Death, it seems, resolves little, but only reaffirms both the grandeur and gaps of human life. We learn this again this week, after Elie Wiesel’s death, which, like his life, forces us to come to grips with how we must respond to profound issues of evil and suffering everywhere. Deeds like the Holocaust, other genocides in North America, Asia and Africa, slavery, and mass human suffering we witness today are measured in millions of helpless, exiled, and dying people at a time. They are so immense in their every scale—human pain and mortality, evil, cruelty—that we can never understand why they happen.
Elie Wiesel’s immense stature as a man of ideas, ethics, and courage made him a universal symbol of this terribly uneven struggle by mortal men and women who try unsuccessfully to understand the ways of their world, if not the cosmos itself. So it is fitting that his death should continue the global public discussion of the issues that shaped his life, including the gaps in it. The ultimate lesson of his life and death is not about him, but about the issues he raised, and those he avoided.
He probably would not be pleased to see so many analysis and commentaries, especially by Jews from different countries, juxtaposing two dimensions of his life that are measured in very different scales. One was his immense moral fortitude on human evil and suffering, especially the unique Jewish experience of genocide that shaped his own life; another was the smaller, single blind spot he had for the suffering of the Palestinians mostly at the hands of Jewish and Christian Zionists. We should ideally continue this discussion of Wiesel’s strengths and weaknesses by affirming the moral standards he promoted globally, as he expressed in his own words during his Nobel Prize Award ceremony in 1986: “Never to be silent whenever, wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.”
So his conspicuous inability to seriously acknowledge the suffering, humiliation, and inter-generational pain that Zionism, the state of Israel, and Jewish political and military groups had inflicted on the Palestinian people now screams out as the exception to his universal determination to expose and oppose human suffering and humiliation. It may be understandable why he did this, because his commitment to the safety and national affirmation of Jewish life was clearly superior to any parallel acknowledgment that the Palestinian Arabs in that same land had the same right. It may well be understandable also in view of both the magnitude of the Holocaust he survived and his status as a mortal with imperfections, like the rest of us. But being understandable does not exempt it from being a moral gap in his life.
Perhaps it is asking too much for a Holocaust survivor to empathize with Palestinians, acknowledge their pain and the wrongs that Zionists and Jews did to them, and rectify those wrongs through political action. I do not think so, though, because hundreds of thousands, perhaps a few million, Jews and Israelis do sincerely express the need for Israel and Zionism to come to terms with the suffering, death, exile, occupation, and continuing humiliation, pain, and vulnerability they have inflicted on Palestinians. Judaism and justice are not only supremely compatible, as Jews have demonstrated for millennia across the world; there are strong arguments to be made that Judaism’s central mission among human beings—since the days of Moses—is to spread the ethic of justice as being pivotal to decent human society.
In our world today, where Elie Wiesel lived his last years, many Jews, Zionists and Israelis struggle ironically with a new pain: around much of the world today, Israel is often mentioned in parallel with Apartheid South Africa, and sanctioned accordingly, due to its harsh treatment of Palestinians living under its occupation, as second class citizens within Israel, or as refugees in exile. I am sure he suffered because of this association of Israel with Apartheid. I am also sure his suffering has been nowhere as intense as the physical and emotional pain and death that Palestinians experience due to Israeli policies.
So his departure from this world should remind us to do two things that defined his life: We must honor his great legacy of moral courage and witness against evil and suffering at the hands of men and women; and, we must strive more diligently to ensure that our compassion, unlike his, is genuinely universal, without any gaps. God’s command to humankind, after all, was for each and every one of us to challenge oppression by others in the world, but also to examine if our own deeds meet the high and universal standards of justice.
We can honor Wiesel’s remarkable life by promoting justice and challenging oppression everywhere they occur—even under our own feet—which he was unable to do. That great struggle persists, thanks in part to his enduring contributions.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global