Ignoring the Palestinian Plight

Holocaust expert Elie Wiesel has urged audiences around the world to reject apathy and to resist injustice. But Wiesel and many other Zionists fall silent when the victims of oppression are the Palestinians, as Lawrence Davidson writes.

By Lawrence Davidson

Elie Wiesel is a worldwide personality who through his powerful descriptive writing about the Nazi concentration camps has come to personify the suffering of the Holocaust. Among his many insights is the famous observation, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

Wiesel has repeatedly put forth this idea. In a 2011 commencement address at Washington University in St. Louis, he told his listeners, “The greatest commandment — to me — in the Bible . . . is ‘Thou shalt not stand idly by.’ Which means when you witness an injustice, don’t stand idly by.”

Elie Wiesel, a leading expert on the Holocaust.

After a Boston lecture in 2012, Wiesel told Boston University students “I think that is the greatest danger, ignorance, which leads to indifference and therefore to detachment.  . . . If somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.”

Unfortunately, Wiesel has identified himself with Zionism and by doing so has inevitably been caught up in contradictions and dilemmas that challenge his reputation as a moral icon. For instance, in May 2010, he made a public appeal to President Barack Obama not to put any pressure on the Israeli government over the issue of Jerusalem even as the Israelis evicted Palestinian residents.

In doing so he revealed his own indifference to the real nature of Israeli objectives and behavior. As a result a hundred Israeli intellectuals and activists wrote him a public reply expressing “frustration” and “outrage” at his attitude and actions.

Nonetheless, his comments about indifference and insensitivity are important and insightful and can be used as a standard to judge some of his fellow Zionists, many of whom have been “standing idly by” for decades and thus are examples of Wiesel’s dictum, “if somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me.”

Israeli Indifference

Recently there have been several articles calling attention to the fact that, as Uri Avnery puts it, “We [Israelis] have become so accustomed to this situation [an occupation ‘going on only a few minutes drive from our homes’] that we see it as normal.”

Ethan Bronner, the New York Times’ former Jerusalem bureau chief, confirmed this pervasive indifference to the suffering that Israeli policies and discriminatory practices cause. “Few [Israelis] even talk about the Palestinians,” he wrote. “Instead of focusing on what has long been seen as their central challenge — how to share this land with another nation — Israelis are largely ignoring it.”

More specifically they are ignoring such revelations as the fact that since September 2000, when the second Intifada broke out, Israeli forces have killed over 1,500 Palestinian children. According to the Middle East Monitor, that means “one child killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years.”

In the same time the number of children injured has reached 6,000 and the number under the age of 18 arrested is about 9,000. The suffering of Palestinians, documented by the United Nations as well as private NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, is ongoing yet apparently unnoticed by the average Israeli.

Nor is any improvement in the situation likely. While Israelis display indifference to Palestinian suffering, the Israeli government has indicated its intention to keep the regime of suffering going indefinitely.

According to Israeli trade minister Naftali Bennett, “a rising star in the Israeli cabinet,” the idea of a Palestinian state is “dead” and Israel should annex large portions of the West Bank. Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister, agrees. “We are a nationalist government, not a government that will establish a Palestinian government in the 1967 lines.”

Meanwhile, a significant number of Israelis, whether they think about it or not, are profiting from the expanding and illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

The Role of Ignorance

Thus we can ask, using Wiesel’s words, what is wrong with the Israelis that they care little or nothing for the Palestinians’ 65 years of suffering? Wiesel himself has part of the answer when he observes “ignorance . . . leads to indifference and therefore to detachment.”

Ignorance? Is the average Israeli really ignorant in this matter? At first this assertion appears ridiculous. After all, as Avnery notes, the suffering of the Palestinians is never more than “minutes” from most Israeli backyards, and it now and then violently boomerangs back on Israeli Jews.

Nonetheless, a kind of contrived, willful ignorance does come into play. One can be raised in ignorance and educated to a view of history that eliminates others’ suffering as well as one’s role in causing it. Entire populations can be psychologically shaped this way, with those doing the shaping being the truest of the true believers. Such conditioned ignorance lays the foundation for indifference to the fate of others. The Israelis have made an art of this process.

Yet, this scenario is not original with the Israelis and Zionists. In fact, many Zionists learned how to see the world this way from Americans. Some years back I published a book, America’s Palestine, in which this legacy is explored.

As it turns out, one of the Zionist themes of the 1920s was that the native Palestinians were the Arab equivalent of hostile American Indians, violently resisting the forces of civilization and modernization. What was the average American’s attitude to the fate of these Indians, to their brutal dispossession and ethic cleansing? It was indifference which has grown greater with time until most Americans do not give the Indians or their fate much thought at all.

Several years ago, at a debate held at the University of Pennsylvania, I tried to explain this connection to an Israeli vice consul from the Philadelphia consulate and his coterie of Zionist students. I suggested to them that the long-term Zionist strategy was to ethnically cleanse the Palestinians and then count on the world to, over time, get used to and then forget this crime.

In 100 or 150 years, who would cry over the Palestinians? About the same number as bemoan the Apache or Cheyenne today? However, I also told them that in our post-imperialist world, this historical scenario was unlikely to repeat itself. The reception to all of this from the consul and his hangers-on was negative. They walked out.

The indifference, leading to detachment, that Wiesel so fears can quickly become a habitual part of our lives. After all, so much of our lives are just “a stream of habitual actions” that can be either “rationally useful or irrationally unfit for a given situation.”

It is in the latter case that we get into trouble. When Israelis ignore Palestinian suffering they act in a way “irrationally unfit for their given situation” and that means, in Wiesel’s terms, “there is something wrong” with them.

As Americans, we should recognize the symptoms, for we too have repeatedly behaved in this fashion. Having modeled this insensitivity for the Zionists, it now stands as a mark of our “special relationship” with the land of Israel.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

6 comments for “Ignoring the Palestinian Plight

  1. Dar
    July 8, 2013 at 19:08

    Well, the man DID work with the Irgun, so what else to 4expect from this vile human being.

  2. d. chong
    July 3, 2013 at 21:41

    eli wiesel is a descendant of Khazars who converted to Judaism. They constitute the Azhenazi Jews of Europe. These Azhenazi Jews were the victims of Hilter’s genocidal hatred; and they have now siezed the lands of the blood descnednats of the children of Abraham. These blood descendants of Abrham in Palestine were the Jews, left in situ in Palestine, after the Roman whacking of the Jerusalem Jewish revolt of AD 70. In the centuries of Muslim rule over them they converted to Islam and today they are the Palestinians.
    These Azhenzazi Jews are not even blood descendants of the Abraham.
    So, why should they care about the blood descendants of Abraham to which the land of Palestine was promised to them, especially as they have become mohamedenized.
    Who do you think has more right to the land? The living blood descendansts of Abraham or non-Jewish converts to Judaism.

  3. News Nag
    July 3, 2013 at 09:28

    I heard Wiesel speak a decade or more ago, in a big public university setting reserved for honorable persons and cultural events, and noticed the glaring hypocrisy and indifference toward Palestinians. His silence was deafening in that regard. His and other Zionists’ blind spots aren’t the only outrageous and self-centered hypocrisy in the world but definitely needs addressing, considering the suffering it directly causes and the central geopolitical role the U.S. allows its Israeli policy to hold. As a Jew, I find the Zionist indifference and hypocrisy and its brutality toward Palestinians incomprehensible and disgusting, and also self-defeating. Its a nihilism and a narcissism at the same time. It exposes the selfish and hollow core of everything Israel says and does. Time has only seemed to make it all worse and permanent.

  4. gregorylkruse
    July 2, 2013 at 17:12

    It isn’t often that I see the Palestinians compared to the indigenous tribes of North America, or South America for that matter. We are trapped in the conundrum of either condoning Israel’s crimes because we are guilty of the same, or condemning Israel’s crimes while living on land that belongs to those indigenous peoples. Our foreign policy regarding Israel is based upon moral “blackmail”. We continue to support their theft of Palestinian land so long as they don’t openly accuse us of genocide.

  5. gregorylkruse
    July 2, 2013 at 17:02


  6. Hillary
    July 1, 2013 at 19:03

    In his book “The Price of Empire”former Senator J. William Fulbright stated –
    “We have lost our freedom of action in the Middle East and are committed to policies that promote neither our own national interest nor the cause of peace…The Israeli government dominates our policy in the Middle East.”

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