Conclusion to “Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership”

by Mark Chmiel

President Bill Clinton once rightly observed that the Holocaust  should be  “‘ever a sharp thorn in every national memory.’”  The same ought to be said of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the long-standing U.S. support for oppression and repression in Central America.  Wiesel’s critique in the opening epigraph to this chapter retains a timely pertinence  to our situation today:  “Where are the humanists, the leaders, the liberals, the spokesmen for humanity”?  Indeed, the Holocaust may be one of many sharp thorns in our national memory.  But citizens and religious believers today ought not simply denounce Nazi crimes, horrific and unforgettable as they were, but also contest U.S. policies that victimize innocent people today.  Such grass-roots communities, NGOs, and  ever-growing networks of concerned citizens can certainly see the connections between the Holocaust victims with the past and present suffering of Japanese, Vietnamese, Timorese, Salvadorans, and Palestinians and thus subvert the self-serving rhetoric  of  state power by practicing a self-critical solidarity with our victims.

Liberation theologies have emphasized the importance of making a preferential option for the poor. This option has earned the Christian churches much ill-repute, if not persecution, in many places.  In Europe before and during the Second World War, for Christians to act in solidarity with Europe’s historically unworthy victims, the Jews, would certainly have exacted a cost, from defamation to harassment to  execution.  While “the world remained silent,” in Wiesel’s earliest formulation, Europe’s Jews were exterminated. There was no ecclesial preferential option for the poor European Jews during the Holocaust.  The tremendous suffering of those unworthy Jewish victims still ought to compel us to ask questions so rarely raised in the U.S. intellectual community:  Who are our unworthy victims in this present moment, how we can assist them in surviving, and how can we resist the temptations of silence and respectable status?  For if we remain silent, if U.S. power goes unchallenged by its own citizens, if the elite manufacture of consent proceeds  without citizen interference, far too many innocent people alive today will join the ranks of the Jewish abandoned, damned, and dead, still so mourned by Elie Wiesel.

–Mark Chmiel, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, Temple University Press, 2001

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