Elie Wiesel and the Rest Of Us : Compassion on the Cheap

Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, memoirist, and humanitarian took out a full page ad in the Washington Post last week defending Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's position on Jerusalem: it belongs to the Jews and that is that.

The ad was directed, of course, at our President who is trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to negotiations. That can't happen if one side is refusing to compromise with the other over the city both consider their own. Israel says the whole city is its capital. Palestinians cede Jewish West Jerusalem to Israel while insisting on parts of Arab East Jerusalem for their own capital.

Wiesel clearly considers himself a righteous man and much of the world agrees. But status as a victim does not confer righteousness.

One of Wiesel's themes is that "the world" was silent during the Holocaust in which he lost his entire family. He says, over and over again, that silence in the face of persecution is criminal, worse than criminal.

But he does not know what he would have done if he was a Pole, Ukrainian, French, Hungarian, Bulgarian, or any of the other nationalities of Europe in whose midst Nazis murdered Jews by the millions.

Would he have opened the door for the non-Jewish stranger if his life, and those of his family, would be jeopardized by doing so. (In Poland, unlike Germany, the penalty for saving Jews was death for the entire family).

Wiesel's actions indicate that he might not have. He is a great humanitarian, except when it comes to Palestinians (to whom he is indifferent).

For instance, in 1982, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis were in the streets demonstrating against the government's horrific conduct of the Lebanon war, Wiesel said: "I support Israel -- period. I identify with Israel -- period. I never attack, never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel."

He has never criticized the Israeli government, not while in New York and not while in Israel. In the situation where his voice would carry the most weight he chooses to be, in a phrase he coined, a "Jew Of Silence."

In other words, he is a humanitarian except in situations where his own tribe is perpetrating cruelty. But the test for any of us is not our empathy to our own, but our empathy to the other -- especially when "our own" is perpetrating the injustice.

Wiesel fails that test. And so do Israelis who do not fight to end the occupation (many others do). And their Jewish organizational cutouts here.

A German who is outraged by US racism but unaffected by the Holocaust is an obvious hypocrite. And so is a Jew who is moved by the plight of Tibetans, Darfurians, native Brazilians but goes along with the occupation. And so are Palestinians who are moved by their own suffering but indifferent to Jewish victims of Palestinian terror.

Americans are too often like Wiesel. We built a Holocaust museum in Washington to point out what the Germans did in Europe but not a museum about slavery. Maybe that one will be built in Berlin, along side a museum about the slaughter of the American Indian.

Before anyone else says it, I do not know what I would do if a stranger knocked on the door in the middle of the night. And neither does anyone else until it happens, including, most especially, those people who are so quick to condemn other people for indifference to suffering.

That is why I think we should start researching what it is that made those thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, and others (22,000 according to Israel's Yad Vashem Institute) -- people who grew up in an environment less than sympathetic to Jews -- open their doors and rescue "strangers."

There are too many people who point fingers but wouldn't lift a hand to save their next door neighbor. Wouldn't it be worthwhile to discover the ingredient that makes people human?

And then teach it, rather than just accuse those who behaved as badly as so many of us would. The most important lesson the Holocaust can teach is not about who was evil and what they did. But who was good, and why.