Is Yours a Selective Morality?

Dear Dr. Weisel:

I’ve just read three of your most recently published books: the collection of essays, From the Kingdom of Memory ; the extended interview with Phillipe de Saint-Cheron, Evil and Exile; and your reprinted television dialogue with John Cardinal O’Connor, A Journey of Faith.

I found myself reacting with mixed emotions to these eloquent statements of your faith and your memory of the Holocaust. On one level, I was profoundly moved. You are able, both by your eloquence and by your intimate witness to the horrors of the Nazi atrocities, to convey a sense-a sense that I find wrenching and almost unbearable-of the Holocaust as human tragedy rather than simply as historical event.

Yet, on another level, I was left empty and deeply disappointed. I had a feeling of something incomplete, a sense that your morality is selective, encompassing Jews and, with a great and very genuine magnanimity, all other oppressed peoples, except Palestinians, the people in the world whose lives are most affected by Jews.

Justice or Realpolitik?

I find that with most people who count themselves firm friends of Israel it is impossible to discuss the Palestinian question in terms of justice and morality. Palestinians are assumed to be the party that has wreaked injustice on Jews, and so justice and morality are thought not to apply to them. Yet when these friends of Israel find themselves, as they do increasingly of late, on the defensive about the morality of Israeli treatment of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, their usual course is to resort to realpolitik. After all, they say, the world order is determined by force of arms, and questions of justice and morality do not enter in; Israel has the upper hand, it controls the land and the people, and the Palestinians must simply learn to live with this; Israelis are only defending themselves in any case.

This is an evasion. The tendency to speak about justice for Jews but to change the subject, or the ground rules, when the subject is justice for Palestinians is an attempt to avoid responsibility, an effort to treat Jews as more innocent, in some way better, than others, certainly than Palestinians, and this is unacceptable. Since you are probably the greatest moral spokesman for the Jewish people today, I think you, above all, must be able to treat justice as an ab9olute, a whole that cannot be applied to one people in greater measure than to another.

Although I spoke of reading your works on two levels, I don’t actually believe one can separate levels of justice and morality.

Morality is indivisible, as I’m sure you would agree, at least in the abstract. I’m therefore disturbed that, while you demand morality and justice for Jews, you do not demand these qualities of Jews in their treatment of Palestinians.

No Answers, Only Questions

You frequently say that there are no answers, only questions. Perhaps, then, rather than presuming to lecture you with my answers, I should pose questions. My first and most pressing is this:

How can you reconcile your repeated statements that “a mute conscience is a false conscience,” that the “opposite of love is not hate but indifference, “I with your indifference to the Palestinians’ situation, and your mute failure to speak out against injustices against Palestinians committed by Jews in the name of Jewish security and the preservation of a Jewish state?

Is it that Palestinians are less worthy than other peoples, or is it that because Jews have suffered they must be given more latitude than other peoples? You have said it is only natural that, because you are a Jew, “Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises” are your first concern. But can it be “natural” for Palestinians to accept that Jewish fears and Jewish crises supersede their own fears and crises? Do you consider it natural for Black South Africans, with whom you have expressed solidarity, to concede priority to White fears and crises? Does it not diminish your role as moral spokesman to give precedence to the needs of one people over those of another? Is it not hypocritical to expend more energy, as you do in Evil and Exile, lamenting the plight of Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinian children-and railing against the resulting damage to Israel’s image-than mourning the dead Palestinian children?

I have seen you quoted elsewhere as saying that you will not criticize the actions of the Israeli government because you are not in Israel. You do not know enough about Israeli practices in the occupied territories to criticize them, you say, because, not being in a position of power, you do not “possess all the information. Is this not the kind of mute conscience, the kind of indifference, that you condemn in other contexts? If armed soldiers shoot children to death, must you truly be in a position of power to be able to condemn the soldiers and the government that authorizes their action? Do you maintain this silence when the person in power is named Yasser Arafat or Saddam Hussain or Adolf Hitler?

Would you answer these questions by saying that Israelis are only responding to a threat to their existence and that Palestinians could have had the independence and statehood they now demand if they had, like the Zionist leadership in 1947 and 1948, accepted the partition of Palestine and agreed to live in peace alongside Israel? “Had Israel’s peace offer been accepted in 1948, ” you wrote once, “Jaffa and Lydda would be Palestinian today”.

I would respond to that with further questions. Is it not true that as far back as the 1930s the Zionist leaders discussed their intent to accept any partition of Palestine only as a temporary tactical step until Jewish forces could take all of the territory, as well as their desire to expel the Palestinian population? Is it not true that in March 1948, before any Arab armies invaded Palestine, Jewish forces developed a plan to secure the roads leading to Jewish settlements that lay outside the intended borders of the Jewish state, and in the process to destroy Arab villages lying in the way?

Is it not also true that the towns you mention-Lydda and Jaffa, as well as a great many others-were captured in offensive operations launched by Jewish/Israeli forces and that in many instances, including primarily Lydda, the civilian Palestinian inhabitants, literally hundreds of thousands of them, were forced out of their homes and out of their homeland at gunpoint?

The events cited above are detailed in many histories, but probably the most persuasive for a Jewish reader is the work of an Israeli historian, a mainstream Zionist, Benny Morris. His 1987 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 takes its evidence primarily from Israeli archival material. He finally debunks the old myth that Palestinians fled because they were ordered to do so by their Arab leaders.

These facts are important because they are the reasons Palestinians believe, and have believed for the better part of 70 years, that they have been oppressed by Jews. Historians disagree about whether the Zionist leadership had a well-laid-out plan to dispossess and expel the Palestinians. Palestinians, of course, believe they did, although in the end it doesn’t really matter whether the expulsion resulted from a formal plan or from ad hoc decisions taken during the 1948 war. The important fact is that dispossession and expulsion occurred, and on a massive scale, and as the result of actions and decisions taken by Jews acting on behalf of the whole Jewish nation in the course of establishing a Jewish state.

My point is that Israelis, although certainly no worse than any other people, have not, from the very beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, been innocent. Neither have Palestinians, but it distorts justice to deal with this conflict on the basis that Jews alone are the victimized, the threatened party. I truly cannot understand how anyone can possibly accept the dispossession of 750,000 Palestinians and the obliteration of almost 400 Palestinian villages-at a time when Zionism was seeking to establish a specifically Jewish state and a million Jews in need of housing and land were being moved into Israel-and conclude that Israelis are innocent of any responsibility.

Perhaps you believe that the Jews’ suffering in the Holocaust justified this early loss of Jewish/Israeli innocence, justified in fact anything that Jews subsequently did to secure themselves a national sanctuary in which Jews and only Jews would govern Jewish affairs. The Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua believes this. “The fact,” he says, “that [Jews] had no other alternative gave them the moral legitimacy to take a part of the Palestinian homeland.” But I would ask you how the Palestinians in 1948 could have considered this just, when Jews, who owned seven percent of the land and made up one third of the population, were given 55 percent of Palestine for a state? Even Yehoshua regards it as “both natural and understandable” that Palestinians acted as they did. Indeed, can anyone really fault the Palestinians for objecting when an international body, without any pretense of seeking a democratic vote, gave away more than half their land to a largely immigrant people whose suffering the Palestinians neither caused nor even knew very much about?

While you demand morality and justice for Jews, you do not demand these qualities of Jews in their treatment of Palestinians.

I believe in your good will, Dr. Weisel. A man who has the kind of feeling you do for oppressed peoples is a genuinely good man. My final question, then, is why do you not have this same feeling for the Palestinian people? A people is being crushed here, Dr. Weisel, as surely if not as brutally as Hitler tried to crush the Jewish people and for the same reason-not because of anything they have done, but simply for what they are. In fact, for what they are not: Jews were oppressed because they were not Aryan; Blacks are oppressed in South Africa because they are not White; Palestinians are oppressed because they are not Jews.

This is not merely a matter of how to deal in a humanitarian manner with destitute refugees. This is a people whose national and cultural distinctness is deliberately being destroyed, whose freedom is systematically denied. Can you let this happen without saying a word? Must they face actual extermination to win your consideration? Can you, as a man who has, quite rightly, placed himself in judgment over the Gentile world, abdicate the responsibilities of a judge when Jews are the accused?


1. Elie Wiesel, From the Kingdom of Memory: Reminiscences (New York: Summit Books, 1990).

2. Philipe-Michael de Saint-Cheron and Elie Wiesel, Evil and Exile, translated by Jon Rothschild (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1990).

3. Elie Wiesel and John Cardinal O’Connor, A Journey of Faith (New York: Donald 1. Fine, Inc., 1990).

4. Wiesel, From the Kingdom of Memory, p. 199.

5. Ibid., p. 174.

6. Ibid., p. 233.

7. De Saint-Chcron and Wiesel, Evil and Exile, pp. 144-145.

8. Interview with Dale V. Miller, Jewish Post & Opinion (November 19, 1982), cited in Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Boston: South End Press, 1983), p. 16.

9. Elie Wiesel, “A Mideast Peace-Is It Impossible?” The New York Times (June 23, 1988).

10. A.B. Yehoshua, “Judgement and Justice,” New Outlook July 1990), p. 20.

Kathleen Christison, a former political analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency, is the author of Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy (University of California Press, 1999).

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