A woman’s allegation this week that Elie Wiesel groped her more than 27 years ago, when she was 19, provides us with a teaching moment, sad as it is for all concerned: the woman, Jenny Listman, now a 46-year-old geneticist; and the Wiesel family, foundation and countless admirers, including The Jewish Week staff.
Does Listman’s allegation merit coverage? Her long, detailed description of the incident and the impact it had on her, leading to treatment for depression, has a ring of authenticity. Writing on her blog, she identifies herself by name and other details, eschewing anonymity. Her boyfriend at the time of the incident corroborated her telling him of it just after it happened, according to a report in Newsweek. And the story has already been made public on the websites of Newsweek, Salon and JTA. (It first appeared in The Forward but was deleted the next day with an apology from the Forward staff, whose statement said the report at the time did not meet the website’s journalistic standards.)
In addition, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity responded to the charge, issuing a statement to Newsweek. “We utterly reject this spurious accusation,” it said, noting that the Nobel Peace Laureate “had a decades-long role as a respected teacher and mentor to countless students. At no time during his long career has anything like this even been suggested.”
The immediacy of technology and social media, coupled with the dramatic upswell of #metoo responses by female victims of assault — sparked by accusations against Harvey Weinstein — have created a tidal wave of emotion that has yet to crest. It speaks to a deep level of pent-up anger, and Listman movingly advises doubters: “Listen with all your energy and do not speak.”
Still, there are questions here beyond whether or not the incident occurred. How does one measure the degree of severity and responsibility for an unwanted touch Listman describes as “an evil act,” one that may have led her to the years of the anxiety and panic attacks she cites? How does one defend on behalf of someone no longer alive? Should a single allegation threaten Wiesel’s lifelong record as a world leading advocate of human rights?
“I am not to blame for robbing the Jewish community of a leader, the world of a symbol, or his family of their memories,” Listman wrote. “I did not do it. He did.”
We recognize Jenny Listman’s pain. For many, like for her, Elie Wiesel’s sterling reputation has been tarnished beyond repair. For others, whatever transpired that day in 1989 will not undo his remarkable accomplishments as a survivor, writer and teacher. Wiesel was never comfortable as an icon, and we are reminded, painfully, he was human, imperfect, flawed. A lesson for all of us.
Editor’s Note: After the publication of this article, an apology has been issued.