Simon Wiesenthal spoke at a huge temple in Los Angeles in 1978. I paid the fee and bought one of his books in order to see him speak in person. He was said to be in poor health at the time--he was 70 years old--and I wanted to see the man who I thought was the figurehead of the mantra of the Holocaust--of the Jews murdered by the Nazis in WWII--to "never forget," and thus never repeat, such atrocities.
Mr. Wiesenthal signed my copy of Sails of Hope, his book that concludes that Christopher Columbus was Jewish, which Mr. Wiesenthal wrote, among many others, in order to raise funds for his Jewish Historical Documentation Center in Austria. I wonder if I had known that he was to live another 26 years, if I would have gone to see him speak that day.
I remember what he said to this day, 32 years later. I was stunned by his ferocity, and his profound and unfamiliar ideas!
Wiesenthal was known as a Nazi criminal hunter. That was the simplistic explanation for his documentation of thousands of Nazis who escaped Germany after the war and whom Wiesenthal methodically tried to bring to justice, in order to keep the memory of the crimes alive.
I even remember a period in my youth when people, including Jews,said "enough is enough--let's put all this behind us and move on." Wiesenthal never heard that. He only knew that the memory of the holocaust would prevent it from happening again.
But I could not have imagined that he would have an idea I hadn't already heard, in his speech the day I saw him. And to this day, what he said has not been heard enough.
I can remember the basic premise, not the actual words--Mr. Wiesenthal said that the Jews of the world, the world Jewish community, lost so many friends after the war, because the common cry, the universal appeal for humanity, was that 6 million Jews--civilians, not soldiers--were systematically killed by the Nazis in WWII. Mr. Wiesenthal said that the world Jewish community, trying to gain support for their cause as a misplaced people, and as a beaten-down people, lost empathy from other non-Jewish groups by repeating this number: 6 million murdered--because in Europe, under Hitler's Nazis, there were also 5 million non-Jewish civilians murdered--11 million total non-combative innocent men, women and children--murdered by the Nazis in Europe.
I have heard the number of 6 million Jews killed in the holocaust all my life--but I always correct that if I can to say that an additional 5 million were killed by the Nazis in Europe--political dissidents, Gypsies, homosexuals, clerics, handicapped--11 million total.
The other point Mr. Wiesenthal made, which should have been obvious but was not, was that most of the Nazi war criminals he had in his files were not old men--they were younger than I am today which is 60. Why was this an important and shocking statement? Because my generation considered World War II to be ancient history, and it wasn't. It had happened as recently back then, as the Vietnam War seems to us today--35 years. So, people of my generation, children of the 50's--Clinton's fellow baby-boomers--should be able to relate to events such as Wiesenthal describes with an equally objective point of view.
Mr. Wiesenthal left out of the calculation of 11 million killed, additionally the Russians who were non-combative personnel. Who can tally the tens of millions of Russian people killed by Hitler's army, as well as by the dictator himself, Stalin?
It's no secret that today the American quasi Jewish community harbors such difference of opinion and outlook that an article which describes this appeared in the New York Review Of Books under the title The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. There are young liberal Jews, Jewish Zionists who support Israel, liberal secular Israeli Jews--on and on.
There are Jews around the world who are poor--hundreds of thousands in New York City alone--to counter the "rich Jew" stereotype. There is also a highly persuasive, mega-rich, powerful Jewish lobby which has openly been able to steer US pro-Israel policy since that country's inception 62 years ago. While many people have voiced concerns about a skewed US friendship with Israel due to disproportionate influence from the affluent American Jewish community, who can blame Jews for concerns about protection and betrayal?
After 2000 years of anti-Jewish hatred in the western world culminating with the systematic killing of half of the Jews in the entire world in WWII, any remarks made in a public forum which reinforce old negative stereotypes, or make up new ones, raise a tremendous response from many Jews and their friends.
Oliver Stone's recent remarks about Jews in a newspaper interview are an example of how crackpot statements can cause trouble, and also how over-reaction to someone who happens to be in the public eye can add flame to a fire that should be put out, not fanned on.
Stone is an award-winning filmmaker who is very good at his craft. His forays into politics, both in his films like the conspiracy in JFK, and his friendships with unsavory Latin American despots, show him to have an open mind, but not necessarily more than a superficial one.
Some of what Stone said were,
"...that Hitler caused more damage to the Russian people than to Jewish people, but that the American focus on the Holocaust stems from the "Jewish domination of the media."Stone immediately apologized for these remarks, lest he insult the "Jews who dominate Hollywood" and lose funding for a future project. The most stunning and fascinating thing is that Stone was basically right about what he was saying, except his facts and presentation were wrong if not goofy. He still got pilloried by, among others, the Anti-Defamation League ("This is the most absurd kind of analysis and shows the extent to which Oliver Stone is willing to propound his anti-Semitic and conspiratorial views.") and The American Jewish Committee ("By invoking this grotesque, toxic stereotype, Oliver Stone has outed himself as an anti-Semite," David Harris, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "For all of Stone's progressive pretensions, his remark is no different from one of the drunken, Jew-hating rants of his fellow Hollywood celebrity, Mel Gibson.")
"Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr. Frankenstein...German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support...
"Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than [to] the Jewish
people, 25 or 30 [million killed]."
The reason few people know this, according to Stone?
"The Jewish domination of the media," he said. "There's a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years."
And his connection of the Jewish lobby in Washington to the lack of facts getting out about numbers of Russians killed in WWII and Hitler's involvement--serves to aggravate anti-Semitic sentiment rather than to instigate intelligent discussion.
Since Stone is half-Jewish, it's hard to label him anti-Semitic. Rather, the term for a label could be "misinformed," or "loudmouth?" Also, it would be nice, if not unbelievable, if Foxman and Harris were equally incensed and vocal when someone with a public platform made ridiculous rants against Muslims, simply because a handful out of millions who follow Islam are renegade terrorist monsters, or otherwise foment hatred. Seems like we Americans like labels more than we relish understanding and tolerance.
Wouldn't it be a better outcome, instead of finger-pointing and name calling, if Stone's half-cocked, unstudied remarks started a new, objective, real analysis among Americans about our government's policy towards Israel, and Israel's policy toward an imminent peaceful settlement of issues in the Middle East?
With nuclear weapons involved, we all--Jews and non-Jews--have a stake in this ongoing process, and our best hope is that cool heads prevail.