Author: Jon Rich
Photographer: Lukasz Dejnarowicz/ZUMA Press/Newscom
On July 2, 2016, the Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel died. As fate would have it, he witnessed in his lifetime another Holocaust; similar to the one he survived.
Although Wiesel is barely remembered, his death in 2016 reminds us that there have been major devastations, the danger and scale of which speak to what is happening today.
There are several differences between the two eras; between the time when Jews were unwillingly turned into a people and today, when an entire people is turned into the Jews of this century: exiled, annihilated, prosecuted, and harshly punished for surviving carnage.
Wiesel published his memoirs Night (1958), fifteen years after the end of World War II. Although written in the aftermath of the tragedy, the book still seems relevant and truthful. The reader of Night will experience facts through Wiesel’s eyes and will not reproach him for not considering other options. Was rising against his jailors at the risk of being shot a viable option? Had he done it, we would not have blamed him. But he chose another path, and we cannot blame him for that either. Had anyone else considered dramatic suicide in protest of the jailors’ abuse, as many did in this dark era of human history, we, the readers would have accepted his decision and realized that his loss is equal to none other.
Wiesel was no hero; he was merely a man. This is precisely why he is akin to heroes: He was one of those men who demonstrated that heroes and martyrs have little patience and wisdom, always taking the easy way out, when life seems more arduous than death.
In Night, the teenager Wiesel and his family—father, mother, and sister—were taken to a detention center with thousands of fellow Jews, where males and females were later separated. After he and his father bid his sister and mother farewell, Wiesel was heartbroken. But from that moment on, he no longer mentioned them. The teenager had to struggle to remain alive and had little time to dwell on his past life. As his mother and sister faced their destiny, he and his father ventured into the unknown and its harsh nights in order to survive. Although the father did not survive, his son Elie did and lived to write about it. Should we accuse him of cowardice? Perhaps. But who says that courage is a quality we must cherish?
Wiesel did not hesitate to support the Jews’ settlement in Palestine, which meant the expulsion of Palestinians from their cities and towns and the appropriation of their lands. His trials were not enough to dispel his desire for revenge or his claim to security and safety at the expense of others, regardless of their history and identity. The horrible trials of the Jews have fostered revenge-thirsty preachers, reiterating the same mantra of hatred that once annihilated them. Although Palestinians had no role in what the Jews had gone through in Europe, they turned into their victims, as the horrors of hell turned survivors into the enemies of those remaining at bay.
In 1943, the German (Jewish) philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had taken asylum in the United States, wrote her celebrated essay “We Refugees”. Arendt maintains that not all those who left Germany and Europe with the rise of fascism did so willingly. Before the war escalated and unveiled its horrors, they thought they were immigrants, leaving their countries in search for a better life. The horrors of the war made all those who left, not immigrants abandoning a life of misery for a better one, but simply refugees, for there was no trace of life where they came from. They did not emigrate willingly, but did so because the land they left had become lifeless.
Arendt’s essay is audacious, as it allows you to accept and inhabit in exile the stigma that your enemy and killer have attached to you. We are Palestinian refugees; the Jews of the era of hatred in Europe; the Christians of the Roman Empire before Christianization; or the Syrians of the world. The killer stigmatizes us all and yet, we must make from this scar a future for humanity. Today, willingly or not, Syrian refugees make a future for humanity. Not because they are brave and heroic, but because the world, overtaken by hatred and resentment, will not allow them to do otherwise. Syrian refugees, willingly or not, will have to endure the racism of those hosting them in their alleged country, and who see in them a threat to their security, their demographic equilibrium, and their resources. And so, they have to carry their cross in shame. No lesson in history geography, logic, or wisdom will change the mind of those who think that their bigotry against Syrians will stop and protect them from the waves of death engulfing the world.
Expressing solidarity with Syrians is necessary and crucial. But none of it will change the state of things. Each day, the burden of Syrians—whether refugees, victims, wounded, or in need—encumbers the world further. And soon, the world will want to free itself from it. Syrians, in turn, will bear the burden of changing the world and teaching it regret.
History has taught us that the devastation of the death machine that feeds it has just started. The majority of people in the world think that they can erect dividing walls against an imagined other and use their widespread hatred to shelter themselves from the Holocaust. In the coming years, the circle of enemies will thus widen: Europeans antagonizing Arabs; Persians antagonizing Arabs and Kurds; Christians antagonizing Muslims; and so on, in endless divides. But based on these same lessons in hatred, animosity will emerge between Britons and French; Germans and Italians; Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs; Kurdish Muslims and Arab Muslims. The omens of this demonic mantra are no longer concealed. But that which is constant in this madness is the battlefield on which everyone is fighting. Had there been no Syria, how would have Vladimir Putin fought terrorism?
Syria is the land that has vowed to be the sacrament of the preachers of hate. Putin does not hesitate to boast that the sales of his military aircrafts have soared because they have proven efficient in Syria. This is, indeed, no less than the gas chambers that spare no one. With every incident, world leaders are forced to avenge their victims by killing more Syrians.
For this crucial reason, Syrians are trapped in the role of the victim. Identifying as Syrian today means to have to carry the weight of the world on one’s shoulder. Syrians will realize that they are the testing ground for the horrors of humanity. Once they escape this hell, they will prove to humanity, yet again, that sacrificing their children, men, women, land, and property brought humanity to consciousness.
Numerous are the political and legal reasons for the failure of humanity. Perhaps, we ought to take the trouble of identifying and refuting them sooner rather than later. It is imperative to reflect on what Syrians face today, on where and how they will carry their cross, in a time when no Pontius Pilate will claim innocence of their blood.
After five years of continuous massacres, Syrians still struggle to conceal their image, for it has become equivalent to dying by barren roadsides, wandering at sea, or freezing in forests. But the trials of Syrians did not stop the world from ignoring them; worse, it persecuted them further. The painful images coming from Syria have probably become a common scene for onlookers. Syrian images have given shape to death, suffering, and tears in a way that the world could not have possibly imagined. Facing the flow of the horrifying scenes coming out of Syria, the world looks away. It would like to revert from the present to the era of the prophets; by feeding the belief that, none of this would have happened had Syrians not deserved it. This is how victims became terrorists; newborns potential insurgent killers, ones that ought to be eliminated before they take revenge on the world.
A great number of people have been vilified and no one considers their fate when Raqqa and Manbij are liberated or Aleppo is besieged. Those who stayed are portrayed as though they deserve this purgatorio. The insistence on circulating such crude and harsh images perhaps aims at collapsing all Syrians into a single category of death-wishing people. The insistence on representing those who have escaped as refugees reiterates the idea that migrant refugees seek life. The overwhelming desire to place refugees in camps designed and structured based on detention centers, aims at portraying those who left Syria as death-wishing individuals.
Hannah Arendt wrote as a refugee. But there are great writers and thinkers who had no choice but to end their life after seeking asylum from the desolations of the mid-twentieth century. Stefan Zweig took refuge in the United States, from there to Brazil, where he ultimately committed suicide along his wife, for it was the end of the world as he knew it, when speaking truth was no longer enough to eradicate hatred. Arendt survived and wrote. In so doing, she may have safeguarded the corpse of Zweig lying in his grave and made it possible for Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide on the French-Spanish borders, to have the status he merits.
This piece was translated from Arabic, click here for the arabic text.