For more than 20 years, Elie Wiesel has been America's official bearer of memory, keeper of accounts, and arbiter of propriety regarding the Holocaust. In the 1960s and '70s, Wiesel published memoir, fiction, and polemic aimed at holding up the reality of mass annihilation before a world that might have preferred to move on. In 1978, Wiesel was chosen by President Jimmy Carter to chair the Commission on the Holocaust, which resulted in the museum that now sits on the Washington, D.C. Mall. In 1986, Wiesel's status was sealed when he received the secular beatification of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel's message about the Holocaust has always been a two-edged sword. One side holds that the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish event, and one unique in all of human history. At the same time, Wiesel has insisted that the revelation of human evil that took place in Europe in the 1940s places upon us a special obligation to stand up in defense of the persecuted wherever they are found.
It's on this latter point that Mark Chmiel focuses in his reading of Wiesel's publications and speeches. How, he asks, does Wiesel measure up as an avowedly "non-political" moral prophet against mass suffering and murder in the latter 20th century? Chmiel finds that Wiesel has done well at speaking up for those he calls "worthy victims." These are the people whose "victimhood" is honored by the powers that be-Soviet Jews, Miskito Indians in Nicaragua, etc. The author also finds in Wiesel's record a few heartfelt nods to "unworthy victims" of U.S. power, such as Guatemalan refugees. But Chmiel also finds a vast silence on many other cases-such as the genocide of East Timor-where Wiesel's adopted country (the United States) directly funded and approved mass slaughter. On the question of Palestinian suffering, Wiesel is, by his own admission, silent. He won't criticize Israel from outside Israel, he says. But Chmiel finds no evidence that Wiesel has spoken up inside Israel either.
In the end, Chmiel's book is a useful reflection on the politics of victimhood and a caution against moral leaders who would clean up every backyard but their own.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Mississippi.