Reviews and Polemics

IN A BOOK OF MEMOIRS one speaks about oneself but, inevitably, also about others. How is one to write without voicing judgments?

The only negative reviews I have written have been related to plays, movies, or television shows dealing with the Holocaust. As a rule, I prefer to praise, but it isn’t always easy.

I demolished, as they say, the Holocaust series broadcast by one of the networks following an astounding media blitz. Though reluctant to provoke a scandal, I allowed myself to be persuaded by editors of the New York Times to offer my opinion in its pages. Had the producers presented their series as a work of fiction, I would not have reacted so strongly. But since it was presented as a documentary, I felt it my duty to object.

My piece had enormous repercussions. The Times had to devote an entire tightly set page to the letters that poured in. The scriptwriter responded; I replied to his response. In short, the debate had been opened, and rather violently.

This is what I wrote in the Times:

The story is gripping, the acting competent, the message compelling—and yet.

The calculated brutality of the killers, the silent agony of the victims, the indifference of the outside world—this TV series will show what some survivors have been trying to say for years and years. And yet something is wrong with it. Something? No: everything.

Untrue, offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film is an insult to those who perished and to those who survived. In spite of its name, this “docu-drama” is not about what some of us remember as the Holocaust.

Am I too harsh? Too sensitive, perhaps. But then, the film is not sensitive enough. It tries to show what cannot even be imagined. It transforms an ontological event into soap-opera. Whatever the intentions, the result is shocking.

Contrived situations, sentimental episodes, implausible coincidences: If they make you cry, you will cry for the wrong reasons.

Why is the series called “Holocaust”? Whoever chose the name must have been unaware of the implications. Holocaust, a TV spectacle. Holocaust, a TV drama. Holocaust, a work of semi-fact and semi-fiction. Isn’t this what so many morally deranged “scholars” have been claiming recently all over the world? That the Holocaust was nothing but an “invention”? NBC should have used the name in its subtitle, if at all.

The network should also have been more rigorous in its research. Contrary to what we see in the film, Jewish refugees who crossed the Russian border before the German invasion were not allowed to go free but were arrested, interrogated, and jailed; Auschwitz inmates were not allowed to keep suitcases, family pictures, and music-sheets; Jews do not wear prayer shawls at night; there is a blessing for Torah-reading and another one for weddings—the Rabbi who performs the wedding in the film recites the wrong blessing.

Other, more serious irritants: Mordechai Anielewicz, the young commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, is shown as a caricature of himself; stereotype Jews and stereotype Germans; the exaggerated emphasis on the brutality of Jewish ghetto-policemen and Jewish Kapos; the obsessive theme of Jewish resignation.

Are we again to be subjected to debates on Jewish passivity versus Jewish heroism? They were painful yet fashionable during the Eichmann trial; why renew them now? During the Holocaust, even the victims were heroes and even the heroes died as martyrs.

But I am more disturbed by the overall concept of the production. It tries to tell it all: what happened before, during, and after. The beginning and the end. The evil majority and the charitable minority. The bloodthirsty SS and Father Lichtenberg. Himmler and Eichmann, Blobel and Franck, Hoess and Nebe: hardly a name is omitted, hardly an episode obliterated. We hear their ideological discussions, we see them at work. We learn how they all used their abilities, their inventiveness, and their patriotism to achieve a perfect system of mass murder, for it took many talents on the part of many highly educated persons to bring about a catastrophe of such magnitude.

On the opposite side: the first signs, the first decrees, the first warnings. Expropriation, confiscation, deportation. The ghettos. The manhunts. Hunger. Fear. The shrinking universe will ultimately be reduced to the gas-chambers. But together with the dying victims, we are shown the fighting heroes: partisans, resistance groups, armed insurgents. Courage and despair displayed by both believers and non-believers: It is all there.

Too much, far too much happens to one particular Jewish family and too much evil is perpetrated by one particular German officer. Members of the fictional Weiss family experience the Kristallnacht, euthanasia, Warsaw, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt, Babi-Yar, Sobibor and Auschwitz. Somehow the most famous—or infamous—events and places have been rearranged to fit into the biographies of two families. Thus, Joseph Weiss helps save Jews at the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, his brother is purchasing weapons for the Underground, his wife teaches ghetto children Shakespeare and music, his son is among the artists who clandestinely prepare their own testimony in the form of drawings, his daughter perishes as a victim of euthanasia, his youngest son Rudi survives Babi-Yar and joins the Jewish partisans in the Ukraine, where he participates in the armed uprising of Sobibor—and more, and more. Whatever happened anywhere, happened to this family. And more so.

The same applies to Erik Dorf: he too is everywhere. We find him involved in every salient event. Who advises Heydrich on how to deal with Jewish insurance claims after the Kristallnacht? Dorf. Who supervises the mobile gas units? Dorf. Who happens to be at Babi-Yar during the mass executions? Dorf. Who prepares the plans for Auschwitz? Dorf, again. Who purchases Zyklon B gas from respectable German industrialists? Dorf. It is simply too much action for one man, any man. One cannot believe that such a person existed—and, indeed, Erik Dorf did not exist. Neither did the Weiss family. In this “docu-drama,” the principal characters are fictitious, whereas the secondary ones are not. Yet, for understandable artistic reasons, all are treated as authentic. On this level, the implications are troubling and far-reaching: how is the uninformed viewer to distinguish the one from the other? Chances are he will believe that they are either equally true or equally invented. The private lives of the two families are so skillfully intertwined with historical facts that, except for the initiated, the general public may find it difficult to know where fact ends and fiction begins. This would, of course, defeat the very lofty goal the film’s creators have set for themselves.

In film as in literature, it is all a matter of credibility. Were the film a pure work of fiction or straight documentary, it would achieve more. The mixture of the two genres results in confusion. And occasionally in scenes that I, for one, found in poor taste. One striking example: We see long, endless processions of Jews marching toward Babi-Yar—with “appropriate” musical background. We see them get undressed, move to the ditch, wait for the bullets, topple into the grave. We see the naked bodies covered with “blood”—and it is all make-believe.

Another example: We see naked women and children entering the gas-chambers; we see their faces, we hear their moans as the doors are being shut, then—well, enough: why continue? To use special effects and gimmicks to describe the indescribable is to me morally objectionable. Worse: it is indecent. The last moments of the forgotten victims belong to themselves.

I know: people will tell me that film-making has its own laws and its own demands. After all, 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. Thus, I object to it not because it is not artistic enough but because it is not authentic enough. It removes us from the event instead of bringing us closer to it. The tone is wrong. Most scenes do not ring true: too much “drama,” not enough “documentary.” In all fairness, I must add that many Jewish and non-Jewish organizations supported the project and promoted it among their members. But they did so even before they could view the programs. This does not mean that people will not be moved. Some who saw previews have been profoundly affected. And I know, don’t tell me: the film was not meant for viewers like me but for those who were not there or not even born yet, those who are only beginning to discover the reality of death-factories in the heart of civilized Europe.

You are right, of course. But—and it is an important but—I am appalled by the thought that one day the Holocaust will be measured and judged in part by the NBC TV production bearing its name. Listen to what one of the study-guides, prepared by the National Council of Churches, has been telling its readers: “‘Holocaust’ may come to be known as the definitive film on the Holocaust in terms of meticulous accuracy, totality of material presented, and its use of carefully selected archival footage….” Though surely well-intentioned, such misleading, complacent statements are dangerous: It simply is not so. The witness feels here duty-bound to declare: what you have seen on the screen is not what happened there. You may think you know now how the victims lived and died, but you do not. Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. Whether culmination or aberration of history, the Holocaust transcends history. Everything about it inspires fear and leads to despair. The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering.

Art and Theresienstadt were perhaps compatible in Theresienstadt, but not here—not in a television studio. The same is true of prayer and Buchenwald, faith and Treblinka. A film about Sobibor is either not a picture or not about Sobibor.

The Holocaust? 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 was easier for Auschwitz inmates to imagine themselves free than for free persons to imagine themselves in Auschwitz.

What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.

The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show.

In the course of the fury unleashed by the show, I discovered that the producers had consulted with well-remunerated “expert advisors”: two SS officers. Not one survivor.

What to do? I am partial to documentaries. The Eighty-first Blow, Night and Fog, The Partisans of Vilna, and, of course, Shoah, which I helped with a long and favorable review in the Times. I wished to acknowledge the enormous effort and devotion of Claude Lanzmann. His film remains a monumental achievement. Nonetheless, certain passages were controversial. For example, the way he dwells on the Todeskampf, the death struggle, in the gas chambers. Am I too steeped in Jewish tradition, which considers death a private event whose secret is to be respected? That is why Moses died alone, far from people’s sight. And then I cannot, I don’t want to, accept Lanzmann’s images of Jewish mothers climbing over their children to breathe another second. Of course this is not meant as an overall criticism of Lanzmann—far from it; I understand that he wanted to show the degradation conceived and programmed by the Germans. The Sonderkommando is a German invention, not a Jewish one. All its members were forced to do their brutal tasks. They, too, were victims of the killers. And no one has the right to judge them. In my preface to Voices in the Night, I tried to express all the tenderness I have for them. True, some members of the Sonderkommandos refused to comply; Greek deportees chose to be shot rather than feed the ovens. I was told that the Chief Rabbi of my town, Rabbi Yekutiel-Yehuda Teitelbaum, threw himself into the flames for the same reason. But his gesture does not diminish the others’ worth. And it is partly in memory of their martyrdom that I wrote of Lanzmann’s film with unmitigated praise.

Other performances on screen or stage, have dealt with this subject. And every time I felt that the memory of the Holocaust was tainted by either the images or the language, I raised my voice. I don’t regret it. Since nobody else protested, it was my duty to do so. And whenever I hesitated, there was always someone to remind me of my own words: Silence signifies consent. Just as there was always someone to resent me. And some grudges are tenacious. Because I disliked Sophie’s Choice (the film, not the book), and said so in print, William Styron and I no longer speak. I also voiced my disappointment with Ghetto, a play about the Vilna Ghetto, which provoked an acrimonious response from its author, the Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol. Yet when I decried certain segments of the television series The Winds of War, the author of the novel on which it was based, Herman Wouk, understood my reaction. It is always the same problem: Auschwitz cannot be depicted; the veil covering this dark universe cannot be lifted.

I know that some of the writers who have introduced the Holocaust into their work take exception to my “purist” attitude on the subject. They consider me, unjustly, a kind of censor-inquisitor who watches scrupulously over a territory that, they believe, is theirs as much as the survivors’. They suppose, wrongly, that I claim exclusive rights for myself and my fellow survivors. That is not the case. In literature as in philosophy, there is no “game preserve.” Anybody can write on any subject, and even on any individual. But I maintain that no one, myself included, is authorized to speak on behalf of the dead; no one may appropriate their memory. Those who accuse me of arrogance because I demand the respect due the dead understand nothing of my motives: I plead for humility, for more prudence, more reserve in both behavior and language.

Unfortunately, there are suddenly too many Holocaust scholars who know the answers to all our questions, too many experts who, from one day to the next, become judges and critics, deciding who deserves to write and who doesn’t, who is sentimental and who isn’t, who should be read and who shouldn’t. We have come to the point where Jewish survivors no longer dare to speak up. The others always know better.

•   •   •

In France, one of the most vociferous adversaries of the survivors is Jean-Marie Domenach. Wasn’t it he who in September 1989, in connection with the controversy surrounding the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz, led the slander campaign against “certain Jews” he accuses of “Judeocentrism,” in other words, of being too Jewish? Surely he was a participant. It is difficult for a Jew to speak of Auschwitz without leaving himself open to criticism, as it is difficult to speak of Israel or Judaism without provoking outbursts of hate.

As regards myself, the attacks and insults come from many sources. I upset a lot of people. I am disliked by racists and anti-Semites of the reactionary right as much as by certain young intellectuals who need to prove their independence of the establishment.

Another intellectual who has chosen to attack me is Alfred Grosser, a Germanist. He denounces me in one book and in many statements to the press for not having devoted my Nobel acceptance speech to the Kurds gassed by the Iraqis. Evidently he does not fear ridicule; one or another of his friends or ideological cohorts should have reminded him that I was awarded the Nobel in 1986, while the monstrous crime against the Kurds was committed two years later, in 1988.

As for Jean-Marie Domenach, his statements are ugly in both substance and form. What annoys him most in today’s France? That “the dividends of Auschwitz” are “collected” by certain Jews for political, literary, and other reasons. I don’t know which of Domenach’s writings will survive, but this “original” phrase will remain. One will say “Domenach” and will inevitably add: “Oh yes, ‘the dividends of Auschwitz.’”

A warning to historians and theologians, philosophers and psychologists, novelists and poets: A Domenach is waiting around the corner. If they write about Auschwitz, he will accuse them of doing so to enhance their careers. The witnesses, the chroniclers, the survivors? They forfeit their right to evoke their suffering, to look backwards: Domenach will chastise them for “profiteering.” Of course, he will say he did not mean them but “certain” others. In a handwritten, not very coherent letter addressed to me, he said that his remarks were meant for Bernard-Henri Lévy and Zeev Sternhell, not for me.

If one follows the trajectory of Domenach to its grotesque conclusion, a former member of the Resistance should never again speak of the Resistance, nor should a rabbi speak of the Talmud, or a priest of the Evangelists; each could be accused of collecting “dividends.”

Domenach’s ignorance actually surprises me less than his impudence. By what authority does he give advice and lessons to the Jews? Who is he to lecture us? What right has he to tell us what is appropriate? What does Domenach know about Auschwitz? Has he no shame? What exactly does he want, that Jews like myself remain silent?

Let us go back to those who accuse me of Judeocentrism; namely, that I am exclusively interested in Jews; that I fight only for their rights; concern myself only with their affairs, their happiness, their survival. What if that were so? Having seen and experienced the isolation of Jews in danger, would it not be natural for me to attempt to oppose it whenever it reappears? Isn’t it normal for a Jew, a survivor, to devote himself to his people first?

In my Oslo speech I outlined my position: Jewish destiny is my priority, but that priority is not exclusive. 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. I speak of it in A Beggar in Jerusalem. I refer to the Arab children’s eyes, so sad, so frightened. They troubled me and saddened me. This I stated not only in the novel but also on Israeli television.

After a lecture I give at a midwestern university, a student confronts me: “You who do so much for so many oppressed people, what are you doing for the Palestinians?” Elsewhere another student asks me the same question, but more directly: “I am Palestinian; what do you have to say to me?” In both cases, a productive dialogue ensues.

A Palestinian whose open letter, published in Le Monde, remained unanswered was Mahmoud Darwich. His poem, addressed to the Israelis, incites hate: “Take your graves and go!” Even the Intifada cannot excuse such language. But years earlier, another Palestinian poet affected me deeply.

I remember: The telephone rings. There is a man’s voice, speaking Hebrew: “My name is Rashid Hussein. I’d like to meet you. It is urgent.” I wait. Surely he guesses the reason for my silence, for he adds: “Don’t be concerned, I am not PLO, I am Israeli. An Israeli poet. An Israeli poet writing in Arabic.” I invite him to come the next day. “Couldn’t you see me today? It really is urgent.” Fine, let him come.

Right away he makes a good impression. Serious, sensitive, full of passion, he comes straight to the point, describing the intolerable situation of Arabs in Israel and particularly in the West Bank. From time to time I interrupt him to confess my skepticism. He must be inventing, embroidering, exaggerating. He elaborates, speaking of censorship, restrictions, arbitrary arrests. My response? Impossible, inconceivable; he exaggerates, he invents. “Either you are ill-informed or utterly naive,” Rashid mutters. He proceeds to read me a long list of names of Arabs in preventive detention, imprisoned without trial. Impulsively I grab the phone, waking up a well-known journalist in Tel Aviv. “I have in my office a Palestinian poet who is telling me outrageous things. Is he lying? Is he being manipulated?”

The journalist confirms everything Rashid has told me. I must look agitated because he feels compelled to apologize: “I am sorry to be bothering you like this.” What does he want me to do? Sign a petition on behalf of his friends in “administrative” detention? Other writers and intellectuals have already done so. I tell him: “I never sign anything against Israel.” He replies: “I thought so. When it comes to us, you remain silent,” and he stands. I ask him to sit down again: “I have a proposition: Stop circulating your petition and I shall go to Israel. I shall do my best to help your friends.” He accepts.

A few days later I am knocking on Golda Meir’s door. I tell her why I have come. A motherly smile lights up her face: “Stay out of this,” she says. “This is not for you. These things are so complex, you wouldn’t begin to understand. Leave it to the experts.” It’s not easy to contradict a prime minister, but I must. “Golda,” I say. “You cannot do this to us, all of us in the Diaspora who try to defend human rights. You should not force us to choose between our conscience and our loyalty to Israel.” She would rather not discuss this further, but we do. In the end, she says: “In the West Bank such matters are settled by the military authorities; why don’t you go see them?”

And so I meet the commander in chief of the army. He, too, would rather not discuss the topic, but we do anyway. His response: “No arrest is arbitrary; it must be authorized by a commission that always includes a civil judge.” I run to the president of the Supreme Court. With him there is no need for discussion: The law is the law. His role is to safeguard every citizen, every individual, from abuses of power. But then what about the preventive arrests? How are they to be explained? The judge reassures me: This only happens when the security services detain a suspect whose guilt is established but the evidence would be dangerous to display before a tribunal, thus before the lawyers for the defense. Why dangerous? Because the evidence is provided by informers, covert agents. What is the solution, to allow the saboteurs to go free and risk the lives and security of peaceful Israelis? I understand but I am troubled.

I see Golda again. I bother so many people, and I annoy them so many times, that finally, to get rid of me, a few prisoners are freed. I fly back to New York, triumphant. I call Rashid Hussein to give him the good news. He already knows. I ask to see him right away, to celebrate the success of our common efforts. He makes excuses: He has no time, some other time. Never mind, it will wait. When we finally meet for coffee, the young Palestinian seems embarrassed. What is the matter? Why isn’t he happier? He looks away as he confesses that while I was in Jerusalem, he continued to circulate his petition. “I had no choice,” he says. “Thinking of my friends in prison, I couldn’t wait. Patience is for happy people, not for us, not yet.”

Soon after this episode, Marion and I go to hear him read at the Village Vanguard. He recites poems charged with violence and bitterness. Poor uprooted Rashid: He sinks deeper and deeper into despair. He drinks a lot, I am told. To each his refuge. His is in the bottle. I don’t judge him. Rather it is he who, swallowing glass after glass, seems to be judging … whom?

When he dies alone and forsaken in his room downtown, I wonder whether his friends are still—or again—in Israeli prisons, and whether the poets among them sing with any less anger or despair.

Let us turn the page. What about my Jewish opponents?

After the Ani Maamin performance at Carnegie Hall, friends gather backstage to congratulate the artists and musicians. Among them is a broad-shouldered man with a mustache and darting eyes in a massive face. He introduces himself: Simon Wiesenthal. I shake his hand warmly. We embrace. I know him by name and admire his work. After all, he was in the death camps. He was also the first Nazi hunter of the postwar period. I hold him in great esteem. I know that he resides in Vienna and ask him to visit us next time he is in New York.

A few years go by. Then one day he calls. We speak of this and that: Israel, anti-Semitism, the SS executioners hidden in South America. He talks about his books, but I prefer to listen to his exploits hunting down war criminals on the run. I mention the name Adolf Eichmann. I know how much we owe Wiesenthal in this affair. And so I tell him of my indignation about an article published in an Israeli newspaper in which a former member of the Mossad accuses him of lying when he claims to have played a key role in the kidnapping of this Nazi criminal. Wiesenthal replies that the Israeli secret services hate him, that they are jealous of his successes.

And Josef Mengele, the doctor-assassin responsible for the “selections” at Birkenau, does anyone know his hiding place? In his conversations with me, Wiesenthal claims to know and gives me precise details: his false identities, the names of his accomplices and protectors. But then why don’t they arrest him? My guest places the responsibility on others. He again complains about the Mossad and the Israeli secret services in general, who, he says, do all they can to smear him. Later I read in an as-yet-unpublished manuscript by Issar Harel, the legendary former chief of the Mossad, a very unflattering portrait of Wiesenthal. He criticizes his boasting, his preoccupation with public relations; he even accuses him of having jeopardized an Israeli operation intended to capture Mengele.

Before leaving, Wiesenthal asks me for a favor: to review his latest book—which I haven’t yet read—in the Times. It is the story of a dying SS officer who, inside a concentration camp, begs him, Wiesenthal, to forgive him. It sounds preposterous to me, but how do I know? I haven’t read it yet. As for the favor he is requesting, I explain to him that things do not work this way in the United States. Book review editors are extremely touchy about anything that smacks of cronyism. But I promise to do my best.

He visits my home on two more occasions. Both times he comes directly from seeing Kurt Waldheim, then secretary-general of the U.N., and his close friend. “Can you imagine?” he tells me, beaming: “He insisted on escorting me all the way to the elevator.” At that time the dark past of the future president of Austria was not yet known.

Our last meeting took place in the early eighties. At first, of course, I heard a detailed account of his visit to Waldheim, who, this time, escorted him all the way to the lobby. Again we discuss Mengele. He then tells me all about his current whereabouts, in Paraguay, when in fact the killer doctor had died in Brazil some time before.

We move to a more serious topic: Whom should we remember? He preaches the universality of suffering. More precisely: Since Hitler exterminated not six but eleven million human beings in his death camps—Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, and others—my guest considers it our duty not to forget any of them. And here Wiesenthal uses a striking image: Since Jewish blood was mingled with their blood in Auschwitz, all victims should be “reunited” within the same remembrance.

I answer him that I don’t know where he obtained the figure of eleven million. To my knowledge, no historian has ever cited such a figure. Indeed, the only place I can remember seeing that figure was in Eichmann’s report on the Wannsee Conference, where leaders of the Third Reich decided on the Final Solution. But even there, Eichmann referred to eleven million Jews, only Jews—those of Europe and elsewhere—all of whom were targeted. Moreover, did he, Wiesenthal, really believe that there were five million non-Jews brutalized, killed, and burned in the camps? If that is what he believes, let him bring proof… whereupon he accuses me of Judeocentrism: “You think only of Jews…. For you they were all saints…. As for me, I can prove to you that among them there were the worst kind of scoundrels, worse than the non-Jews….” I am stunned by this outburst, and saddened. His face is red; he apologizes. He didn’t express himself properly, he didn’t mean it. In fact he wanted to say something else, but … So be it. I explain my position to him, the very same I set forth before President Carter and Congress: Not all the victims of the Holocaust were Jews, but all the Jews were victims.

Still, I address him courteously. After all, he is a man who has inspired fear in the archenemies of the Jewish people. To dispel the tension I change the subject. Just then, my son, a small boy at the time, comes running into my study. I introduce him to our visitor. Is it because my son does not show much interest that Wiesenthal becomes angry? “Leave us,” he says. “We have important matters to discuss!” Elisha leaves the room. I admit: I did not appreciate this. I don’t like to see children humiliated, and certainly not my own. There is no further contact between Wiesenthal and me.

During the years that follow—and that precede my Nobel Prize, which he covets—Wiesenthal makes derisive, derogatory public comments about my “nationalism” and “chauvinism,” my alleged contempt for the Gypsies, the Poles, and the others, all the others. He repeats these remarks tirelessly to Jewish visitors to Vienna, to Jewish leaders in America, in interviews, and even in Penthouse.

In Penthouse, Wiesenthal says: “He [Elie Wiesel] is the greatest opponent of my position, namely, that there should be true brotherhood between the victims, all the victims.” To a journalist’s question: “Why does Elie Wiesel not agree with you?” he answers: “Because he is a chauvinist and I’m not.” In 1980 his diatribes reach the point where the journalist Herb Brin, who is actually an admirer of his, writes an editorial urging him to halt his injurious attacks. “Wiesenthal,” he writes, “has a fixation on Elie Wiesel and by it, he dishonors himself.” It seems Wiesenthal has two obsessions: the World Jewish Congress (which he hates) and me (whom he detests).

Later I see Wiesenthal on Larry King’s show discussing Eli Rosenbaum’s book Betrayal. The director of the Office of Special Investigations has bluntly criticized Wiesenthal for his friendship with Waldheim. I am astounded to hear Wiesenthal’s outrage; he can’t understand how a Jew could attack a survivor. I feel like sending him a note: Am I not, like you, a survivor? Why do you, a Jew, persist in slandering me? But I don’t. As Saul Lieberman used to say: “To begin a friendship, it takes two. To end a quarrel, it takes only one.” I choose to end the quarrel because I have simply lost all respect for the man.

I react only once, with a detailed refutation, in an American-Jewish weekly, of his distortion of facts. Accusation: I did not invite him to a survivors’ gathering. Fact: I was not one of the organizers. Accusation: I participated in a boycott against him. Fact: To my knowledge there never was one. Accusation: I prevented the nomination of a Gypsy to the Holocaust Memorial Council. Fact: The White House retains this privilege; my various recommendations frequently went unheeded. Beyond this response, I swallowed hard and kept silent. But I wondered: Why did Albert Speer, the last Nazi minister in charge of arms production, call him his “best friend” in a PBS program televised in the United States? Why did Helmut Kohl suppress a rather unfavorable Austrian documentary on Wiesenthal?

Ever since I was awarded the Nobel Prize for which he campaigned by denigrating me, he has gone further: He frequently states in his books as well as in his private conversations that the prize was his by right and that I am his enemy. When reporters query me on the motives of my alleged hate for him, I always refuse to engage in polemics. Let his advocates and public relations men show me a single newspaper, a single publication, containing a single derogatory remark about him. Until now.

Poor Wiesenthal. How is one to comprehend his rage and hate? Our sages have an explanation: ambition, jealousy. In The Ethics of Our Fathers we read that jealousy “excludes man from this world.” Let us say that, in Wiesenthal’s case, it blinds him.

I feel sorry for him.

Open letters … I have written a few: to a young Palestinian, to a young German. I have also received quite a few. Almost all deal with Israel and the Palestinians. Some ask me to support the hawks; others express a wish to include me among the doves. A crude open letter by the owner of the German magazine Der Spiegel attacks me because I dared articulate some concerns about German reunification. I am urged to issue statements against one or another policy of one or another Israeli government. I seldom respond.

In July 1967 I entrust an article to Jean-Martin Chauffier, editor in chief of Figaro Littéraire and a former comrade from Buchenwald. In it I say that we should have expected that people would be envious of Israel’s victory, resent it for having carried out in too spectacular a manner its lightning campaigns against four armies and some twenty Arab nations, or perhaps simply for having waged these battles at all. Israel victorious does not correspond to the image some people like to have of its destiny among the nations. They prefer to see it defeated, on its knees, which permits them to come to its aid and console it afterward. But a Jew triumphant over death? That is a difficult concept, even for some who are not the Jew’s enemies, and surely for those who resent the Jew for having cheated the world: The promised second holocaust did not take place. The lamb dared to refuse the slaughter. And worst of all, the Jew, not content with escaping the enemy, even found a way to humiliate him. That was going too far. The most virulent among the critics are the very same who just yesterday were ready to forget their commitment to come to Israel’s defense.

In that same article I mention another disappointment: A great Catholic writer whom I admire and respect and to whom I owe much also criticizes Israel, not from a political but from a theological point of view. For him, the nation “evolves in a universe devoid of God” and uses its genius “for purposes of possession and domination that are purely material and to satisfy its craving for power.”

Does he really believe that the Jews have chased God from their land, which is also His? Does he earnestly believe that the Holy Land has lost its holiness since the Jews returned to it? My response:

I have seen Israel at war; therefore I can bear witness. I have seen, in the Old City of Jerusalem, barely reconquered, hardened paratroopers pray and weep for the first time in their lives; I have seen them, in the midst of battle, overwhelmed by a collective and ancient fervor, kiss the stones of the Wall and commune in a silence as unbelievable as it was pure. I have seen them, as in a dream, jump back two thousand years to renew a bond with memory and the God of Israel. Don’t tell me that they were moved by a will for power or material domination; their will was drawn from the spirituality of their past. Their experience was mystical. Even the nonbelievers felt transcended by their own acts and by the accounts they gave of them later. Their words, on their lips, render a strangely fiery and faraway sound. Their “will to dominate” seems to target only their own pride. And they did succeed in muting their pride. Mankind has never known less arrogant victors. You begrudge them their victory, you are wrong. They needed it not to live but to survive.

I wrote this plea for Israel not in 1988 during the Intifada, but in 1967 just a few weeks after the potentially fatal threats that Egyptian and Syrian armies had posed to the Jewish state.

Less than three years later I felt compelled to publish, once again in Figaro Littéraire, a new plea: To a Concerned Friend. A few excerpts follow:

You are concerned. That is what you told me when last we met. Worried about the Middle East, of course. I told you that I, too, am worried and frequently depressed. I look at Israel’s future with foreboding. Cease-fire violations, exchanges of artillery fire, sabotages and reprisals, assaults and bombings. Too many mothers, on both sides, are mourning. Too many young people, on both sides, are sacrificing their lives before living them. Will this curse never be revoked? I thought that since you and I are friends, and share the same belief in friendship, we undoubtedly share the same fears.

Only you went on to say: “I would not like for Israel to become a power defining itself through its conquests—yet that is what will happen.” And you added, “I would not like the Jewish youth, over there, to develop the mentality of an occupying force—yet if things continue as they have, it will inevitably acquire such a mentality, if it hasn’t already.”

And so, since we are friends, I want to reassure you. You are wrong to worry. A Jew will not disappoint you in victory: The change in his condition will not change him ontologically. Though no longer the victim, he will not be the torturer. In the Jewish tradition, victory is not linked to the adversary’s defeat; above all, it is a victory over oneself. That is another reason why Jews have never been executioners and almost always victims.

… You fear that what you call the Jewish soul, molded by suffering and used to persecution, might cease to be Jewish. You fear that it might become evil. Just like the world it confronts. Well, rest assured. The Jewish soul has been able to resist so many onslaughts of hatred, an ageless and multi-faceted hatred, that it surely will resist the ephemeral fascination with military glory. Give it your trust; it has given its measure. One’s soul does not change so quickly. One does not acquire an occupier’s mentality, a conqueror’s instinct in a few months, or even in a few years. That requires the work of generations and implies a tradition the Jews do not have. The Jew has not changed in the course of his millennia-old history. Do you believe that he will deny himself, or change because of a few military exploits? …

The “concerned friend” was my great and wonderful friend and benefactor François Mauriac, who surely was an ally and defender of the state of Israel and even more so of the people of Israel. How is one to explain his skeptical attitude after 1967? Perhaps it was the good Christian in him, the ideal and idealized Christian feeling tenderness and compassion toward a victim but not toward a victor. This does not mean that the church, at various periods, has not preached respect for power, or has not quite often succumbed to its attraction.

Mauriac remains for me a great humanist, a great conscience, a loyal friend of my people. And I have quoted from these two articles only to confirm a thesis, namely, that Israel has needed to be defended for a long time.

Does this mean that I consider it my duty to plead the Jewish state’s cause unconditionally, and in every circumstance, even when its policies appear to transgress certain boundaries?

Question: Does a Diaspora Jew have the right to criticize what goes on in Israel? My answer is an unequivocal yes, on condition that this person has previously demonstrated his or her attachment to Israel. In other words, someone who has been on Israel’s side when it was at risk and alone has unquestionably the right, or even the duty, to say what is on his or her mind when Israel forgets its own ethical imperatives. But those who have never loved Israel, never uttered a word on its behalf, never spoken out in its defense, do not have this prerogative.

After the Gulf War, I asked a Jewish activist for peace in the Middle East whether he still believed that he did the right thing when he went to see Arafat in Tunisia. “Yes,” he replied, “after all, Moses went to see Pharaoh in Egypt.” His response made me smile. Arafat may well have thought of himself as Pharaoh. “The problem is,” I told my interlocutor, “you are not Moses.”

Does this mean that I do nothing without Jerusalem’s approval? Let’s say that I will do nothing that might harm Jerusalem. When I feel that I must raise my voice, I do it in Israel. During the Intifada, I told the Israeli authorities that I wished to meet with the Palestinians and went to Gaza. The government did not oppose it. The Palestinians I met were known to have ties to the PLO; one of them was close to Yasir Arafat. At that time I also met the young Israeli soldiers who were battling the rebellious Arab adolescents. I asked both sides direct questions about hate and its consequences, about the legitimacy and efficacy of violence. I then published my impressions in the New York Times. But I must confess that at that time, I did not tell everything I had learned. At one point, Israeli soldiers had used deplorable psychological punishments; they would catch one of the stone-throwing young Arabs, take him to his home, and … beat his father. By humiliating the father, they hoped to teach the son discipline and respect. True, this reprehensible method was used by only a small number of soldiers, and only briefly. Of course, I reported it, but not publicly. I should have. But I was ashamed.

When I discussed these deplorable incidents with military and political leaders, I was given to understand in no uncertain terms that, as a Jew from the Diaspora, I had better mind my own business.

Nonetheless, I declare openly that the collective punishments meted out routinely under both governments leave me aghast. The sight of an Arab house demolished by the army just because a young Palestinian has been caught carrying a weapon does not leave me indifferent. And I consider all fanatical groups dangerous and evil. Less than a week after the massacre of some thirty Palestinians as they prayed in the Patriarchs’ cave in Hebron, I voiced my outrage in a speech given before the European Council in Strasbourg.

There can be no justification for the murderous act of a religious man, a physician whose calling it was to save lives. What was it in Israel’s political climate that made this criminal act possible?

And what can one say about Yigal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin?

I think of the reproaches Israelis used to heap, and still do sometimes, on Diaspora Jews disinclined to make aliyah, to immigrate to Israel. Baruch Goldstein made aliyah. And Yigal Amir was born in Israel. And yet …

How often have I been on the receiving end of friendly and not-so-friendly advice to come and settle in Israel? There are those who resent my living in the Diaspora and “loving Israel from afar.” Since I have written on the Holocaust, they claim, I should have drawn the only possible conclusion and declared publicly that the place of every Jew, and especially of every Holocaust survivor, is in Israel. Had Israel existed in 1939, they say, there would have been no Holocaust. For them, Israel constitutes the unique answer to Auschwitz. For me, Auschwitz remains a question mark.

The real problem? I think it is one of human relations, first between Jews in Israel and then between Israelis and Diaspora Jews. I only realized this during the Gulf War and then again during the international conference titled “The Anatomy of Hate” that our foundation convened in 1990 together with Haifa University, on Mount Carmel. I remember flying home with a heavy heart, with an anxiety that has never left me.

I know that what I am about to say will displease many in Israel. There will be those who say: “Why is he meddling in our affairs? He doesn’t live here, he is not a citizen of our country. If he wants to be heard, to take part in our national debates, let him come and live among us, share our fears and our goals, our mistakes and our successes.”

Oh yes, I know the formula, having used it myself at times: A person who does not live Israel’s ordeals and challenges has no right to criticize its decisions. Never mind. I shall speak out, because the situation is too serious and the stakes too high for me to remain silent. An ancient philosopher said: When truth is in danger, silence equals guilt.

As for me, I may well be guilty of idealizing the land of Israel, which is now the State of Israel, a human laboratory of dreams and nostalgia that successfully turned itself into a structured and pragmatic nation. For many years, moved by a love older than I am, I have been going to Israel. Granted, it has always been as a visitor. I have delighted in walking through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, meeting colleagues and friends. I instantly felt at home in places I had never set foot in. For me, the people of Israel and the land of Israel were one and a Jew could be loyal to Israel even from outside its borders. I still believe that. But … what has changed? I’m not sure. I feel that the mood in the country is charged with rancor and hostility toward us, the Diaspora Jews. And let no one tell me that it was always so. Sure of their superiority, some Israelis’ attitude toward Diaspora Jews is that they, the Israelis, are entitled to everything. They demand money and then deride those who have collected and offered it.

Ezer Weizman, the former defense minister and proponent of peace with the Arabs, now president of Israel, once asked me publicly why I did not move to Israel. The only answer I could think of was: “What is more important for a Jew: to be a Jew or to be Israeli?” I was wrong; I should not have opposed “Jew” to “Israeli.” But as far as certain Israelis are concerned, one can be Jewish only in Israel. According to them, the most creative Jews in the Diaspora are less Jewish than a Jewish scoundrel in Tel Aviv.

So be it. I shall be a second-class Jew.

And so, while in times of crisis Israelis ask the Diaspora for support, as soon as they no longer feel threatened, their behavior changes abruptly. Some of their voices get too shrill; they get angry too fast. Among the more obtuse and egocentric commentators, lacking even a modicum of culture, there are a sculptor notorious for his vulgarity and a humorist known for his obscenity. They envy and hate us and each other. Such behavior may well occur in other countries, but in Israel it takes unusual proportions. The saying goes that it is impossible to meet someone who does not hate someone. The fanatic secularists hate the religious; the fanatic religious hate those who are less religious. The hate of one Jew for another sometimes seems greater than that reserved for enemies of the state. It is the main topic of magazines, newspapers, and radio. Political discourse is rarely on a high level; derision substitutes for humor, snickering for laughter, insults for wit. Malice replaces intelligence; rudeness covers subtlety. Debates are simplistic and reductive, discussions no longer about ideas but about material gains. And then there are the rumors. Nowhere else are they as vile, as poisonous. And they are everywhere. What is lacking is a sense of history. The debates in the Knesset often attain a frightening level of violence.

These feelings date from before the cowardly assassination of Rabin. I have lived in fear of the consequences of the hatred that has befallen the country for a long time.

True, other societies experience quarrels and antagonisms. The right to criticize, to oppose, to contradict, and even to denounce is the price of democracy. What would become of a political, economic, or literary system without rivalries? In civilized countries there are limitations to that right, but, for better or worse, Israel refuses limitations. Why, asks the Talmud, did God compare the people of Israel both to the stars and to dust? When Israel wants to attain the summits, none ascends as high; but when it allows itself to slide toward the abyss, it plunges to unprecedented lows.

How can I reconcile these images of Israel with the love I feel for it? I love Israel in times of joy and in times of mourning, in its hours of glory and in its periods of doubt and anguish. And when I feel saddened by it I think of Israel’s young people, who will soon be summoned by the army. I think of the dreamers in front of the Wall. I think of all those mothers and fathers who lost their sons in combat. In times of doubt it is their faces that represent the eternal image of Israel.

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