Being an American Jew, more than anything else, means remembering the Holocaust.
That’s what nearly three quarters of Jewish Americans said, according to the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study on American Jewry. Asked to pick attributes “essential” to being Jewish, more Jews said Holocaust remembrance than leading an ethical or moral life, caring about Israel or observing Jewish law.
If anyone personified that consensus, it was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor who through his writing and speaking turned himself into perhaps the leading moral voice of American Jewry. Some quarters of the left derided him for, in their view, being insufficiently sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. But in a fragmented community, he was the closest thing American Jews had to a unifier.
Regardless of religious observance or thoughts on Israel, nearly all Jewish Americans agreed with Wiesel’s message of remembering the genocide and preventing another one.
Following Wiesel’s death on July 2, will another consensus leader rise to take his place? Or is the American Jewish community too divided to unite under any one person’s moral voice?
JTA asked a range of American Jewish leaders who, if anyone, can take up Wiesel’s mantle.
The most common answer given was that no one can or should replace Wiesel, both in terms of name recognition and moral authority.
Abraham Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League: “I don’t know of anybody out there who can be so comfortable in our very, very partisan, unique Jewish world and experience, and yet be a voice, and an icon, and a standard-bearer of moral issues,” Foxman told JTA. “He was such a giant in so many areas that it’s hard to see a successor.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “There’s no single moral voice — but that’s a good thing!” Jacobs wrote in an email to JTA. “It’s not healthy for our community to be dependent on a single voice — it’s much better when we have many voices, on and off the pulpit, bringing our Jewish values to bear on pressing concerns.”
Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief, Lilith Media: “There’s no one voice speaking now with the moral authority Elie Wiesel had,” Weidman Schneider wrote in an email to JTA. “Part of the reason is that we’re accustomed to hearing from a multitude of voices on any moral issue — thanks to a wider net, more diversity in the Jewish community, the open mic of the internet.”
Alan Dershowitz, law professor and Israel advocate: “No one can replace Elie as the moral voice,” Dershowitz wrote in an email to JTA. “There will be new voices, but none represents the combination of tragedy and hope that Elie characterized.”
Deborah Lipstadt, Holocaust historian: “A moral, ethical rock-star (in the best sense of the word) … Wiesel was it and I think there are no more,” Lipstadt wrote in an email to JTA.
Michael Berenbaum, former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “What made Wiesel very interesting is that he was very particularistic but also deeply universal,” Berenbaum told JTA. “Wiesel was one of the very few people who had authority in the Jewish community that wasn’t based on institutional power or great philanthropic wealth. … No one will fill quite that role because no one will be able to wrap themselves in the authority of the Holocaust.”
The most common name mentioned as a moral successor to Wiesel was that of a Russian-Israeli, Natan Sharansky. The former face of the Soviet Jewry movement, he spent nine years in Soviet prisons facing specious espionage and treason charges, but mostly for advocating his and other refuseniks’ desire to live as Jews and move to Israel. Sharansky, 68, now lives in Jerusalem and is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, leading liberal Orthodox rabbi: “While not a survivor, Natan’s fearless struggle against the empire of evil, turning that struggle into a pro-active commitment to Am Yisrael, is unparalleled,” Weiss wrote in an email to JTA, using the Hebrew term for the Jewish people. “Natan has achieved a rare combination of access to government leaders who see him as a Jewish Mandela, while being able to connect with and inspire the amcha,” or rank-and-file.
Jennifer Rubin, columnist, Washington Post: “[Sharansky’s] ordeal as a human rights dissident and imprisonment by the former Soviet Union give him a moral standing to address issues of Jewish persecution,” Rubin wrote in an email to JTA. “As someone who came to live and serve in the Jewish state, he represents the next link in the history of the Jewish people.”
Spielberg? Sacks? Somebody else?
Sharansky wasn’t the only leader proposed. One possibility was Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, 69, who made the foundational 1993 Holocaust film “Schindler’s List” and since then has dedicated energy to preserving Holocaust memory. Spielberg certainly has the name recognition, but not the full-time commitment to Jewish causes.
Another was Jonathan Sacks, 68, the former chief rabbi of Britain, who has written dozens of books on Judaism and ethics, and has an audience beyond the Jewish community.
Others were confident that while Wiesel has left a void, eventually someone will rise to fill it.
Jonathan Sarna, American Jewish historian: “There’s always another because we can’t live without them,” Sarna told JTA. “I never say there won’t be a central moral figure.”
Sacks, said Sarna, has “an ability to speak to non-Jews, which is crucial. His reputation, his wisdom, his ability to project Judaism as a crucial moral force and his support of Israel have all shaped him as a central moral figure in Jewish life.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent, The Atlantic: “He was the closest thing we had to a saint,” Goldberg said of Wiesel. “Spielberg is the most obvious first among equals, but he limits himself to Shoah activities and commentary. Elie Wiesel had the life experience to say what he wanted. … The reason we’re not going to have one [consensus leader] is that everyone wants to be the one.”