Thursday, October 26, 2017

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

A woman named Jenny Listman wrote a blog post accusing recently deceased Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel of touching her inappropriately at a public event 28 years ago, when she was 19. Today when the subject of sexual harassment of women is “trending,”  it created a furor, raising multiple issues: was her accusation true, and if so was it appropriate for her to make it public after Wiesel’s death when he could not respond? Was it ethical for her to air an accusation for which there could be no evidence except her own word? If true, did the allegation diminish Wiesel’s moral authority? 

The Jewish Daily Forward published a story about Listman’s accusation. Almost immediately it was met with a firestorm of criticism and withdrawn, with an apology that it did not meet their “journalistic standards.” (My immediate reaction: the folks that published the cartoons of Eli Valley for years have standards?) But they made the legitimate point that they could not verify her story.

My own feeling is that her account rings true. And after consideration, I think she was not wrong in making it public.

28 years after the incident, the only evidence that exists is Listman’s testimony. There is no way to corroborate or falsify her account today. But there is also no moral requirement that Listman must have other evidence besides her memories before she tells her story. Her experience, if she is telling the truth, is something that she knows firsthand. Her position is different from that of a journalist, who is obliged to verify the accounts of external sources. So the Forward’s withdrawal of the article does not imply that she should not have published it herself – and certainly does not imply, as some social media commentators have said, that she lied or was otherwise culpable.

Many have also said that she had no right to make the accusation after Wiesel was dead and not able to defend himself. But suppose he were alive and denied it. How would his denial change anything? It would still be “she said, he said.” It is considered dishonorable to bring a charge after its target is dead, but in this case it has no practical significance. Who knows, maybe he would have admitted it and apologized.

The reason the case has created so much controversy, of course, is that it was Elie Wiesel and not a random construction worker that allegedly placed his hand on her right buttock and squeezed. It was Nobel laureate Wiesel, the LA Times’ “most important Jew in America,” a man who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and, by his books and other activities arguably did more to bring the Holocaust into public consciousness than any other individual. He made it personal: six million is a number, but Elie Wiesel was a boy whose family was murdered almost in front of his eyes.

Some say that by accusing Wiesel of behavior that is morally reprehensible, Listman has cast doubt on everything that he has said and done. His legacy will forever be that of a sexual harasser rather than a moral exemplar. 

I doubt this. Wiesel was a human being, like Washington, Jefferson, JFK and others who have been criticized on moral grounds. He was also a celebrity, with all the distortion of one’s own importance that comes with that. Wiesel was a man of a different time (even if by 1989 he should have known better). None of this excuses his alleged behavior, but that behavior is irrelevant to power of his testimony and his accomplishments.

Listman’s supporters argue that abuse of women is so common as to be invisible, they have had enough, and the way to stop it is to expose it, even if – especially if – the perpetrator is powerful or a celebrity. This strikes me as not unreasonable, as long as key distinctions – like the ones between verbal and physical harassment, and between butt pats and rape or murder are not blurred. Not everything is “violence,” and some harassment is worse than others. I think she would agree with me on this.

Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of Wiesel. What he suffered and what he witnessed were real, and especially in his memoir, Night, he raised awareness of the true monstrousness of the Holocaust, the degree of evil inherent in its perpetrators. Later, he opposed the trend in some eastern European countries of whitewashing their own cooperation with the Nazis. He supported oppressed peoples, but he had no illusions about which side was right in the conflicts surrounding Israel, and spoke out in her favor. He did humanity a great service, and he justly received the Nobel Prize and countless other honors.

But being a celebrity can have deleterious effects on a person, as has been demonstrated countless times by famous musicians, actors, writers and politicians. All the adulation, the admirers surrounding him and telling him over and over how great he is, make the celebrity think that possibly he really is above the rest, and that what is forbidden to ordinary people is permitted to him.

Elie Wiesel was a celebrity, and he loved it. He loved being invited to the White House, being knighted by the Queen, and visiting Buchenwald with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel.  He loved it too much, and in his excessive self-regard, he allowed himself to be used. Honoring Wiesel was a way of washing the blood off of the hands of the international community that had either killed Jews or closed its eyes during the Holocaust. And it was a way for those like Barack Obama and European leaders to distract attention from their present-day anti-Jewish policies.

Wiesel kept the Holocaust in everyone’s consciousness, which was a good thing and a bad thing. It was good because, at least for a time, it made Jew-hatred unpopular. It was bad because it provided a safe way for those who opposed the Jewish people’s right of self-determination to nevertheless feel good about themselves; and in a phrase that has recently caught on, to virtue-signal. Left-wing Americans who support organizations like J Street that are in practice anti-Israel, or even those that favor BDS, a program that explicitly calls for the end of the Jewish state, can get teary-eyed contemplating the dead Jews of 70 years ago, while favoring Palestinians over the living ones of today.

I found the social media response particularly interesting. The emotional content of posts by Listman’s supporters, most of them women who had experienced some form of harassment themselves, was strong. But the negative ones (by both men and women) were even more vehement. On Facebook, she was called a liar, a fraud, a “crackpot” and a “mental case,” accused of cynically seeking publicity for herself by attacking a great man, and worse. 

Some of the strongest reactions against Ms Listman come from Jews whose primary connection with the Jewish people seems to be the Holocaust. They are neither observant Jews nor politically active Zionists (discussing this phenomenon, Arthur Hertzberg once said that their knowledge of Judaism is in inverse proportion to their degree of Holocaust-obsession). Their Jewishness seems to be expressed primarily by studying about and commemorating the Holocaust, through literature, movies and various memorials and events. Their prophet was Elie Wiesel, and criticism of him cuts to the heart of their belief systems.

At the end of the day, I think that this controversy is unimportant. Elie Wiesel the celebrity may have acted badly, as celebrities do when their celebrity goes to their head, which I think is what happened. His accomplishments aren’t diminished by his mistakes, which were less significant. I also believe that Jenny Listman did the right thing by making her story, which I believe, public. The continual barrage of harassment which women face day in and day out is real, and the announcement that they are “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” is legitimate and should be honored – even by the famous or powerful.

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