Jenny Listman vs. Elie Wiesel

A woman named Jenny Listman wrote a blog post accusing recently deceased Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel of touching her inappropriately at a public event 28 years ago, when she was 19. Today when the subject of sexual harassment of women is “trending,”  it created a furor, raising multiple issues: was her accusation true, and if so was it appropriate for her to make it public after Wiesel’s death when he could not respond? Was it ethical for her to air an accusation for which there could be no evidence except her own word? If true, did the allegation diminish Wiesel’s moral authority?

The Jewish Daily Forward published a story about Listman’s accusation. Almost immediately it was met with a firestorm of criticism and withdrawn, with an apology that it did not meet their “journalistic standards.” (My immediate reaction: the folks that published the cartoons of Eli Valley for years have standards?) But they made the legitimate point that they could not verify her story.

My own feeling is that her account rings true. And after consideration, I think she was not wrong in making it public.

28 years after the incident, the only evidence that exists is Listman’s testimony. There is no way to corroborate or falsify her account today. But there is also no moral requirement that Listman must have other evidence besides her memories before she tells her story. Her experience, if she is telling the truth, is something that she knows firsthand. Her position is different from that of a journalist, who is obliged to verify the accounts of external sources. So the Forward’s withdrawal of the article does not imply that she should not have published it herself – and certainly does not imply, as some social media commentators have said, that she lied or was otherwise culpable.

Many have also said that she had no right to make the accusation after Wiesel was dead and not able to defend himself. But suppose he were alive and denied it. How would his denial change anything? It would still be “she said, he said.” It is considered dishonorable to bring a charge after its target is dead, but in this case it has no practical significance. Who knows, maybe he would have admitted it and apologized.

The reason the case has created so much controversy, of course, is that it was Elie Wiesel and not a random construction worker that allegedly placed his hand on her right buttock and squeezed. It was Nobel laureate Wiesel, the LA Times’ “most important Jew in America,” a man who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald and, by his books and other activities arguably did more to bring the Holocaust into public consciousness than any other individual. He made it personal: six million is a number, but Elie Wiesel was a boy whose family was murdered almost in front of his eyes.

Some say that by accusing Wiesel of behavior that is morally reprehensible, Listman has cast doubt on everything that he has said and done. His legacy will forever be that of a sexual harasser rather than a moral exemplar.

I doubt this. Wiesel was a human being, like Washington, Jefferson, JFK and others who have been criticized on moral grounds. He was also a celebrity, with all the distortion of one’s own importance that comes with that. Wiesel was a man of a different time (even if by 1989 he should have known better). None of this excuses his alleged behavior, but that behavior is irrelevant to the power of his testimony and his accomplishments.

Listman’s supporters argue that abuse of women is so common as to be invisible, they have had enough, and the way to stop it is to expose it, even if – especially if – the perpetrator is powerful or a celebrity. This strikes me as not unreasonable, as long as key distinctions – like the ones between verbal and physical harassment, and between butt pats and rape or murder are not blurred. Not everything is “violence,” and some harassment is worse than others. I think she would agree with me on this.

Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of Wiesel. What he suffered and what he witnessed were real, and especially in his memoir, Night, he raised awareness of the true monstrousness of the Holocaust, the degree of evil inherent in its perpetrators. Later, he opposed the trend in some eastern European countries of whitewashing their own cooperation with the Nazis. He supported oppressed peoples, but he had no illusions about which side was right in the conflicts surrounding Israel, and spoke o