SINCE THE TRAGEDY of Sept. 11, I have found myself becoming increasingly uneasy with the tenor of public discourse relating to Judaism and Israel, andless obviously but more particularlythe anti-Semitic speech roaring through the commercial media. Sojourners is to be numbered among those in the media espousing a subtle but very obvious anti-Semitism, clothed in the more palatable attire of disaffection with the policies and practices of the current government of Israel. I am hopeful that the editors, staff, and readers of Sojourners will engage in some sincere soul searching regarding their attitude toward Israel and Judaism.
In that vein, I must take issue with a review by Danny Duncan Collum of the book Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership by Mark Chmiel ("Culture Watch" November-December 2001). I teach in the religious studies department of a local university, and I have had the good fortune and pleasure to meet Wiesel at several conferences and lectures. I consider him to be an authentic voice of moral conscience, and his is a story that should chasten and inspire us all. Imagine my amazement that your reviewer should posit a book that will ask whether Wiesel "measures up as a moral prophet against mass suffering and mass murder in the 20th century." Collum finds satisfaction in the authors complaint that Wiesel has not advocated enough for all victims of the world. What absolute nonsense. Since when does Elie Wieselor any Holocaust survivorhave to answer to anyone for anything? He has not advocated enough? Just the fact that Elie Wiesel continues to speak, lecture, write, and reflect is gift enough for our wearied and facile moral understanding.
Collums final statement, that Chmiels book "is a useful reflection on the politics of victimhood" is as unjust as it is reprehensible. To claim, especially at this time, that Wiesel has become an opportunistic poseur, exploiting his past, is to revile a man who has spent his life attempting to teach us the bitter ugliness and the resplendent beauty of the human condition. The fact that he does notor cannotcriticize Israel or defend the Palestinians to the satisfaction of two American academics is a concern that seems to me to have a much darker implication, one that surely is not worthy of the author, the reviewer, or Sojourners.
Danny Duncan Collum responds:
While I summarized Chmiels argument accurately, his argument is much more nuanced and subtle than would be possible to capture in a 300-word blurb. Neither Chmiel in his book, nor I in my review, ever questioned the horror of Weisels experience or the fact that such an experience gives him moral authority on the subject of suffering and injustice. Furthermore, Chmiel devotes a whole section of his book to recounting the role Weisel played in "rescuing" the Holocaust from the silence of the West and the lies of the East. Weisel deserved his Nobel Prize for that contribution alone. Also, neither Chmiel in his book, nor I in my review, put upon Weisel the responsibility to speak for all persecuted people everywhere. He took that upon himself and has advocated it as the vocation of the Holocaust survivor. In so doing, he leaves himself open to questions about blind spots. Perhaps my review should have been 500 words, so I could have mentioned those things. Would it have made a difference? I hope you will read Chmiels book. It is no hatchet job.