Recently, the Persian scholar and poetry translator Matt Miller sent me condolences upon the death of one of my teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh. I mentioned to him that the several of the teachers I first encountered in my 20s have almost all passed away—Dan Berrigan, Elie Wiesel, Harold Bloom and George Steiner. As of this writing, Noam Chomsky is still alive.
The first negative remarks I ever heard about Wiesel came from Chomsky. At the time (1985), I was grateful that Wiesel had spoken out in favor of the Sanctuary Movement (his “No human being is illegal” has since gotten lot of mileage), which I was part of in Louisville. But in Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle (1983), I found this about the author of Night —“As for Israel’s policies in the [Palestinian] occupied territories, Wiesel is unable to offer a comment: ‘What to do and how to do it, I really don’t know because I lack the elements of information and knowledge…You must be in a position of power to possess all the information…I don’t have that information, so I don’t know…’ A similar stance of state-worship would be difficult to find, apart from the annals of Stalinism and fascism. Wiesel is regarded in the United States as a critic of fascism, and much revered as a secular saint.”
Years before, in December 1980 at a meeting of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Wiesel spoke about Holocaust deniers: “It is a very serious problem. As some of you may know, I was probably the first to alert the American Jewish community to that danger. In the beginning there were only a few articles and two or three books, and nobody listened. Then I said, “You know, there are already ten books.” Somewhat later I said, “There are already twenty-four books.” Year after year the number has increased. The problem has finally caught up with us. I must say that I feel impure when I touch these books. I don’t know what to do. Debate them? I would not dignify them with a debate. I would not dignify them with a dialogue. I would not speak to a Nazi even if the Nazi were to be as eloquent as Goebbels. I would not. And I would not speak to a person who has written a book denying the Holocaust. I did not speak to a person who wrote a preface to such a book. There are certain limits to my tolerance, and this is probably the limit.” The writer of the book must have been Frenchman Robert Faurisson and the preface to that book was originally an essay on free speech by Chomsky.
At the end of last year, I reread Susie Linfield’s book, The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. The following caught my attention: “In the following years, vitriol would become Chomsky’s trademark. Opponents of his ideas, or even those who differ from them, are toadies for power, propagandists, fabricators, hysterical fanatics, and hypocrites. Fred Halliday is unserious, Amos Oz spreads ‘carefully cultivated illusion.’ Journalists are charged with being unable to quote Chomsky accurately, to understand his ideas, or to exhibit either intelligence or honesty. (The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, who has written extensively reported articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is ‘too depraved to even discuss’ and ‘reflects astonishing ignorance’ on the subject.) One of Chomsky’s frequent accusations is adherence to Stalinism, as when he condemns ‘the Stalinist character of the American Zionist institutions,’ or the ‘Stalinist practices’ of the Israeli press, or ‘the old-fashioned Stalinism’ of pro-interventionists in Bosnia. He is less interested in debating ideas than in eviscerating those who hold them.”
With Nhat Hanh’s passing, I’ve been remembering many of his teachings, like the one on Mindful Speech, which makes me think of the great Chofetz Chaim, to whom Philip Roth gives a long page to in his 1993 novel, Operation Shylock: “Does it give you an idea of what the Chofetz Chaim was up against if he had to go that far to stop Jewish people’s blaming and accusing their neighbors of everything and anything? Can you imagine the animosity he witnessed? Everyone feeling wronged, being hurt, bristling at insults and slights; everything everybody says taken as a personal affront and a deliberate attack; everyone saying something derogatory about everyone else. Anti-Semitism on the one side, loshon hora on the other, and in between, being squeezed to death, the beautiful soul of the Jewish people! The poor Chofetz Chaim was an Anti-Defamation League unto himself — only to get Jews to stop defaming one another. Someone else with his sensitivity to loshon hora would have become a murderer. But he loved his people and could not bear to see them brought low by their chattering mouths. He could not stand their quarreling, and so he set himself the impossible task of promoting Jewish harmony and Jewish unity instead of bitter Jewish divisiveness.”