Friday, March 15, 2024

Schumer, Wiesel and the Zone of Indifference


Schumer, Wiesel and the Zone of Indifference

Wiesel taught us that indifference is the greatest sin. It, more than evil, is the opposite of good. That's why American Jews can't ignore the suffering in Gaza - and Schumer understood that.

I am a Wieselian Jew. And if you are Jewish, you probably are too.

This generation of Jews - especially American Jews - has been brought up on the ethic of Elie Wiesel, who, more than anyone else, defined and formulated our post-Holocaust worldview. Others were influential - Heschel, Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, Soloveitchik and Schneerson, to name a few. But if the Holocaust was the most formative event of the past century, Wiesel was the prophet whose ethic of responsibility emerged as the most salient teaching to emerge from that cataclysm.

And for Wiesel, the First Commandment of post-Holocaust Judaism was always "Thou shalt not be indifferent!"

For anyone who is a Wieselian Jew, it is simply impossible to turn aside when innocent people are suffering. Which is why it is now impossible for American Jews to ignore what happened in Israel on October 7. And it is also now impossible to ignore what has happened in Gaza since October 7. We just can’t. It’s at the core of our Judaism - our post Holocaust ethic as inculcated by the Prophet of Buchenwald.

Three items for your to-do list for this weekend:

1) Watch Chuck Schumer's speech on the Senate floor, where he went where no one of his stature has ever gone before in calling for a change in Israeli leadership. See the full text and summary of main points here. Read it all. It's a well-considered, realistic (really) roadmap to get us from an intolerable present to a potentially promising future.

2) Watch the Oscar winning Holocaust film, "Zone of Interest," not with an eye toward what director Jonathan Glazer said (no, he did not refute his Jewishness) about the dehumanizing corrosiveness of Israel's occupation, but rather toward what Steven Spielberg said in calling it "the best Holocaust movie I've witnessed since my own... especially about the banality of evil."

3) Then watch or read Elie Wiesel's White House speech from 1999, "The Perils of Indifference."

It was instructive for me to watch all three, back to back to back.

What Schumer did was so unprecedented - in some ways courageous and in some ways way past due - that it can be best understood as a response to the very form of indifference to suffering that "Zone of Interest" exposes: A family living an idyllic existence in the shadows of hell, yet showing no interest in looking over the fence, or even glancing at it, despite being completely aware of what was going on. This film made me squirm, in its own way more shocking than raw footage of the crimes themselves. To see the crematoria and gas chambers being sanitized by cleaning crews was the perfect way to demonstrate how the disinfectant numbing the conscience was just as potent as the "disinfectant" used to kill the victims.

While analogies linking the Holocaust to Israel's attacks on Gaza are unfounded and abhorrent, let’s set that aside for the moment and instead focus on the film's overall message of dehumanization and indifference to suffering. If we do, we can hear a compelling summons - a cry as distinct as those muffled cries heard in the background of nearly every scene of the film.

Schumer understood that no degree of suffering gives anyone license to stand idly by while others suffer. He acknowledged the "pure and premeditated evil" that occurred on October 7. Playing on the Hebrew meaning of his last name, he called himself a "Shomer Yisrael," a guardian of Israel and claimed to speak for the majority of American Jews, and I think he does. American Jews cannot stand idly by when innocent people suffer. Especially when it is on our (American and Jewish) watch.

In the film, the only one who is moved by the cries on the other side of the wall is the family dog. Other non human principals also seem to engage: birds, flowers, the commandant's beloved horse, the sky, with puffy cotton-clouds mingling with constant plumes of grey smoke, and the water, polluted with human remains. The earth cries out with the blood of Abel.

But the people are indifferent to the suffering. They go about living their lives as if nothing is happening next door. In fact, they love their lives so much they don't want to leave. Free slave labor, and confiscated possessions from former neighbors. The Nazi leader doesn't feel a pang of conscience as he designs more efficient crematoria. The Zone of Interest was in fact a Zone of Indifference.

Elie Wiesel repeated his First Commandment repeatedly at the White House before multiple presidents - including Reagan before his trip to Bitburg and President Clinton in the video above. (See transcript here.)

Here is an excerpt from this classic speech, "The Perils of Indifference."

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it.

Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.

Wiesel's gospel of engagement is what propels American Jewry more than any other ideology. More than "World Repair," more than wokeness, more than social justice, more even than Zionism. All of these can be seen as derivatives of the Wiesel Doctrine, "Thou shalt give a damn” - about all suffering people. About Jews first, to be sure, but never just Jews. And that mindset that has become our calling from the moment the gates of Auschwitz closed for good, from the moment Wiesel first articulated them in “Night.”

He taught us that indifference is the greatest sin. It, more than evil, is the opposite of good.

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And it is the Wiesel Doctrine that does not allow us to ignore the plight of innocent Gazans, much as we might prefer to, much as we might be entitled to, much as Wiesel himself might have done with regard to Palestinians, especially later in life, when he turned rightward. Some have accused him of having had a moral blindspot there, and it's easy to imagine how outraged and heartbroken he would have been after seeing what happened to Israelis on October 7.

But Wiesel's creed of non-apathy would still demand that we open our eyes to suffering of innocents on the other side, even when some on that side are lethal enemies. And the fact that Israel's far right is not open to such compassion, or even to accepting responsibility for deaths on their own side of the fence, is why American Jews are so torn right now, with Schumer articulating that angst. And that is why so many American Jews, in order to express our deepest Jewish convictions, are at odds with this Israeli Prime Minister - though not with the Israeli people.

Some Israelis feel that Wieselian pang of conscience too. And most no longer trust their leader. They sense that something is not right, and most Israelis don't want to lose their only friends in the world. Despite the anger. Despite their justifiable rage. Despite the evil of their enemy. They don't want to become what they hate.

Neither do we, as American Jews face our greatest challenge: to avoid taking up residence in the Zone of Indifference.

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