From debates concerning the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the 1967 Six Day War’s titular reference to the days of creation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often been made to resonate with biblical images and language.
In an advert published last week by The Guardian the Nobel Prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel contributed to this tradition by provocatively comparing Hamas’ treatment of Palestinian children in Gaza with child sacrifice described in the Hebrew Bible.
The advert, organised by This World: The Values Network, has been reproduced in a variety of prominent US newspapers but was rejected for publication by The Times. In response The Guardian ran the advert on Monday August 11, provoking a range of critical responses. These included a group of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors and victims distancing themselves from Wiesel and the Stop the War Coalition asking for signatories to a letter condemning The Guardian for printing the advert.
The advert itself should not be dismissed out of hand even if it is problematic. In his attack on Hamas, Wiesel is careful not to come across as Islamophobic, praising the wisdom, learning and peaceful nature of “true Muslims”. And, in highlighting the danger Hamas is placing Palestinian children in, he cautions us to consider the profoundly difficult ethics of not only indiscriminately targeting Israeli citizens but also bringing the population of Gaza into the firing line of Israel’s counterattack.
But to frame the debate in terms of biblical descriptions of child sacrifice is unhelpful. In one passage, Wiesel creates a three-way comparison between Hamas, the child-sacrificing Moloch-worshippers of the Hebrew Bible, and the mass-murder of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
Hamas and the Nazis, he concludes, are “death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites”. The problem is that it is in fact really quite easy to distinguish between the actions of these three groups.
The worshippers of Moloch are presented in the Bible as sacrificing children as part of religious rituals designed to gain divine favour (the work of my colleague Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou is helpful in highlighting the complexities of trying to uncover the historical backdrop behind this presentation). The Nazis murdered Jewish children as a result of their racist desire to produce a Europe wholly free of Jews. Hamas endangers Palestinian children because of a tactic centred on firing rockets at Israel from built-up civilian areas.
Each situation is quite distinct. Although drawing an analogy between the three is possible, you just end up with an analogy so loose that it initially seems virtually useless.
But encompassing ancient child-sacrifice, the Holocaust and Hamas in a single category does nonetheless have its use for Wiesel in creating the vision of a vast evil that transcends particular points in history. Such a vision has an evocative, quasi-mythic power, but unfortunately it does little to help us make sense of the specific motivations and strategies of Hamas.
Rather than seeing Hamas fighters as human beings driven by varying mixtures of rage, desperation and extremist ideology, they become players in an ongoing battle between good and evil that is epic in scope and primordial in origin. Israeli soldiers become agents of light, and Hamas becomes a force of unqualified darkness. Using the Bible to render the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in such terms offers a comfortingly simple narrative, but it provides little insight into messy realities.
Should Guardian have run the ad?
But was Stop the War right to argue that Wiesel’s advert should not have been published by The Guardian at all? The matter is not straightforward, but if we follow a principle that says the burden of proof always lies with the party aiming to curtail free expression, it is hard to make a compelling argument that Wiesel’s advert should have been suppressed.
We might cynically conclude that The Guardian’s reasons for including the advert amounted to little more than trying to flag up its own commitment to free speech in comparison to a rival newspaper, but that in itself is not a sound reason to censor the advert. A more substantial argument may be that it invokes indiscriminate hatred.
However, as I have already noted, Wiesel is at pains not to target all Palestinians with his criticisms. Furthermore, when included in the pages of The Guardian I am not convinced that many readers would actually be swayed to start seeing the current conflict as a war between the unequivocal evil of Hamas and the morally spotless actions of the Israeli Defense Forces. The paper has repeatedly presented stern criticism of Israel and it is unlikely that many regular readers will have been convinced to wholly abandon these condemnations as a result of Wiesel’s clumsy rhetoric.
And there are, I suggest, positive aspects to publishing the advert. Wiesel is an influential and often admired thinker, particularly in the US, and is described by This World: The Values Network as “one of the most respected human beings alive” and “the living face of the Holocaust”. While it may be questionable for one person to singularly encompass the meaning of the Holocaust for current affairs, the undoubted extent of his reach renders his a voice worth wrestling with.
Witnessing Wiesel’s stark vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides a window through which to view an influential, and in some quarters pervasive understanding of the situation. Beyond all of this, reading rather than suppressing his provocative advert helps to show up the toxic potentials of mixing contemporary warfare with the Bible.
This issue of censorship is difficult and certainly publishing Wiesel’s advert has the potential to throw up all manner of complainants asking: “but if this can be printed, what else is permissible?” But each case must be treated on its own terms and the bar for invoking censorship must be set higher than we are always comfortable with.