Elie Wiesel and Donald Trump: Holocaust remembrance and refugee exclusion

WE MISS not only the particularity of Elie Wiesel’s voice in the matter of Holocaust remembrance, but the universality of his message in the face of these executive orders.

Elie Wiesel (photo credit: REUTERS)
Elie Wiesel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Elie Wiesel’s classic memoir of Holocaust remembrance, Night – depicting the horrors of Auschwitz – the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor wrote that “to forget would not only be dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
For Wiesel, the compellability – indeed, integrity – of Holocaust remembrance was a “sacred duty of all people of good will.” As he would caution us again and again, “the Holocaust was a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were targeted victims.” Elie sought to give expression to this truth in his memorable Raoul Wallenberg lectureship in human rights, titled “Witness,” at McGill University:
“No word can contain the solitude, the solitude of the Jewish victim who was more alone and more abandoned and more tragic than all the other victims. Granted, there were other victims as well; we should never forget them either. But the solitude of the Jewish victims remains unparalleled. How many times must we repeat that? Everyone who was not Jewish had family outside. Thus, the non-Jewish prisoner could cling to hope: ‘If I die, my son will live. My parents will have more children. My sister will remarry.’ The Jewish prisoner knew that he or she was alone, maybe the last, for his or her entire family had been condemned to extinction. An entire people was sentenced to death for being.”
Indeed, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz – 1.1 million of them were Jews – of which Elie Wiesel was one. One million of them were murdered, including Elie’s parents and sister. But let there be no mistake about it: As Elie would remind us, Jews were murdered at Auschwitz because of antisemitism, but antisemitism did not die at Auschwitz. As we have learned only too tragically, and all too well, while it begins with Jews it does not end with Jews. Jew-hatred remains the canary in the mineshaft of global evil that threatens us all.
ELIE’S VOICE and message were missed when the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews or antisemitism. And while this omission may have first appeared to be one of inadvertent error, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks acknowledged – indeed affirmed – that the wording was intentional “as we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered,” with “inclusivity” becoming a gateway for “alternative facts” and revisionist history. As Holocaust historian Prof. Deborah Lipstadt put it, “What we saw from the White House was classic soft-core denial. The Holocaust was de-Judaized.”
But it did not end there. On the same International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump issued an executive order that, first, barred entry of citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries to the United States for 90 days; second, indefinitely banned the admission of Syrian refugees; and third, halted the admission of all refugees to the United States for four months.
Clearly, the US, like any other country, has the legal authority to regulate admission to its borders, and the responsibility to protect its national security. As the executive order put it, the US seeks to “protect its citizens from foreign nationals who intend to commit terrorist attacks in the United States.”
But the Trump executive order has turned fact and law on its head. First, between 1975 and 2015, foreign nationals from the seven banned Muslim-majority countries killed exactly zero Americans on US soil. Second, there is no evidence whatsoever that there are any terrorists among the small number of Syrian refugees admitted to the US. Third, the attempt to halt refugee admissions – where refugees are persons determined to have a well-founded fear of persecution should they be returned to their country of origin – falsely presupposes the incidence of terrorism among refugees themselves.
Finally, in a cruel irony, Yazidi lawmaker Vian Dakhil, who became famous for her 2014 speech to Iraq’s parliament as her people faced genocide, will not be allowed as an Iraqi-citizen to attend the ceremony next week in Washington to receive the Lantos Human Rights Prize, named for the late Holocaust survivor and congressman Tom Lantos. As Katrina Lantos-Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation, put it, “It’s hard to imagine a more ironic and powerful illustrative example of how wrongheaded this executive order has been conceived.” And this is but one of many absurd and abusive examples.
Moreover, the perceived xenophobic – if not Islamophobic – character of the executive order may achieve the exact opposite of what it purportedly intends to do, i.e., it may serve as a recruitment tool for Islamic State rather than as a protection against international terrorism.
WE MISS not only the particularity of Elie Wiesel’s voice in the matter of Holocaust remembrance, but the universality of his message in the face of these executive orders. As he put it in his 1985 Nobel Prize lecture on the imperative of standing up against injustice: “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
He added: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time where we fail to protest against injustice.”
This is such a time.
A former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, Irwin Cotler is chairman of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel served as founding honorary chairman.