Sunday, July 3, 2016

Elie Wiesel, Israel, And The Politics of Trauma

The passing of Elie Wiesel yesterday at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the human family. A professor, author, Nobel Laureate, and activist, Wiesel challenged humanity to find light among the darkness. Elie Wiesel was not content to memorialize the past. He was determined use the lessons of the past to shape a brighter future.

While he was a voice for the downtrodden, Wiesel's views on Israel were not always "progressive." He was a staunch opponent of a divided Jerusalem, the Iran nuclear deal, and attempted to publish a controversial ad against Hamas' use of children as human shields. Such views have been the subject of critique on this blog. Yet Wiesel's views on Israel were similar to, if not more moderate than, many of his peers. They were certainly not more extreme than the views of the median Israeli. Even if one disagrees with these views, they were certainly not radical enough to overshadow his legacy of advocacy to better the human condition.

But this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where respect for the deceased is not more valuable than the opportunity to score points in a meaningless war of rhetorical attrition. Already, some have come forward to voice their opposition (to phrase it politely) to the sanctification of Wiesel on the basis of his political views. The level of cynicism in the conflict is too high to expect that an appeal to such a trite concept as basic human decency would make a difference to those who hasten to defame the dead. However, there are two further considerations that expose such attitudes for the danger that they are.

First, no camp in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a monopoly on human rights, justice, or morality. Attacking Wiesel because he belonged to a different political tribe is the height of arrogance. A willingness to claim to moral superiority over a Holocaust-surviving Nobel Laureate human rights activist takes a special brand of narcissism. If the seeming disconnect between Wiesel's principles and his policies is puzzling or disconcerting, it should prompt introspection and a willingness to consider how the same facts can underlie different political views. And as it turns out, it is also possible to criticize Wiesel's politics without being rude.

But more importantly, it is vital to consider the life experiences that shaped Wiesel's views. Given the extent of trauma Wiesel describes in his memoir Night, its role cannot be overlooked. Trauma is also important in national politics. For both Wiesel and for Israeli nationalism, the legacy of the Holocaust is trauma. This trauma shapes Israeli policy-making. While trauma can never excuse the abuse and violation of others, it can frame decisions governments make to engage in such behavior.

In this regard, there is an important parallel between disregarding Wiesel's personal trauma and disregarding Israel's national trauma. This national trauma comes from Israel's many wars as much as it comes from the Holocaust, but both sources affect policy-making there. The point is not that trauma justifies Israel's mistreatment of Palestinians, who themselves suffer from the national trauma of 1948 and 1967. Rather, it is that trauma shapes political calculations in Israel in observable ways. Ignoring the fact that trauma is at the heart of much of Israeli policy-making is a dangerous oversight that may perpetuate ineffective approaches to desperately-needed political change there.

Engaging with both Wiesel's legacy on Israel and Israel's politics more broadly requires acknowledging and accepting the validity of Holocaust trauma as a political context. Regarding Wiesel, this means considering his political views in the context of the crucible in which they were formed. One need not agree with Wiesel to respect the weight of his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and survivor of one of the worst genocides in human history. 

For Israel, serious engagement with national trauma is critical to improving a broken status quo. Tactics of isolation and antagonism may be less effective on nations with a history of trauma. BDS, isolation at the UN, and framing Israel as a rogue state may only serve to magnify the harmful impact of trauma on Israel's decision-making. Downplaying trauma or muddying the waters with arguments of moral relativism is the wrong approach to states suffering from national trauma. A better approach is to acknowledge the validity of the trauma, reassure nations (including the Palestinian nation) who suffer from it, and reinforce messages of just politics as national empowerment. Such an approach is not only more respectful, it is more effective in improving the collective human condition. It orients us toward a legacy of which Elie Wiesel could be proud.

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