Elie Wiesel has taken out full-page ads in The Washington Post and The New York Times in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to address both houses of Congress. In the ads, the Nobel laureate says he will attend Netanyahu’s appearance “on the catastrophic danger of a nuclear Iran.” He then asks President Barack Obama and others: “Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”
For nearly two generations, Wiesel, 86, has been the face and voice of Holocaust memory: soft-spoken, dignified but iron-willed; pained but unvanquished, a moral conscience — like a prophet from the land of the dead. He is the man who famously spoke with unmitigated moral conviction to President Ronald Reagan in 1985, before the president’s planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in West Germany, where 49 Waffen-SS soldiers are buried. His words were memorable and penetrating: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
So what do we make of Wiesel’s entry into the political debate surrounding Netanyahu’s planned address to Congress in the face of the tension the plan has created with the White House?
Liberal writer Peter Beinart was critical and wrote in Ha’aretz that Wiesel made two assertions in the ad that are accepted as common wisdom, but for which he failed to provide evidence — that the United States and Iran are on the verge of “a terrible deal” and that a nuclear Iran would likely mean “the annihilation and destruction of Israel.” Others argue that the confrontation over the speech was not necessary and express concern about making Israel a political rather than bipartisan issue.
Republicans and many Netanyahu supporters see things differently: Wiesel’s endorsement of Netanyahu’s address legitimizes its moral necessity. They argue that now is not the time to quibble over diplomatic niceties. They see Iran as a clear and present danger to Israel and the United States.
Thus, according to Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), who met with Netanyahu last week in Jerusalem, “[Netanyahu] is a Churchill. … He is trying to tell the world, particularly the United States, the grave threat we have in this adversary, and our president is Neville Chamberlain, who is in denial about even terrorism.”
There are good-faith, meaningful arguments on both sides of this debate. But it is largely a political dispute. Depending upon who you ask, Wiesel is either a principled voice joining in the fight against an existential threat to the State of Israel and the West or just another talking head in the political fray.
Perhaps that is the way it should be, for as Wiesel himself has taught us, no one is above criticism — certainly not an icon.