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The complex character of Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

The normally thoughtful writer Ron Rosenbaum recently wrote a thoughtless 7,530-word hit piece blasting Elie Wiesel. Tablet magazine posted it the day before what would have been Wiesel’s 89th birthday – he was born on Sept. 30, 1928. The article, titled “Elie Wiesel’s Secret,” claimed that “a little-known Yiddish manuscript upends our idea of the secular saint of human suffering.” The article upended my respect for Rosenbaum, while the manuscript confirmed my reverence for my former professor, Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel’s legacy speaks for itself. Neither in life, nor in death, would he need the likes of me to refute the ugly insults Rosenbaum spewed: calling him “a golem of grief sitting endless shiva on our behalf,” someone “more well known as a celebrity than for his thinking” and the “Johnny Cash of the death camps.”

It is important, however, to refute Rosenbaum’s substantive attack. The article cites an earlier, angrier, rawer version of Wiesel’s memoir, Night. Acting as if every book arrives by immaculate conception with no discards or revisions, Rosenbaum claims that Wiesel prettified and Christianized the book, in order to popularize it. He accuses Wiesel of going Jesus on the Jewish People, becoming a “kind of anesthetic buffer for the pain of the Holocaust” by forgiving and understanding. All Rosenbaum sees is “the Wiesel of accommodation, when perhaps what we needed more at times was the Elie Wiesel of anger.”

In truth, Professor Wiesel eschewed hate, but not anger. In a 1991 Bill Moyers interview, Wiesel explained: “hatred is not only destructive, it is self-destructive.” Hatred is irrational, all-consuming, uncontrollable. Anger, Wiesel taught, could be wielded effectively.

I heard Wiesel speak in Montreal during the peak of Palestinian terror attacks against innocent Israelis. He said that “sometimes anger is a rational response. Anger against terrorism is the rational response.”

Wiesel was angry – “terribly angry” – with the West, “the liberals” and “the allies,” former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and former British prime minister Winston Churchill, for not warning the Jews about the Nazi death machine, because “nobody cared to tell us.”


Wiesel was angry in 1975, when the United Nations falsely accused Zionism of being racist. “I have never belonged to a political organization,” he wrote in Le Figaro. “But faced with the anti-Zionist attacks by those who corrupt language and poison memory, I have no choice but to consider myself a Zionist” – a label he wore “as a badge of honour.”

Wiesel was also angry in 1985, when he confronted a popular American president in the White House, demanding – not begging – that Ronald Reagan boycott a German military cemetery in Bitburg that contained SS graves. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel declared. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

Wiesel was again angry in 1993, when he chastised another popular president, Bill Clinton, during the opening of the U.S. Holocaust museum, for doing nothing to stop the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia.

Wiesel stood up repeatedly, angrily and constructively to combat South African apartheid, Cambodian genocide, the targeting of Rwanda’s Tutsis, the slaughter in Darfur and the suffering in Syria.

Rosenbaum tries to make Wiesel a Johnny-one-note (or Jesus-one-note). Yet Wiesel’s rich range of emotions swept us up in the cyclone of sadness, grief, anger, self-doubt and pride that the Holocaust evokes – even while offering some clarity. And Wiesel’s inner Chassid came out repeatedly in his love of Jewish stories, Jewish ritual, Jewish song and the Lubavitch rebbe.

Of course, it’s easier to lock Wiesel in a box as the saint of sadness. It’s fun for a writer to build himself up by trying to knock this giant down. But Wiesel was too complex to be so caricatured. Elie Wiesel helped move us beyond paralyzing hatred, toward an angry activism, a suitable sadness and a characteristically Jewish joy, which healed, ennobled and inspired Jews and non-Jews alike.

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