wiesel be buried a hero is to risk allowing Jews around the world to continue thinking that they have a right to a homeland. And this St. Robin must stop at all costs. But don’t look now: he’s guilty of the very sins of which he accuses Wiesel. Even if Wiesel was accountable for the reactions of his public (and Robin has just written about the error in that logic), Robin has yet to earn the right to lodge the accusation. Claiming the moral ground is not the same as occupying it.

9

Ebenezer Scrooge 07.04.16 at 12:12 am

1. My father was a camp survivor. He never talked about it. It made me a little contemptuous of those, like Wiesel, who wallowed in it. I’m on Corey’s side, here. (Primo Levi may have had Wiesel’s desire to bear witness, but his clinical coolness made him very different.)

2. Pace Jake, Auschwitz was not merely another atrocity. It destroyed forever the notion that technology, literature and hygiene protect against the beast within. It was the Milgrom experiment writ enormous, with millions of real victims. However, Auschwitz does contain one small grain of hope. The Germans, virtually alone among oppressors, have come to regret their oppression.

3. The tragedy of postwar American Jewry, as Corey pointed out, is that it defines itself only in terms of the Holocaust and Israel. And they’re both becoming increasingly threadbare and formulaic–kind of like Marxist theology in the late Soviet Union.

10

William Timberman 07.04.16 at 12:27 am

The Germans, virtually alone among oppressors, have come to regret their oppression. Not all Germans, certainly, and not for all time. The idea that they have itself requires a bit of sacralizing. One understands why we try so hard to make such ideas sacred, but we should be more careful about requiring people to pledge uncritical allegiance to what is, at best, propaganda — no matter how well meant. We are, after all, the very beasts we fear, no matter how heartfelt our promises to ourselves.

11

Fuzzy Dunlop 07.04.16 at 12:30 am

I have not read Wiesel, but the idea of the Holocaust being transcendent strikes me as not just wrong but odious, especially given Wiesel’s politics (e.g. support for the invasion of Iraq). What I wonder (not having read Wiesel) is, to what extent and how would/did he stand behind that idea? Even if he would/did disavow it if pushed on this point, it’s still there in his writing just like the hanged boy in his account being painted as a kind of Christ-figure is there (I imagine he wouldn’t cop to that either). I expect he’d strongly disavow the idea that the Holocaust takes the place of God in Jewish life. But is this transcendence a position he would/did explicitly, unconditionally defend?–that the Holocaust (as opposed to extreme suffering, tragedy in general) is uniquely incomprehensible? Or is this something that he would not let go of, but try to explain away–‘I mean it but I don’t mean it’?

(As a member of a non-Jewish minority in the US, and as somebody who can’t easily return to my place of birth due to a type of persecution similar to antisemitism, the Holocaust to me was a kind of template for what could happen, in an improbable but not impossible future.)

12

milx 07.04.16 at 12:32 am

“The tragedy of postwar American Jewry, as Corey pointed out, is that it defines itself only in terms of the Holocaust and Israel.”

Part of postwar American Jewry. Traditional Jewish communities continue to participate in dense, productive cultures that constitute serious alternatives to the mainstream zeitgeist (in ways Dreher’s Benedict Option can only aspire to). It’s not a coincidence, either, that as non-traditional Judaism so dramatically took the Holocaust and Israel onboard as constitutive of identity; losing Jewish practice and scholarship left a huge void. I’m not convinced that Jewishness can ultimately survive in the longterm without Judaism. There will always be a liminal space where individual Jews (and groups) can reject the hegemonic faith in a transitory, temporary sense, but the stronghold of Jewishness will always be contained within what we call Orthodoxy (and what we will call, in I believe a few decades, Judaism period – containing within it a wide variance of practice that nonetheless represents the broadest swaths of self-identification).

13

Ebenezer Scrooge 07.04.16 at 1:50 am

Milx@8: I stand corrected.
William Timberman@6: You’re right. But. Nobody else in that war committed any war crimes, amirite? At least (many of) the Germans (partially and rather belatedly) try to face up to their past.
I spent six months in Japan, with a fairly cosmopolitan cast, by Japanese standards. If I remember, there were some very bad meteorological conditions in the neighborhood from 1942-45. The Americans might have even caused some of them, but were ultimately very helpful after August 1945 or so.

14

matt wilbert 07.04.16 at 2:04 am

I think you put your finger on, or at least near, the thing that has always made it hard for me to listen to Elie Wiesel. I haven’t read him, but I have heard him speak many times. I didn’t think of it this way until I read your piece, but it seems to me that he thought of the Holocaust as a kind of mystery, about which he then gave sermons. Unfortunately for my appreciation of him, it is hard to give an intellectually satisfying sermon about a mystery, which is why religious traditions that stress the mysterious tend toward things like poetry, koans, chanting, etc.

15

Frankly 07.04.16 at 3:32 am

I believe we can never allow people to forget the holocaust. What happened is unforgivable and I understand why it had laid such a heavy hand on the Jews, the thing itself laid a very heavy hand on Jews for no other reason than their religion. I have a problem though with Jews who refuse to acknowledge the totality of suffering. Yes, 6 million Jews were sent to the ovens but the total number sent was 12 million. Communists, handicapped, Romany, homosexuals all were also sent to the ovens. It does not minimize the special suffering of Jews to admit the Nazis targeted many groups. Elie wants us to ignore 6 million deaths. I do not believe acknowledging the totality of the horror in any way diminishes Jewish suffering but he somehow did.

And that leads to the suffering of Palestinians. I never understood how the bullied could ever ignore bullying. I do not understand how some someone who experienced firsthand the attempt to destroy an entire people could encourage it happening to some other group.

16

Howard Frant 07.04.16 at 4:30 am

I just wanted to ask a question. What, if anything, is the relation between what the OP refers to, and the tendency of people nowadays to say things are just like the Holocaust, although they manifestly are not? Is there nothing we can say about our treatment of the Indians other than that it was like the Holocaust? The Palestinians have a Naqba Day observance which is an imitation, or parody, of the Holocaust Day observance in Israel (sirens across the country, 2minute silence). Do Palestinians really think that the Naqba was like the Holocaust? And of course we have its popularity as a metaphor in Republican politics. Does Wieselism make this more or less likely?

17

arcseconds 07.04.16 at 5:20 am

Someone once pointed out to me that the Nazis were very sentimental.

At first I was incredulous and kind of shocked, as I’d always thought of them as, well, brutal, etc. and that seemed the opposite of sentimental at first blush.

But then I thought about it, and thought of the iconography one sees (painted on the walls of SS bunkers, for example) of SS officers as dark-winged angels protecting innocent young aryan couples, the occasion recounted in Schindler’s list of a prison camp guard bursting into tears at a folk song, the mythology surrounding the Volk, the way German folk music became almost anathema for a new generation of Germans because of the great love the Nazi movement had for it, etc. and I thought “yes, they are pretty sentimental”.

Since then I’ve become quite suspicious of sentimentality.

18

Anderson 07.04.16 at 8:59 am

5: “It destroyed forever the notion that technology, literature and hygiene protect against the beast within.”

How this notion supposedly survived WW1, I can’t imagine.

19

ashmad 07.04.16 at 9:00 am

Bracketing Wiesel himself for a second (if only to sidestep lengthy and contentious exegesis), it seems to me Robin is making a subtle but important category mistake about “sacralization” of the Holocaust. I have in mind the difference between the transcendent and the sublime. Those who insist on treating the Holocaust as a singular (though not necessarily unique, even if sometimes both terms are used) event seem to me interested in capturing the overwhelming experience of confronting its mundane horror.

This is, in fact, the opposite of transcendentalizing it. The latter removes the experience from the mundane world. But the insistence on the sublime character of this confrontation is predicated on its inherent immanence in the world. The sublime abrogates the very categories that make mundane experience possible. (Incidentally, this could be why Lopate thought he detected an erotic charge in adults discussing the camps: there is an energizing sensation of the violent destruction of existential categories. But this should not in any way be confused with ordinary, utilitarian pleasures.) The point is that the transcendental impulse authorizes various sorts of mundane activities, from rituals that call communities into existence to moral norms (including the ones Robin invokes in judging Wiesel), institutional practices, and more.

But the sublime dissolves the (transcendental) ground beneath such activities. In its place, we find the abyss of human freedom—and the absolute terror that accompanies the experience of this abyss. This is what makes each and every holocaust singular, despite the endless repetition of savagery. The singularity inheres in the experience as a break from seriality. It is only in this sense that each is “unique.” But to recognize this, it is first necessary to see beyond the naive dichotomy between the transcendental and the historical, which Robin is unable to do. The sublime *is* historical; this is why it *can be* singular.

We can thus see why no greater violence can be done to holocausts than to insist on their mundane historicity. To deny and eradicate their singularity (under cover of resisting transcendentalization) is to deny their status as events in the first place. It is to eradicate any chance of responding to them ethically or politically.

20

Peter Dorman 07.04.16 at 9:58 am

I really appreciate Cory’s post and would like to take it a step further. How is the sacralization of the Holocaust, and the notion that its priesthood (like Wiesel) possess a wisdom that the non-elect are not allowed to challenge, different from the claims of other persecuted groups that their truth has authority that lies beyond the rest of us?

Don’t we hear a parallel discourse today in the wake of every act of oppression or violence? Murders of blacks by white police officers are not just murders; they are markers of an experience, a state of existence, that only black people can comprehend. Homophobic murders are not just murders; their meaning can be grasped only by LGBT people, whose authority on the matter is absolute. And so on.

These remarks should not be construed as the complaint of a resentful straight white guy. What bothers me about this cultural/political trope is exactly what bothers me about the Jewish argument about the Holocaust epitomized by Wiesel, which I heard growing up constantly.

Of course, each person’s private experience is, well, private; the rest of us can only imagine how it feels. Each person deserves respect for the struggles she/he/they has to undergo and what they invest in surmounting them. Points of view are valuable especially as they originate from experiences that differ from ours, because they have the potential to illuminate our blindnesses and unreflected assumptions. I am not arguing against the richness of a wider communication across cultural/ethnic/religious/anything lines. Actually, I think I’m arguing for it.

Weisel was trying to privatize the Holocaust, to make it the possession of a few, whose use only its owners could sanction. If you extend the same logic to every group in society you end up with a multiplicity of privatized oppressions, each zealously guarded by its proprietors. But the suffering of martyrs confers no authority on anyone, and if human society means anything, it means that alongside our private realms of experience lies a public realm of communication, shared understanding and collective action.

21

ZM 07.04.16 at 10:24 am

Peter Dorman,

I think one thing is that the quality of lived experience is significantly different from read about or heard experience.

I have been more upset and angry and wept more and wailed more over people stalking me, than I ever have over over reading about the Holocaust, or over reading accounts of pregnant women in Papua being slaughtered by having their stomachs cut open and the baby torn out and replaced by a vegetable.

But what happened to me is objectively less terrible than either of these things. But I only have the lived experience of what happened to me, the weeping and wailing and fury that I have lived. The Holocaust I have read witness of, and I have read human rights violation accounts of what takes place in Papua, and they are terrible, very terrible, but I didn’t live them, I didn’t weep and wail for days, I was not consumed with irrational fury for days when I read about them. I didn’t feel like I had a fire in my belly about them for days over months and months, I didn’t feel like my whole self had turned to cold grey stone.

22

Peter Dorman 07.04.16 at 10:43 am

ZM, I hear you, and I hope you haven’t interpreted what I wrote as denying the experience you’ve gone through. I only want to make the case for saying that, alongside your personal experience of being stalked, is the public side. You can — and do — express it to me, and the reason for doing this is to create a shared understanding, hopefully to do something about it so there’s less oppression in the future. If you were to say instead that your experience will forever lie beyond my understanding, and my only role is to be your ally in your, not our, struggle for a fairer, safer world, then you would be taking a position like Elie Wiesel’s.

23

ZM 07.04.16 at 12:09 pm

Peter Dorman,

I think I sort of see what you mean maybe.

I haven’t read Elie Wiesel so I can’t defend him or criticise him.

“I only want to make the case for saying that, alongside your personal experience of being stalked, is the public side. You can — and do — express it to me, and the reason for doing this is to create a shared understanding, hopefully to do something about it so there’s less oppression in the future. If you were to say instead that your experience will forever lie beyond my understanding, and my only role is to be your ally in your, not our, struggle for a fairer, safer world, then you would be taking a position like Elie Wiesel’s.”

Well I guess their are different elements here, one is my personal experience, which I am sharing since I wanted to bring it to public attention since I tried complaining to the record companies and the police and couldn’t get help etc. etc. I don’t want to derail this thread, so I am just keeping this abstract about traumatic experiences.

I do think my issue has public policy ramifications as well as being something bad and also a crime I have personally experienced, which a range of people have been complicit in, mostly unknowingly.

But these are about 5 separate things, 1. my personal experience; 2. sharing my experience publicly; 3. other people’s responses to me sharing my experience; 4. analysis, social justice, and public policy ramifications; 5. some sort of idea of something being so terrible it should be known to be unavailable to be understood rationally.

1. I can tell you about my experience, but you are not going to live my experience — you have your own life and joys and trials. You can be a compassionate listener, but you probably are not going to be so upset and angry about what happened as I am. My family and friends are probably the ones who will be most upset about this other than myself.

2. I really started sharing my experience when I wasn’t very well. I didn’t want to be silenced. I still haven’t processed everything now. It is hard for me to come to terms with what has happened and I get upset and angry about it. I think it will take a long time for me to come to terms with.

3. I have had some compassionate responses, other don’t want me to talk about this, etc. At the moment the full story isn’t even available publicly since it will take some time for the police to work out everything that happened. I am still confused myself about a number of aspects.

4. There are broader issues that my experience taps into, bullying, gender based discrimination, the representation of women, sexism, discrimination based on income and class, access to networks of power and privilege, discrimination against persons with mental illness etc

These are broader issues that many people care about. There are lots of experiences many people have had which fit into these categories of analysis, or social justice issues, or areas where public policy reform is needed. Other people may not have experienced things in these areas, but they might care deeply about the issues none the less.

My experience is one story among the experiences of many in 4.

5. Again, I haven’t read Wiesel, I think I have a book on my bookshelf by him, but haven’t read it. Corey has said that he objects to Wiesel conferring on the Holocaust something akin to a sacred religious experience. He quotes Wiesel as saying

“People will tell me that…similar techniques are being used for war movies and historical re-creations. But the Holocaust is unique; not just another event. This series treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event….Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualised…”

And also quotes him as saying that “the universe of the concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.”

The first quote seems to be particularly about film. Wiesel has written about the Holocaust, so I guess that he thinks you can write about it to some extent at least.

I think it is hard to represent something so massively terrible as The Holocaust to be honest. Also I think for survivors they may not want to think of it as part of ordinary history since they probably wish it never existed at all. I can think of it as part of history, but I didn’t live through it, I didn’t lose anyone to it. The Aunt of someone I was friends with years ago was a Polish Jew and published a book about her life and experiences, but she escaped the Holocaust herself.

I think this was actually a not uncommon response by people who lived through the Second World War and its horrors as well as The Holocaust. You have Mark Rothko deciding to paint squares instead of anything figurative anymore. You have a big movement in abstract art.

I mentioned West Papua above, and Jean Luc Goddard did a short film for Amnesty International called Against Oblivion, which is an abstract-ish sort of film about the situation in West Papua which also features a man in a corporate office in France writing a letter, like people write letters for Amnesty.

When we write letters about West Papuans for Amnesty International, we are working for social justice and policy reform to make a better world, but we are not lying somewhere with our whole world rent apart our pregnant stomachs cut open and our baby ripped out and discarded to die nearby us screaming in agony with a vegetable placed by soldiers in the gaping hole in our uterus where the baby once was bleeding to death.

Godard treds a fine line in the film on the one hand drawing attention to the plight of West Papuans, fighting for social justice, and also saying something similar to Wiesel, about the impossibility of truly representing the horror of such things.

When we see Goya’s drawings on war, aren’t we thinking of the line drawn here, the shadowing there, the perspective. What a drawing. Oh what a lovely frame. The light of the room. Those men who died several centuries ago. The arm over there. Look at her skirt, isn’t it pretty, the woman just to your right. What a nice bangle you have on today. Shall we move on to the next one?

Ironically, I have never seen Godard’s film, I have never found a copy, I only read about it in an essay “Against Oblivion, And About Not Being There” by Sylvia Lawson in How Simone de Beauvoir Died In Australia.

24

jake the antisoshul sohulist 07.04.16 at 1:13 pm

I suppose I did not articulate my point well enough. I did not intend to diminish the Holocaust, but to point out that it is one of many horrors that humans perpetrate on other humans. Never Again is a lesson that sometimes I think we intentionally do not
learn.

25

Plume 07.04.16 at 1:37 pm

It’s nearly impossible to express what Corey is trying to say without it coming off as beyond tone deaf. I think he manages to avoid this. I don’t trust myself to do the same. But will give it a try.

Six million innocent, mostly powerless and defenseless human beings were collected like cattle and destroyed by Hitler and the Nazis. Most were also tortured before they were murdered. The sheer size of this atrocity should continuously shock all of us. However, it really wasn’t “unique” in the sense that no other “people” has ever been subjected to the horrors of genocide, or attempted genocide. History is filled with just such attempts, going back at least several thousand years. And it’s quite likely that Homo Sapiens, in general, committed genocide against other hominids, like the Neanderthal, to start the ball rolling. We wiped out entire species of animals during our rise, too, and continue forcing extinction on others to this day.

Caesar tried to wipe out the Celts in Gaul, and came close to doing just that. The Cathars in France as well. There was the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. Native Americans from North to South America, wiped out in the tens of millions — some estimates range much higher. Black slaves before, during and after the Middle Passage. A look at the wiki entry for genocide is a long march through human horror and should shame us all.

None of this is meant to diminish Jewish oppression and suffering. But it should be put into a greater context. To me, it’s not helpful to suggest “our oppression is the most horrific,” or “ours is greater than yours.” And as Corey notes, to move it outside of history is also dangerous. This can lead to a distancing from the thing itself which should be the last thing anyone wants. Making something “sacred” is to abstract it from its surroundings, remove it from earth, from reality, and this can’t but hurt efforts to make sure “never again.”

26

Neville Morley 07.04.16 at 2:16 pm

Almost entirely off-topic, for which apologies, but my historical pedantry won’t let “Caesar tried to wipe out the Celts in Gaul” pass. I’m not aware of any evidence for such a statement; the Romans would certainly kill as many people as necessary to compel their enemies to surrender, and would on occasion deal with rebellious cities and tribes by killing all the adult males, but that is very different from the imputed genocidal motivation. Why would he or any other general do that? Conquered peoples are assets, after all, whether as slaves or as tribute-paying peasants. Horrific, but genuinely a different kind of thing from the modern examples cited.

27

Plume 07.04.16 at 3:03 pm

@21

Caesar bragged about killing a million Celts and enslaving a million more. I’ve seen it called “genocide” in several sources, which list Celtic census, before and after the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s subsequent punitive “expeditions”. Will try to track them down.

28

Kiwanda 07.04.16 at 3:41 pm

Plume 07.04.16 at 1:37 pm: “Six million innocent, mostly powerless and defenseless human beings were collected like cattle and destroyed by Hitler and the Nazis.”

I believe the death toll of civilians by murder was about double that: 15-16 million.

29

Jim Harrison 07.04.16 at 4:04 pm

Eva Hoffman:

I do think the moral charge of responsibility and mourning will decrease. I don’t think we can sustain this kind of emotionally charged relationship to the Holocaust forever, nor should we. I think the responsibility is to understand what happened, incorporate it into our understanding of the world, not violate the realities of what happened, not diminish its extent, and take what lessons from it that we can.

As I said, I don’t think Jewish identity can revolve around this forever, nor should it. I don’t think that our relation to it will be sustained. That’s precisely why there is a kind of second generation task–it is to pass it on in a way that grapples with what happened.

30

Kiwanda 07.04.16 at 4:13 pm

…well, 11-12 million. While 6, 15, and 11 million are all incomprehensible tokens of suffering, the main point is to remember all the victims, even if in this absurdly limited way.

31

Plume 07.04.16 at 4:50 pm

Kiwanda,

I was referring only to the Jewish holocaust numbers. Not total Nazi murders. They slaughtered communists, socialists, feminists, union activists, the handicapped, gay people and several other groups of human beings, along with the Jews. And, of course, there was a great deal of overlap with the above.

32

john c. halasz 07.04.16 at 6:22 pm

Peter Dorman @14:

Perhaps you should consult the so-called “private language argument”, (which is neither an argument , nor about private language) in Wittgenstein’s PI. It puts paid to the sort of naive and rather solipsistic subjectivism about “experience” that is at the root of the PC posturing you’re complaining about.

33

phenomenal cat 07.04.16 at 7:45 pm

“What the article shows, by implication, is that the hushed tone we’re all expected to adopt, here in the US, when speaking of Wiesel and his work actually has less to do with the Holocaust or even Israel than with the pervasive sentimentality of American culture and argument, the notion that trauma confers privilege and precludes judgment or argument, that when it comes to the most terrible matters of history, we’re all supposed to act as if we’re in church.”

This strikes me as the central thesis in Corey’s piece–not only the sacralization of unjust suffering, but the pervasive notion of extreme trauma as an originary moment whose effects are so immutable that they define the content of being itself and thus preclude all possibility of future becoming.

In other words, those exposed to extreme trauma are forever frozen in it and by it–they are beyond change or forgetting; not so much outside of history or time as locked into a moment that is taken to be the beginning of “time,” if you will.

The case of Wiesel’s discourse, its public reception and circulation, as Corey is discussing it, is an acute clarification of what is a very wide and deep psycho-social phenomenon.

And I agree with Lopate. The whole thing–not just Wiesel re: Holocaust, but the sacralization of trauma and suffering–smacks of a technique or apparatus of mystified Christianity in which horror and pain (and guilt, don’t forget guilt) have political purpose.

34

Waiting for Godot 07.04.16 at 8:52 pm

Thank you Citizen Corey Robin.

35

Kiwanda 07.04.16 at 9:11 pm

Plume: “I was referring only to the Jewish holocaust numbers. Not total Nazi murders.”

Kind of my point: you didn’t have to go to the Celts, the Cathars, or the Armenian genocide. But sure.

36

George Mason 07.04.16 at 10:47 pm

@19 However, it really wasn’t “unique” in the sense that no other “people” has ever been subjected to the horrors of genocide, or attempted genocide.
@26 They slaughtered communists, socialists, feminists, union activists, the handicapped, gay people and several other groups of human beings, along with the Jews.
No mention of the well-documented Roma and Sinti then?

37

PD 07.04.16 at 11:17 pm

@31 Wiesel fought successfully against any representation or recognition by the US Holocaust Memorial of the Porrajmos – the genocide of the gypsies.

Google Ian Hancock for details.

38

Plume 07.04.16 at 11:32 pm

@31,

“@26 They slaughtered communists, socialists, feminists, union activists, the handicapped, gay people and several other groups of human beings, along with the Jews.
No mention of the well-documented Roma and Sinti then?”

It’s not always easy to keep all the people the Nazis slaughtered in one’s mind at the same time. No offense meant to the Roma, or the Sinti — a Romani people as well. But, please, let’s all keep attacking one another’s posts for this or that “omission.” It’s obviously the best way to honor the dead and to keep the thread on track.

39

Faustusnotes 07.05.16 at 12:17 am

Peter Dorman I have never seen any evidence that the black lives matter movement try to make police killings some kind of sacralistic phenomenon that whites don’t understand. What on earth are you on about?

People always forget the Russians when listing nazi crimes…

40

arcseconds 07.05.16 at 1:07 am

john c. halasz @ 27

Nothing about Wittgenstein’s private language argument says there can’t be private experiences, only that they can’t serve as the meaning for linguistic expressions. The target here is ‘meanings are in the head’, not ‘I have experiences I can’t communicate’.

In fact, the discussion of the boxes with beetles in them suggests this quite strongly. The notion from the start is that there are things in the boxes, and he says he doesn’t want to deny that they’re there (although he also says it wouldn’t matter if there was nothing in the box).

You can have private and ineffable experiences, alright. You just can’t talk about them, not even to yourself.

And isn’t actually quite a lot of the stuff we’re talking about here exactly an attempt — perhaps misguided and hopeless, but an attempt nevertheless — of communicating an experience that defies communication, and even an attempt to make that which defies comprehension comprehensible even to oneself?

I’m not saying that there’s no resources here to address the position of Wiesel et al. , but I think a little more work needs to be done than just saying Wittgenstein put paid to the whole idea.

41

john c. halasz 07.05.16 at 2:44 am

@35:

I was addressing PD’s attempt to extend the discussion to current modes of PC identity politics, not Wiesel’s claims per se, (which is a more complex matter, since the experience of such “absolute” horror can only be expressed brokenly, by broken “subjects”, i.e. human beings). But what the so-called “PLA” amounts to is a confutation, not a refutation, of solipsistic skepticism about other minds, whether they exist or whether anything at all can be known of them and what it shows, not argues, is that there is no possible position or standpoint from which such a radical skeptical question can be coherently raised, since without the correlations between 1st/2nd/3rd person perspectives, embedded in the “grammar” of our language games, I can not only know nothing of others, but I can’t even know my own mind, nor identify and interpret my own experiences. The entwinement of my own mind and existence with that of others is inexpungeable, (and also the root of the ethical, which earlier W. had identified with the “mystical” and unsayable). Quasi-paradoxically, interiority intervenes from without via the relation to the other, though our language and socio-cultural “natures” within a form of life, which also sets limits to exaggerated claims for unique individuation. Perhaps no one was more aware of the unspeakable privacy of experience and the ultimate unreachability of others than W. who was a rather tormented character, but those acknowledged facts do not underwrite bad abstractions and the errors and confusions that their reification gives rise to. (“Sensations are private” makes sense as a grammatical remark, just in case anyone wree to forget that when I stub my toe, you do not feel my pain, a mistake that only a two-year-old or a philosopher would be liable to, but as a referential statement as if privacy were some mysterious property attaching to sensations, it’s just bad metaphysics). “The problem of other minds” then turns out to be, given the readily acknowledged facts of the matter, not whether they exist or whether I can know or understand anything of them, but rather the misunderstandings and miscommunications that riddle human relations.

42

Murray Reiss 07.05.16 at 3:54 am

I’m wondering, Corey, if you have the same “resistance” to Claude Lanzmann, who also did his best to sacralize the Holocaust, placing a metaphorical ring of fire around it, claiming it defied all attempts at explanation and that even the attempt to do so was obscene.

43

Corey Robin 07.05.16 at 5:06 am

Murray Reiss: That’s a really good question. I’ll admit, I have mixed feelings about Lanzmann. I loved Shoah the first time I saw it. (My wife and I have a running joke about how early on in our relationship, I tried to get her to watch it with me, like some pathetic reenactment of a Woody Allen movie. She yawned and dismissed it with one phrase: “It’s like homework.”) There are certain scenes from it I’ll never forget. But that oracular tendency of his that you speak of really began to wear on me after a while. He took the famous answer that a guard at Auschwitz gave to Primo Levi — “Hier gibt es kein Warum” — and made it into a kind of theological dictum. One was not allowed to ask why. In fact, he said as much: “‘Why were the Jews killed?’ The question immediately reveals its obscenity. There is indeed an absolute obscenity in the project of understanding.” That kind of thing I have little patience for. It just seems like moral grandstanding to me. And false in every sense. Is the work of Yehudah Bauer an obscenity? Is Saul Friedlander or Christopher Browning obscene? The question answers itself.

44

Meredith 07.05.16 at 6:03 am

Weisel, RIP. He lived and died. And his life was not easy.

I want to celebrate my four-month-old Jewish grandchild. Or is she Jewish? Her father is Jewish (some Polish rabbis in there, even), her mother is my Christian-raised daughter. My husband (the son of a Baptist minister, no less) and I (more of the Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal stripe) keep urging: go for the name day thing (no bris, of course), find a congregation in Brooklyn you’re comfortable with…. I recognize that I am thinking as a Christian here, but not in a way foreign to Jews (or Muslims or whatever). Commit, be part of a community oriented toward its children and THEIR future. (Thought today, in our small New England town, as I watched our lame but wonderful parade, for which we even hung out the flag: what would those who marched through here on their way to the Battle of Saratoga — including some of my own ancestors, by the chance of history — have thought seeing this array? And I could only respond to myself: they would have been so happy to see all the children running around every which way.) All this in honor of Maria, I think.

45

George Mason 07.05.16 at 7:44 am

@39
“It’s not always easy to keep all the people the Nazis slaughtered in one’s mind at the same time.”
Yes, of course. But do give it a try, it helps to put the Nazi Racial State in perspective.

46

Mike Schilling 07.05.16 at 8:57 am

#18
WW1 was planned as a short, glorious crusade that would put the enemy in its place. (Each side expected this, the only difference being who their enemy was.) No one expected a war that would last four years and kill tens of millions; they were simply too stupid to understand the efficiency of the industrial state in producing death.

The Holocaust was planned to kill millions, by people who understood quite well how the industrial state could accomplish that.

These two are not the same.

47

Soullite 07.05.16 at 9:38 am

I have to laugh at that trigger warning. As someone who actually understands mental health, trigger warnings were meant to warn people of common triggers of PTSD, not simply things they wouldn’t want to hear — that’s why so many people left at the left’s outright theft, and the resulting widespread discrediting of, a legitimate psychological concept for cheap political ends (and in part just to special snowflake among yourselves)

And most of the comments here in defense of the subject basically seem to break down to the classic, ‘he was just starting a conversation!’ bullshit millennials have come to expect from leftists when they find out that one of their own is at least in part a fantasist. I don’t believe in lying for Jesus. That’s just indulgent spin used by people when someone they otherwise like is found trying to manipulate other people.

48

ZM 07.05.16 at 12:56 pm

Corey Robin,

“Murray Reiss: That’s a really good question. I’ll admit, I have mixed feelings about Lanzmann. I loved Shoah the first time I saw it. (My wife and I have a running joke about how early on in our relationship, I tried to get her to watch it with me, like some pathetic reenactment of a Woody Allen movie. She yawned and dismissed it with one phrase: “It’s like homework.”) There are certain scenes from it I’ll never forget. But that oracular tendency of his that you speak of really began to wear on me after a while. “

This is what I mean. It’s a movie. You can get bored of the movie. You can go and make tea. You can make running jokes about it.

We had to watch Schindler’s List more than once in High School and me and one of my friends exclaimed about Stern whenever he came on, how much we loved him. Oh Stern! cue smiles and raising up of hands in delight.

For people who actually experienced the Holocaust, this possibly would seem like a trivialisation of their experiences.

On the other hand I talked to a retired teacher who said she not that many years ago had quite a few students in a Year 11 class and they had never heard of The Holocaust before she was teaching it. Some of the students found it hard to believe it really happened.

49

Shmoo 07.05.16 at 1:46 pm

I am Jewish culturally and by birth, but have never practiced except when compelled to by my family as a child. For me, the single most annoying thing was the fetishization of Jewish oppression – the idea that one should never forget one’s Jewish roots “because others won’t let you forget it”, or some such nonsense. The idea that I should so something I don’t want to do, because someone else, someday, might come to oppress me for it, has always struck me as deeply perverse, and deeply rooted in the American Jewish experience. I do believe that Wiesel was pursuing a good – as ZM observes, some people who aren’t familiar with the Holocaust don’t believe it could have happened, and the depths of what humanity can plunge to aren’t things we like to acknowledge. And the Holocaust is a useful recent example – but so is the slaughter of the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, and the Armenian genocide, and, well, one can go on, can’t one? As much good as Wiesel was trying to accomplish, the ritual reverence of the Holocaust in the US has stifled Jewish life. It doesn’t stick in my craw the way it sticks in Corey Robin’s, but I certainly see his point.

50

Plume 07.05.16 at 1:50 pm

George Mason @46

@39
“It’s not always easy to keep all the people the Nazis slaughtered in one’s mind at the same time.”
Yes, of course. But do give it a try, it helps to put the Nazi Racial State in perspective.

Save the above condescension for the kids. If you feel the need to discuss the groups I missed, go for it. But stop telling others how to post. It’s unnecessary and derails the thread.

51

Rich Puchalsky 07.05.16 at 2:01 pm

I’m a bit hesitant to do so, but I guess that I’ll recommend a work that I’ve found very useful although I don’t really agree with it: _Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest_, by David Blumenthal. It’s informed by Wiesel, but maybe it wouldn’t cause the same resistance that Wiesel does. (Or maybe it would.)

The problem with Weisel, as I understand it, is that he’s an agnostic, yet he wants to assign the Holocaust a kind of pseudo-religious meaning. The book mentioned above is frankly religious, and it addresses the questions “Given that the Holocaust happened, what does that tell us about God? How should we relate to God?” And it comes to the pretty obvious conclusion that God is an abuser, at least sometimes, and that we should be wary in our relationship.

52

Plume 07.05.16 at 2:19 pm

@51

“And it comes to the pretty obvious conclusion that God is an abuser, at least sometimes, and that we should be wary in our relationship.”

Of course, another way of viewing “the problem of evil” is to say there is no god. That there can’t be, especially if a god is supposed to be “good,” all-powerful and omniscient, etc.. But, as you mentioned, it’s a religious book, so they likely wouldn’t reach that conclusion.

Thanks for the recommendation.

53

Kenny Easwaran 07.05.16 at 3:10 pm

I just wanted to react to one side note in one of the quoted passages:

“I just don’t get why both New York City and Washington, D.C., should have Holocaust memorial museums. Or why every major city in the United States seems to be commemorating this European tragedy in some way or another.”

I used to think this, until a couple weeks ago. I was recently in Europe for some conferences, and the first thing I saw on Facebook when I landed in Heathrow was a post telling people at some bar in Orlando I had never heard of to run away as fast as they can. Over the next several hours it became clear that this was a major event, and not doomed to be ignored by straight people, as I initially suspected.

Two days later, while I was in Bristol, I saw the local community come out in a beautiful vigil – very English, with a gathering on the College Green, and some choral singing.

A few days later, my partner and I met up in Amsterdam for a few days of vacation, as we had planned. One thing we absolutely made sure to do on that first day together was to stop by the Homomonument. Seeing all the flowers and art and other displays that people had laid out was extremely moving. I realized that by having some small spot of land in the city designated as the Homomonument, it gave people in the Netherlands a place to concentrate their grieving, their respect, their support, when an awful event like this one happened.

I don’t necessarily think that every city needs a full-fledged Holocaust museum, but I now see the value in every town having a place that is designated as the place for a communal response to events of this sort. If there is any significant Jewish population at all in a city, there should be some public spot where they and their allies can go to commemorate an anniversary, an anti-Semitic atrocity, or a joyous celebration of some step forward in the peace process, or whatever.

54

Rich Puchalsky 07.05.16 at 5:31 pm

Plume: “But, as you mentioned, it’s a religious book, so they likely wouldn’t reach that conclusion.”

If you’re allergic to the sentimentality part, I think that you’d be allergic to this book. But it struck me as a very Jewish book rather than a reflected-Christianity kind of book. After all, it’s in the Jewish tradition to argue with God, to not think that God is necessarily always right because God is God, and for God to (in a certain sense) value this in his people. The whole bit about God being all-good as a defining attribute seems to me to be Christian rather than Jewish.

55

Plume 07.05.16 at 6:12 pm

“If you’re allergic to the sentimentality part, I think that you’d be allergic to this book. But it struck me as a very Jewish book rather than a reflected-Christianity kind of book. After all, it’s in the Jewish tradition to argue with God, to not think that God is necessarily always right because God is God, and for God to (in a certain sense) value this in his people. The whole bit about God being all-good as a defining attribute seems to me to be Christian rather than Jewish.”

That’s an interesting distinction, and I think spot on. I see that difference in interpretation as well. The Christian god was forged from a totally different experience. In the long run, a triumphalist experience, one of empire. Of course, with major ups and downs (and millions of individual exceptions), but, essentially, one of great power to match that god. The Jewish experience of diaspora, OTOH, its history of defeat, persecution, pogroms and the like . . . logically would lead to a much different conception of god — long before the Holocaust. And likely that strong, ongoing tradition of questioning, arguing, even rebelling against their god . . . . which is not the usual route in Christianity, except for the Miltons, Blakes, Kierkegaards and Unamunos, etc. etc.

Your comment also reminded me of Edmond Jabes, a great poet and virtual one-man UN. Egyptian Jew, who wrote in French. His Book of Questions is genius.

Jabès remains difficult to categorize as a writer. His work is a pastiche of dialogue, aphorism, fragments, poetry, and song; much of his work focuses on the book as a place in which ideas—of exile, God, the self—are approached through question and echo. Though an atheist, his writing refers to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah. Speaking with Marcel Cohen, Jabès explained, “For me the words ‘Jew’ and ‘God’ are, it is true, metaphors. ‘God’ is the metaphor for emptiness; ‘Jew’ stands for the torment of God, of emptiness.”

56

Yan 07.05.16 at 6:26 pm

I share some of the OP’s worries, but don’t want to criticize Weisel’s view or work at this time. Instead, I’d like to recommend Tadeusz Borowski’s “This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentleman” to anyone who hasn’t read it. It’s unbearable honesty is an antidote to the understandably less than clear eyed nature of much Holocaust literature.

57

awy 07.05.16 at 6:52 pm

it is not clear what a path forward in palestine looks like, i think we are a bit past the point of economic integration and so on with the bad governance there.

from the pov of a rather distant observer, it seems that religious-nationalistic fundamentalism rather than holocaust sentimentalism is mostly to blame for the unproductive hardline in israel itself. but even if there is no such hardline group, actual solutions are scant.

58

George Mason 07.05.16 at 10:43 pm

@ 51. “If you feel the need to discuss the groups I missed, go for it.” I don’t. But people should be aware that there were other groups targettted for extermination.
” But stop telling others how to post.” I didn’t.
” It’s unnecessary and derails the thread.” How? The OP was about reactions the the work of Elie Weisel, who, as PD @ 38. points out, had actively [and successfully] opposed inclusion of Roma and Sinti at the USHM. See Hancock for details.

59

Jason Weidner 07.06.16 at 4:11 am

This is a very thoughtful and nuanced take on the issue of Wiesel and Palestine:
http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/04/elie-wiesels-moral-imagination-never-reached-palestine/

60

Brett Dunbar 07.06.16 at 9:43 pm

It isn’t true, although widely belived, that no one was expecting a long war in 1914. Edward Grey the British foreign secretary expected that the war would be long. Indeed the small size of the British army meant that British involvement only made sense if you believed a long war was a serious probability.

61

Joseph Brenner 07.06.16 at 11:13 pm

awy@58:
“actual solutions are scant.”
Well you see, there’s an invading, occupying country in that region that keeps interfering with the political process. Fortunately, the US funds a large chunk of their military, so it should be a trivial matter to pressure them into toning down their act. The first step toward an actual solution is to actually want one.

62

David Grant 07.09.16 at 5:15 am

I used to hold Elie Wiesel in high esteem until I read Noam Chomsky’s views and then they were expanded when I read Norman Finkelstein’s book “The Holocaust Industry” where he offers even more criticism. I think the fact that he always championed Israel even when it was complicit in grave crimes of human rights against the Palestinians is quite troubling. I find it is very disturbing that these facts that are displayed in posts like this one are more well-known, but that goes to show good a PR campaign has been done to the general public. Hopefully, this post will be a conversation in a different direction.

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