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An Open Letter to Elie Wiesel

Dear Elie,

You and I met almost half a lifetime ago, in the late 1950s, when you had just written your first book, Night, and I had just finished my own first book, The Zionist Idea. In those days very few people in America were much interested in either the Holocaust or in Zionist ideology, and so we established a comradeship of the ignored. Much more important, we were among the few who still spoke Yiddish, as we continue to do when we meet, for neither of us can let go of the world of our childhood.

You will remember what I told you when you asked about my own family. My mother and her children were the only survivors of her family. Her father, all of her brothers and sisters, and all of their children were murdered in Poland. On the eve of Yom Kippur, in 1946, when it was certain that all were dead, my mother lit thirty-seven candles in their memory. I entered your life, so you told me, because I carried with me, then and to this day, the guilt of my good fortune, for my parents emigrated from Poland in the mid 1920s and brought me to the United States as a child; I was spared what you suffered and what you saw. We are, both of us, part of what is left of the Hasidic communities of your birthplace in Vishnitz and of mine in Lúbaczów. What have we learned from the murder of our families? How must we live with their memory? You and I read and reread the Bible and Talmud: What do the sacred texts command us to think, to feel, and to do?

Many Jews are deeply troubled these days by Israel’s behavior in response to the intifadah, the uprising of the Palestinians against their occupation by Israel. Both in Israel and in the Diaspora many—you and I among them—have been expressing our deep distress in public (and some even more so in private) over the rocks and firebombs hurled by Palestinians and the beatings and shootings by Israelis. You have expressed sympathy for the “anger of young Palestinians,” writing that the Palestinians are “treated as nonpersons,” as “objects of pity, at best.” “Why,” you say, “shouldn’t they have chosen violence as a means of attracting attention to their existence and their dreams of obtaining a national identity?” (The New York Times, June 23, 1988). You have deplored “the extremists in both camps.”

I know of no one in the Jewish community who would not agree with your appeal to the Palestinians to “stop using stones and start using words.” But you do not accompany such an assertion with an appeal to the Israelis to do anything at all—in particular to move away from the policy of repression and toward negotiation. In those of your statements that I have seen, you seem to have avoided saying anything about the content of Israel’s policies. In a speech in Washington on March 13, after saying that American Jews behave “appropriately” when they question actions by Israel, you quickly added that “I am afraid of splitting the Jewish community with regard to Israel.” How appropriate are the questioners, in your view, if their questions “split” the community and thus, so you clearly imply, do harm to Israel? You have reduced the political questions before Israel to all-or-nothing choices. You condemn the “right-wing Israeli fanatics” for the “disgraceful suggestion” of transferring all the Palestinians immediately to Jordan; you are equally critical of “some liberals who are ready to give up all the territories immediately,” for there is, in your view, no one to whom to give them. Thus you are able to throw up your hands, as you have done repeatedly in interviews and statements since January, and say, “What are we to do?”

The effect of what you have been saying is this: the present situation is deplorable, and Israel has even behaved badly on occasion, but for Jews abroad to say so is less an act of conscience than a sign of weakening resolve. All of the currently discussed political choices, from “territories for peace,” the policy of both the Labor party and the US administration, to movement toward a demilitarized Palestinian state (which at least some Palestinian leaders are willing to discuss in public), you do not mention. For all the nuances in your statements, and the distress that you feel as a Jew and as a moral human being, your position amounts to an elegant defense of the Likud hard line. When it comes to policy, you have said little that Yitzhak Shamir could not countersign. When you refer to opposition to Israeli policy you simply ignore the measured criticism that comes from the moderate half of Israel and you refer mainly to “malicious attacks,” and to “left-wing Jews who oppose Israel or its recent policies.”

I have looked in your statements that deplore the “extremists in both camps” for a definition of who these extremists are, and I have found many paragraphs about Arabs who practice terrorism. You have even quoted from a Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who has “recently stirred up angry passions in Israel” with a poem that has been read as demanding that all the Jews get out and leave Palestine, including Haifa and Tel Aviv, to the Arabs. These passages of yours seem to require some balancing comments. You know of the incantations by Meir Kahane and his followers in which the Jews are commanded to expel Muslims and Christians from the Holy Land. That a former chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, called the Palestinians “drugged cockroaches” has, surely, not escaped your attention. I wonder whether you, and I, would have been silent if a Russian general had uttered a comparable slur about Jews demonstrating in Red Square. You know that the prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, has been saying that he will not return a single inch of the West Bank to Arab sovereignty; he has thus stalled even the beginnings of negotiation.

A basic premise of your position is that “Israel is the only country that feels its existence threatened.” This, too, is a staple argument of Israel’s hard-liners; because Israel feels endangered, it must use force to protect itself, even if the excesses of this force are sometimes deplorable. The same rhetoric is often used by the Likud and the parties to the right of it, in order to excuse intransigence. On this issue, Israel’s moderates take a different view. Abba Eban knows as much about Israel’s strategic position in the region as anyone else, not least because he serves as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of Israel’s Knesset. Speaking last March in Jerusalem to a meeting of the New Israel Fund, Eban said:

We have reached a point at which we can say that Israel has never been stronger in power and in quantitative measure. Never has Israel been less existentially threatened. Never has Israel been more secure against external assault and never more vulnerable to domestic folly. The major perils that now face us come from within ourselves. And they would emerge from the stupendous folly of attempting to enforce a permanent Israeli jurisdiction over the one and a half million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Eban went on to argue—and he has said this repeatedly since, in speeches both in Israel and in the United States—that all who care about Israel will help her best by uttering the very criticisms that you, Elie, do not acknowledge.

You have suggested that some of the Jewish critics of Israel’s conduct, and especially those who live outside the state, are “intellectuals who had never done anything for Israel but now shamelessly use their Jewishness to justify their attacks against Israel.” This may be true of a few, but is that all that you, who have been morally so sensitive, have heard in the outcries of Israel’s critics? You have found no place, so far, in any of your writings or statements that I have seen to suggest that there are Jews in the world who have been devoted to Israel for many years and who have expressed outrage at such actions as dynamiting houses in the Arab village of Beta. Some of these villagers had tried to protect a group of Jewish teen-agers who were on a hike against stone throwers. In the melee a girl was shot by accident by one of the group’s Jewish guards. The army then blew up fourteen houses in the village. According to accounts in the Israeli press, this was done not to punish anyone who was guilty but to appease the angry hard-line settlers in the West Bank. You were not among those who said anything in public after this and all too many other such incidents. Are such figures in the Diaspora as Sir Isaiah Berlin, Philip Klutznick, Henry Rosovsky, and the president of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm, and hundreds of others like them, who have spoken up in criticism of actions that they could not countenance, simply to be written off as people whose public statements endanger Jewish unity?

No one says,” you write, that Israel should “be above criticism.” Yet when you refer to public criticism you mainly warn of the “risk” it poses to Israel. But the view of many Israelis who have fought for their country is different. Are the reserve generals and colonels of Israel, more than 130 of them, who have launched a public campaign for territorial compromise to be discredited because they are pointedly critical of the occupation of the West Bank? They keep saying that only compromise can end the conflict, and that repression is unworkable. Four of these generals have recently been on tour in the United States, to enlist support for such views among all those who care about Israel. Is it a betrayal of Israel to take seriously what these men say?

As you know better than anyone else, silence is a form of interference. In all your writings you have insisted that no one has the right to be silent in the face of injustice, any injustice. Those who throw up their hands and who, to use your own recent words about Israel, can say no more than that they “would like to believe in miracles” appear to have abdicated responsibility. This seems all the more an abdication now, because there is no authoritative demand from Israel that the Jews of the Diaspora be silent. On the contrary, the leaders who speak for the more moderate half of Israel have been saying over and over again that it is perfectly legitimate for Jews who care to speak their minds.

On May 18, Shimon Peres made the point unmistakably when he spoke to the leaders of the Jewish establishment organizations in New York: “Whoever wants can be involved. We are a free people.” He made it clear beyond any doubt that dissent and criticism do not in any way weaken one’s commitment to Israel. Nor has the half of Israel that is led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir really asked the Jews of the Diaspora to leave decisions to Israel. The most effective device of these hard-liners has been to suggest that any criticism of their position is a self-hating assault on the state when such criticism is uttered by Jews, and that it is a form of anti-Semitism when it is spoken by non-Jews. This strategy is used in Israel itself. The Likud likes to call itself the “national camp”; it insists that moderates are not sufficiently patriotic, that they are enemies of the Jewish people. You, Elie, do not believe such canards. But I must ask: Are you not lending aid and comfort to this view?

To your repeated question “What are we to do?” there are two orders of answer: political and moral. If, as you have written, “self-determination is a sacred principle,” one that you believe should apply to the Palestinians, then how and where is it to express itself? If the Palestinians were to take the step that you have suggested of choosing to talk rather than throw rocks or Molotov cocktails, are they to leave the West Bank and go to Jordan? But you have ruled out, on moral grounds, the forced transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank to the East Bank. On your own premises, Palestinian nationalism and self-determination require from the Israeli-Jewish side a counterstatement that the two peoples involved will finally enact peaceful partition, that Jews will agree that Palestinians have a right to a territorial base for their national life. It is this principle that your own statements make unavoidable—but you have avoided it. I cannot help thinking that you know, at least as well as I, that there are rhetoricians in the mainstream of Israel’s right wing who manage to find ways of asserting that they will give the Palestinians very limited local autonomy (this they now call national rights) while retaining control of land, water, and everything else that matters in the West Bank. “What is Israel to do?” It must accept the principle of partition—but to say this is to put oneself on the side of Israel’s moderates and to break one’s ties to the Likud.

Morally, Jewish tradition commands us to act justly, especially when actions seem imprudent and embarrassing, and never to be silent, even to protect Jewish unity. This Jewish morality has taken one form, recurrently, throughout the ages. Even in bad times, when Jews were under fierce attack, their moral teachers gave no exceptions. The prophets knew that Assyria and Babylonia were far more wicked than Judea, but they held Judea to account, even as the Assyrians and the Babylonians were advancing. “Only you have I known among all the nations of the world; therefore I will hold you to account for all your sins.”

There were other voices in the days of the prophets. The prophets Amos, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and all the rest, were opposed, generation after generation, by prophets who belonged to the royal courts, who assured the king that his conduct was beyond reproach. The biblical prophets were harassed as traitors who weakened the resolve of a small people—but it is their “treason,” and not the prudence of the court prophets, that is our unique Jewish tradition. While the official soothsayers denounced the enemies of the king, the prophets whom we revere followed after Nathan, who dared to confront King David with murdering Uriah and stealing his wife. Nathan defended this Hittite stranger against a divinely appointed Jewish king: “You are the man,” he said to David: you are morally responsible.

In the memory of the Holocaust we have been reminded by you that silence is a sin. You have spoken out against indifference and injustice. Why are you making a special exception of Israel? Do you think that our silence will help Israel? The texts that we study and restudy teach the contrary. “Israel will be redeemed by righteousness, and those who return to it, by acts of loving kindness.” To be silent is an act of misplaced love. Such silence gives free reign to the armed zealots of ages past, and of this day. Several times in our history, armed zealots have led the Jewish people to glorious disasters. Encouragement by silence, of the kind some of the rabbis gave the zealots when they declared war on Rome in the first century, has a long history of being tragically wrong. We dare not repeat this mistake.

The excesses of the zealots may succeed today, briefly, as they succeeded for a moment several times before, but such excesses are likely to lead again to disaster. Teachers of morality must not indulge the zealots of today, and not only because zealotry does not work. To suppress the weak because of our own supposed weakness is against the very essence of our tradition. When we were a group of hunted former slaves in the desert, Moses proclaimed, as divine teaching, that we should not oppress strangers, for we had been oppressed as strangers in the land of Egypt. This injunction is unconditional.

We should both be haunted by one recent image. Several days after the incident in Beta, an Israeli patrol tried to stop some Arab youths to question them. The youths were unarmed; they had not been throwing rocks, and they were guilty of nothing except not wanting to be interrogated. These young men were fired on, and one was killed. Now I know, as you do, about the dangers for Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza. I have nieces in Israel’s army, and I have said to them that their moral obligation does not include allowing themselves to be slaughtered. But killing those who are simply unwilling to be questioned is another matter entirely. How can we be silent?

I agree with you that ahavat Yisrael, the love of the Jewish people, is a great virtue, but I can find little trace in all the Jewish texts through the centuries that this love must be uncritical. Even Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, the eighteenth-century Hasid who wrote in defense of the conduct of the Jews, was not silent about their misdeeds. He accepted the moral responsibility to lead. “Love can bend a straight line”: it can mislead the lover, so that, with the highest motives, he does grave injury to his beloved. You, Elie, care far too much about the Jewish people, and about Israel, to indulge falls from grace and, de facto, to lend comfort to zealots. If you are persuaded that the policies of the Likud are right, say so, but, in fairness, cease treating so dismissively the political and moral views of the many moderate Jews who reject the politics and morality of the hard line.

I keep thinking these days of the saying that both of us have quoted many times, and sometimes at each other, especially in those early years when we were closest. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, the tortured Hasid of the last century, once said that when the Evil One wants to destroy us, he tempts us not through our wicked desires but through our most virtuous inclinations; we do good deeds at the wrong time, with the wrong intensity, and in a setting in which they do devastating harm. I fear that for all your love of Israel, you, in what you say, sometimes risk falling into the moral trap that Menachem Mendel described.

You belong among those who speak the truth, even to Jewish power, and who do not look away because of real or invented Jewish weakness. We show the truest love of Israel and the Jewish people when we remind ourselves that, in strength or in weakness, we survive not by prudence and not by power, but through justice.

Your friend,

Arthur Hertzberg

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