Elie Wiesel and Collective Guilt
Jude Wanniski
May 8, 2001


Memo To: Elie Wiesel
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Who Killed Jesus Christ?

When I saw the headline on the NYTimes op-ed page last Saturday, you were the last person in the world I thought would be the author: “Only the Guilty Are Guilty, Not Their Sons.” If anyone had asked me before I picked up the paper that day whom I would identify as the Jewish opinion leader who MOST believes in the collective guilt of today’s citizens of Germany for the Nazi war crimes against the Jews, I would have instantly answered Elie Wiesel. When the Swedish Academy gave you the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, you had the celebrity to take the lead in opposing Ronald Reagan’s visit to the cemetery at Bittburg, Germany, when it was his intent to bring closure to the collective guilt of the German people as far as the American people were concerned. I remember sympathizing with your point of view, Mr. Wiesel, because it had been discovered that a very few of the graves contained the remains of SS troops. But I also appreciated the President’s decision to go ahead as planned. So it was a very pleasant surprise for me to read your op-ed, a call to the Jewish community to renounce the collective guilt of today’s Germans for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers:

Am I wrong to believe that to humiliate a German today just for having been born German and to boycott an evening for him is not what Jewish ethos is all about? I would like to remind some of my fellow Jews that Hitler’s Germany condemned all of us not for what we did or did not do, but solely for having been born Jewish. We Jews do not believe in collective guilt... Relations between Jews and Germans will remain traumatized for a long time. That is to be expected. Auschwitz and Treblinka will never be eradicated from German history. And yet, hatred must never be an answer. It does not serve memory.

Coincidentally, Mr. Wiesel, I’d just posted a memo on my website last week involving the concept of collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. “Who Killed Christ?” was a defense of the Christian conservative Paul Weyrich, who had been accused of anti-Semitism by the Jewish political establishment because he mentioned in an Easter sermon that “the Jews crucified Christ.” It may seem like splitting hairs, but Weyrich did not say today’s Jewish people bear responsibility for the crucifixion of the Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth, almost 2000 years ago. It was the Jewish political establishment of that time that decided to rid itself of the nuisance Jesus was creating for it, most generally evangelizing outside the Jewish community, most particularly chasing the money changers from the Temple at Passover services. My colleague, Peter Signorelli, is a student of Holy Scripture. He wrote the Weyrich defense by citing innumerable passages in the Gospels of the New Testament that assert the facts in the case. Maybe none of that happened. Maybe the New Testament was a work of complete fiction. But it is Gospel to a significant fraction of mankind and the best history we have to that time.

Here’s what I would like to get you to agree to, Mr. Wiesel: Just as the Germans who were complicit in the deaths of six millions Jews during the Nazi Holocaust were guilty of crimes against humanity that should never be forgotten, and never be repeated, the Jews of Jerusalem who were complicit in the unwarranted crucifixion of one of their own religious leaders also were guilty of a crime that will never be forgotten, and should never be repeated. What is at issue are the lessons of history, and in the case of the killing of Christ, the Jewish political establishment knowingly sacrificed an innocent man to make life easier for itself. Today’s Jewish leaders are absolutely free of any guilt associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. I’ve testified here in this space several times in the last few years that I personally left the Catholic Church as a young man because at least some of its priests were still teaching that “Jews” were “Christ-killers.” It was only after Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII renounced that concept and the teaching stopped that I came back to the church.

As a result of our defense of Paul Weyrich, a political friend of 30 years whom I know to be free of bigotry and anti-Semitism, a deacon in his church, I’ve received dozens of e-mails from Jewish readers of my website who are angry that we have raised this issue. The general theme is that we must be anti-Semitic if we would even talk about the role played by the Jews of long ago in the murder of one holy Jewish man. As a political philosopher of sorts, I think it would be just as much a crime against history if we blotted out the memory of how one Jewish man was killed unjustly as if would be if we blotted out the memory of how six million Jews were put to death. The Good Shepherd to me has been the best political metaphor that I identify with the advance of civilization. The Good Shepherd does not exclude one sheep among hundreds or six million sheep among billions. The idea of exclusivity has been a problem for Christians, Jews and Muslims throughout the ages, and it remains so today, especially in the Holy Land. If we can view the political problems in the Middle East through the lens of history, perhaps they would not seem so intractable. I hope you would agree, Mr. Wiesel, and thank you again for your Times op-ed.