January 27 is the UN designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the Nazi death camp Auschwitz was liberated. Two Jewish men, who had survived months in that hell, finally tasted freedom that day, and went on to teach the world the lessons of the Holocaust.
These men moved on to become authors and speakers; both are intelligent, thoughtful, and well-spoken, yet have arrived at very different conclusions about what the lessons of the Holocaust actually are.
This enigma has puzzled me for years: how can two people with such similar backgrounds and experiences come away with such different viewpoints? What could explain the differences in their views?
In the case of Elie Wiesel, the paragon of human rights champion, who protested against South African Apartheid, delivered food to starving Cambodians, and said that although the world knew what was happening in the Nazi concentration camps people did nothing. “That is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” Yet when it comes to Palestinians he can’t quite see their suffering and humiliation. He has encouraged silence about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. He repeats the denial myths about the origins of the Palestinian refugees and the ongoing ethnic cleansing, and he claims that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is “humane,” despite abundant evidence of the opposite.
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In contrast, Hajo Meyer, after being interned for about the same amount of time in Auschwitz, and becoming a physicist, a violinist, and author, speaks out against the ethnic-based laws, arbitrary arrests and torture, confiscation of land, home demolitions, and denials of human rights, which are occurring at an ever increasing pace in Israel and the Occupied Territories. He finds similarities between the repressive regime that Israel has become and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, before the Final Solution, when Nazis wanted just to “transfer” the Jews out of the Reich. For a man in his 80s, he works tirelessly, writing and speaking against the misuse of the Holocaust as a justification for the oppression of the Palestinians.
For Dr. Meyer, the core value of Judaism is “the equality of relationships among human beings,” a value that is being violated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, hence the name of his book, The End of Judaism: an Ethnical Tradition Betrayed.
American media disappoints in their coverage of the Palestine/Israel issue. Marda Dunsky wrote an excellent study of the coverage in her Pens and Swords (2007), in which she analyzes some of the reasons that the American press is heavily biased in favor of Israel. Generally, European media have covered the issue better than American media, so it may be tempting to say that Hajo Meyer, a citizen of the Netherlands, is better informed than Elie Wiesel, a citizen of the U.S. But the lack of balanced coverage of the Israel/Palestine issue in the U.S. cannot completely account for the differences in Meyer’s and Wiesel’s perspectives.
Persistence of Misperceptions
Facts presented to counter misinformation are often counterproductive in changing a person’s viewpoint, said a study by Brendan Nyhan in his “When Corrections Fail: the Persistence of Political Misperceptions” (Political Behavior, 2010). People will often hold on tighter to a misconception when presented with facts. As an American Jew, I see that most American Jews refuse to acknowledge that the country that they believe is their homeland is oppressing and abusing the human rights of Palestinians, even when they are shown irrefutable evidence, and even when they see the situation with their own eyes.
Many American Jews feel that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state gives them the security that when the next Holocaust comes, they will have a refuge. On this topic, Meyer says the Holocaust is being manipulated. The Israeli government “manipulate[s] the Holocaust for their political aims. In the long-run the country is destructing itself this way by inducing their Jewish citizens to become paranoid,” he said in a 2009 interview with Electronic Intifada. It is not only the Jewish Israelis who become paranoid.
The question I pose then is why, given the biased media, the fact that some people cling to misperceptions regardless of seeing the facts, and the misuse of the Holocaust to make Jews feel threatened, do some people work towards justice for everyone, Palestinians included? What makes Hajo Meyer different from Elie Wiesel?
Perhaps Dr. Meyer will shed some light on this puzzle when he speaks February 8 at 7:00 pm in the John B. Davis Lecture Hall at Macalester College on the topic “Never Again for Anyone.” For more information, go to http://www.neveragainforanyone.com.