Elie Wiesel … On Upheaval and Hate

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Elie Wiesel… on Upheaval and Hate”
VTR: 9/3/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest, when he was here last time, as often before, spoke with me about his continuing efforts to engage some of the world’s most creative and experienced thinkers in the exploration first, of the psychological roots of hate; second, of the economic, social, religious and political conditions that transform negative attitudes and feelings into violent and destructive behavior; then of the ubiquity of human conflict at every level: inter-personal, inter-group, and inter-national; and last of the strategies by which we can move toward a more productive approach to resolving or preventing human conflict.

Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for his life-long efforts at achieving peace among men and women and between nations. Of course, even as he has devoted its rewards to furthering his dissection of the anatomy of hate, the face, the map, of the world has changed. And I would ask Elie Wiesel now how the dramatic national upheavals we are experiencing here at the end of our century are likely to impact upon his efforts.

Wiesel: Not easy, the events are too many, and they go very fast — too fast. You don’t have time to catch your breath, literally. Who would have thought that the Communist Empire would crumble in three days? What happened to Lenin? What happened to Marx? What happened to Stalin? To, to Vyshinsky to all of these great… great, anyway in quotation marks… but, but terrifying leaders of Soviet Russia. What happened to their disciples, to their teaching? What went wrong? The fact is that it fell from inside. It is not the Western world that defeated the Communist Empire, it was defeated by itself. So what were the forces there? The forces of evil that all of a sudden gave in, to whom, to what? To a few young guys, and girls, we saw them (inaudible). Now we’re thinking about it and I must say I am not entirely at peace with what is happening, I’m worried…

Heffner: Why?

Wiesel: I am worried… first because of the speed. It was too fast, perhaps. I’m glad that it happened, of course. When nations regain their right to be sovereign, to be free, it’s great, it, it’s beautiful. I use the word advisedly. We need beauty, and, and there is beauty in that victory, in that endeavor. But I’m afraid of what comes after. With what will you replace Communism. Communism, after all, was a movement that has inspired hundreds and millions of men and women all over the world. Now they are left empty, empty of faith, empty of ideas, empty of ideals, what can replace communism? Will it be religion? Because after all we must also recognize that together with Communism, atheism has abdicated. No more atheism. You should see in Russia the return to religion… everywhere, Christian, Jewish, Muslin… the young people come back to religion. Will religion succeed Communism? Maybe nationalism. If so, it’s dangerous because nationalist religion, or religious nationalism is very dangerous.

Heffner: Now do you think that those who have stood on the sidelines and cheered… those of us who have done that, who have been so delighted with what had been called for a few years “the end of history,” no longer that great conflict between East and West, the East had crumbled, do you think that we have been unrealistic, first in cheering on what we have seen happening in the Soviet Union in the past two weeks as we speak today, but before that that last two years of the breakup of the controls over Eastern Europe, with the rise of nationalism and the rise of religion as you describe it. Do you think we have been previous?


Wiesel: No because we are dreamers and I think it’s good to dream such dreams, that it’s possible to overthrow dictatorship, that is important. But is maybe a source of anguish or should be, is the fact that we have not foreseen it. No one has. The CIA has not, the KGB has not, the Moussad in Israel has not, the French Oeuxieme Bureau has not. So much so that actually I would suggest to do away with all of them, we don’t need all these intelligence agencies. What we need is to take the budgets for all this intelligence work and build more schools, more hospitals, to help children simply grow up as decent human being since they are not as gifted as they should be or as efficient as they should be… this may be… I’m teasing you… but the fact is no one has foreseen that the Eastern German reaction, Polish liberation, Rumania, Hungary, it all came as a surprise.

Heffner: Now your various conferences on hate, your concern to… for the anatomy of hate… what do you think is going to be the impact upon that concern of the rise again of nation-states. No longer the Soviet giant, but rather individual states, feeling their oats.

Wiesel: What will happen to Armenia and Azerbaijan, will they now live in peace, because they will be free? Can you reassure me, can you guarantee that there is no madmen among the Colonels or the sergeants in Armenia, or in Azerbaijan who may have access to some nuclear missiles. You think he won’t use them against each other? I worry… that’s my real worry that hatred in this case could produce a world disaster, because once unleashed the nuclear evil will dominate with its impact history to come.

Heffner: Has there been any indication, not in just the recent weeks as we speak, in the Soviet Union, in Russia, but rather in Eastern Europe over the past two years that the breakup of the once monolithic empire has spawned the kind of hatreds that you concern yourself?

Wiesel: Well, yes and no. It could be worse, I’m afraid it would be, and it will be. But I, I… I’m not first of all expert in this, in foreign policy, surely not in Soviet matters, I’m not a Kremlinologist or a Sovietologist.

Heffner: But, then let’s, let’s focus for a minute on a question that I’m sure you do know a great deal about and that is the matter of, let’s say of anti-Semitism…

Wiesel: Ah, absolutely.

Heffner: …in Eastern Europe. What has happened to that phenomenon?

Wiesel: Well, Dick, anti-Semitism is there. Therefore hatred is there. We’ve spoken about it very often. I don’t believe that anti-Semitism can be a limited phenomenon. Those who hate Jews, hate other people as well. Those who hate Jews hate blacks, hate Muslims, hate minorities… they always find other people to hate. And we know that there is anti-Semitism. In Poland there’s anti-Semitism, without Jews. In Romania… I was in Romania a few weeks ago, there was a 50th anniversary of the pogrom. I have seen anti-Semitism. They have two weekly newspapers, tremendous circulation, openly, viciously, outrageously anti-Semitic. And I asked the President, I asked the Prime Minister, I asked writers, colleagues of mine and yours, “why are you silent,” and they said, “we are afraid.” The writers told me they were afraid. I said, “why don’t you publish articles, at least, say something, sign petitions.” After the visit they did do something, they did sign petitions and so forth. Maybe it’s going to improve, I hope so. The fact is that is… I‘m sure it’s the result of the… of what happened in Washington… the Senate of the United States and the House of Representatives have unanimously adopted resolutions condemning anti-Semitism in Rumania, and calling upon the president to, to tie the economic aid to the efforts of the government to fight anti-Semitism. And in Russia we have the Pamyat. Pamyat is a vicious group. Around the Pamyat you have a periphery of anti-Semites. And these people openly say they want to kill Jews. They simply say they don’t even want the Jews to go to Israel, because they want to kill them in Russia.


Heffner: Now to what extent did the totalitarian state in Eastern Europe, in the individual countries, in the Soviet Union, to what extent has, over the past several decades, the power of the central state diminished the impact of this anti-Semitism?

Wiesel: Oh, it has because it diminished freedom of speech. Since nobody spoke the anti-Semites couldn’t speak either, unless the government wanted to be anti-Semite, which you remember in Stalin’s times. When Stalin became anti-Semitic the entire Communist Empire became anti-Semite and openly, I mean officially anti-Semitic. But otherwise, nobody’s free. The Jews are not free, the enemies of the Jews are not free either. But once freedom came they, they used it and they abused it. And they sill use it and abuse it.

Heffner: It’s strange to think of such activities, mental, physical or otherwise as part of the uses of freedom.

Wiesel: That is, of course, what, what… the price that we pay for democracy. Absolutely. And I… I’m not sure what to do about it, but what is the alternative? I would not suppress the freedom of speech, I would not suppress the freedom of expression, I would not suppress the freedom of belief. I wouldn’t. And yet… and yet…

Heffner: Tell me, Elie, why wouldn’t you?

Wiesel: Oh,…

Wiesel: When you have as great an evil as you have witnessed, why would you not prohibit it, forbid it, ban it?

Wiesel: Because I still believe in the power of, of the word, and the power of the mind and the power of language and the power of argument and I think that those who fight anti-Semitism, or hatred, racial hatred, racism, prejudice are strong enough, intellectually strong enough, should be morally strong enough to defeat the anti-Semites without resorting to the law.

Heffner: You hope… or you believe?

Wiesel: Both. Let me… no… I’m divided. My heart and my mind. Rationally, I think I’m wrong, I’d rather have laws against it… in some countries there are laws. Incitement against people is, is illegal in France, for instance. Group actions and so forth, it should be here, too. But deep down I would prefer to think that because we are teachers and because we know how to use ideas, that the ideas of humanity are stronger than the temptations, the seduction of inhumanity.

Heffner: You say the, the seduction of inhumanity. What it is that is so seductive about hatred, about inhumanity?

Wiesel: To be able to hate somebody gives to the hater a very strong feeling that he is superior. He knows the truth and I don’t. He looks at me and he hates me because I’m a Jew, or because I’m an intellectual, or because I’m white, or because I am not this or that, and he passes judgment. He knows that I’m wrong, he knows what I shouldn’t do. He knows the answers, I only know the questions. But he knows all the answers. He needs to humiliate me in order to feel sure of himself. He needs to imprison me and only then does he feel free. It gives him, I mean gives the hater tremendous power in his own eyes. And there is seduction. Now for those who serve the hater, let’s say somebody who works for a dictator, or for a hater, there is also seduction. There is the will to believe that somebody is a leader, somebody has the authority, somebody knows what to do, when. You remember when Mussolini actually was elected… why… because he said the trains, you know the trains…

Heffner: Would run on time.

Wiesel:…would be on time. And with that slogan he won the elections.

Wiesel: But, Elie, you know, we’ve sat at this table and talked many times about this century, what an extraordinary, soon to be 100 years it has been. What in it feeds your hopefulness?

Wiesel: Oh, it’s absurd. (Laughter)

Heffner: Your hopefulness is.

Wiesel: Sure, naturally. Oh, I know I shouldn’t. But because I know I shouldn’t I try to nourish it, to feed it and then to strengthen it. What is the alternative? You are a teacher, I’m a teacher and we have students. How can I teach them despair? I don’t want to teach them despair. I want to teach them that there is a reason, of course, to be desperate. But that they must do something against it. And that we can do something against it. Now the, the century, as you say, is the most violent century in history… sure… it’s true, Hannah Arendt called it that way. Now I believe that there’s something about the last decade when we come to the end of the decade, which is the end of the century, and the end of the millenium, and therefore things go very fast because history wants to purge itself. History wants to purge itself of its demons, of its ghosts, of its temptations, and I have the feeling history says, “enough, I can’t stand it anymore. Enough with your wars. Enough with your violence. Enough with your hatreds. Enough with your games. Enough with your, with your catastrophes, man-made catastrophes. Let’s turn the page. Let’s go quickly to the year 2000.” Therefore, things happen so fast.


Heffner: Elie, I, love it when you speak that way because I know you feel it…

Wiesel: Oh…

Heffner:… but you don’t believe it.

Wiesel: Of course not. But I believe that there is something about this decade which we don’t understand. But I believe that there are mystical forces in history. Irrational forces. We should try to understand them, to explore them, to evaluate their strength.

Heffner: Well, then, how have you reacted to the notion of the end of history?

Wiesel: You know, I am a Jew and I study Jewish sources, and when I hear an expression like this, I will go back to my sources in the Jewish sources. And in mysticism, in the Cabala you speak about the end of times. We don’t say “end of history”… history being… the Bible is past history… there is no word for history in Hebrew, in biblical language. And we speak about the end of times. But for us it is not apocalyptic event, it’s a redemptive event, that means we are close to redemption. And we say the end of times is coming, that means the redemption is here.

Heffner: Well, isn’t that in a sense what this phrase “the end of history” has been meant to mean? That the end of conflict, meaning redemption, is here.

Wiesel: Oh, I, I think the end of history means many things to many people. It can also mean that there is nothing else to do.

Heffner: You mean a shrug of the shoulders…

Wiesel: Exactly, there’s nothing else to do. It’s the end of history. History… what is history? History, after all, is, is an experiment, it’s a laboratory. And it is given to us so we can work in it and on it and on ourselves. I know that when I work on myself something is happening to someone else. Rather than, than working on someone else and forcing him or her to do things that I want… that I would like him to do or I’d like her to do, I use constraint on myself…

Heffner: Now…

Wiesel:…and then something happens. Maybe…

Heffner: What do you think is going to happen? What… if you, if you… if I give you the crystal ball, you are in your mystical phase now here in this last decade of this, of this benighted century…

Wiesel: We don’t want me to answer that, surely…

Wiesel: Yes. Yes, yes I do. In… I can’t help but think what you have lived through in your life, in your lifetime what you have lived through, what you have written about. I can’t help as I look at the end of unity in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, as I look at the rise of nationalism, as I look at the rise of religion again… I can’t help but wonder what in the world is Elie Wiesel thinking?

Wiesel: I’ll tell you, I had once… I had the feeling that the world has come to an end and that was in 1944. The darkest moment in my life. That night I arrived there and I had then the feeling of the end of the history, the end of time. And the end of the Jewish people. I saw people coming from all over, history from all over the world, all over the Diaspora, speaking all languages, representing all areas of human endeavor, young, old, rich, poor, ignorant, learned… all of them. I figured they were drawn to the fire. And my feeling was “this is the end.” It was. The world had come to an end then. Which means the world is no more. The world I think it was before. But it is given to man to build on the end, to build on ruins… there are ruins. What else can we do?

Heffner: It’s a question you keep putting to me and in, in my efforts to make you… push you to express despair, and I think your, your answer, your question is a very good one, “well, what else can we do?”


Wiesel: What else can I do really? First of all I must know… I must show the despair, which I have done. That means that there is enough reason for mankind to despair of its own fate. We have lost, we have lost many things in that world. We now jubilate, we say “Hitler lost and the Nazis lost, the Fascists lost.” It’s true they lost militarily and so forth, but the dead are dead, they cannot come back. And we have lost so many illusions.

Heffner: Now illusions you mentioned before, you spoke before about the rise again of nationalism. You spoke before about the rise of religion again. How do you, a religious person view the rise of religion? Or religions?

Wiesel: Or religions? Yes. I said what I feel about religion. I feel religion must be a humanizing experience for a human being. If religion becomes a tool in the hand of fanatic then it is a wrong religion and that fanatic betrays God just as he or she betrays his or her fellow human being. And unfortunately, fanaticism and religion have gone hand in hand for too long. I’m afraid of that. I’m concerned about it. Because fanaticism, too, is a seduction. Once you believe that whatever you do you do in the name of a higher power, you do it for the sake of God, for the sake of Heaven, it’s dangerous. And I would like to believe that as a Jew I am what I am. And I would… I must respect that… I do respect those who are not Jewish. As someone who does study and I come from a religious background and I tried to define myself from within that tradition, I respect anyone who does not belong to that tradition, as long as that spirit of tolerance is shared. I don’t want to be faced with intolerance, for that I have to answer a different way.

Heffner: In an intolerant way?

Wiesel: I don’t know how. But anyway I know I cannot be tolerant to the intolerant.

Heffner: One used to think of Elie Wiesel in that way, as one who would be tolerant to the intolerant…

Wiesel: I don’t know.

Heffner: …gentleness that you…

Wiesel: …no, I think I would fight it with words, I wouldn’t use force. I don’t know how. I’m a coward. I don’t want to use weapons. But I would fight it with words surely. That I wouldn’t accept… intolerance in any way, under any disguise, I think is wrong. Not only for me, but for anyone, and therefore what, what can I do? Use words. I would write. I would write more essays. I would call you and have more, more conversations with you. But we cannot, cannot admit that tolerance should have the last word, except that is in the service of tolerance. And intolerance is never in the service except of the fanatic.

Heffner: Elie, is there any indication that in the councils of the wise and the powerful around the world there is a recognition of the touchiness, the question… questionability of the, of the present situation that freeing men of some restraints does not necessarily lead to nirvana?

Wiesel: No. But I feel, I feel that there is an anguish… you know, I, I think before we came I told you… I was in Russia during the Putsch and I met Gorbachev. I can tell you I have seen the loneliest man in the world. I have rarely seen a man as lonely. All of a sudden… I tried to imagine him… as a novelist. If I were to write a novel would he belong to Dostoevsky, to Pushkin, would he belong to Tolstoy… all this, actually, is a novel… it’s a huge, dramatic novel. And he, he was there and I imagined what he was thinking. I felt that he must have thought “My God, I believed in friendship, I can believe in friendship no more.” After all Communism is comradely friendship. All of his friends betrayed him. He believed in Communism, that was his life and that was his fate, it crumbled. He believed in power, he was one of the two most powerful men in the world… and he had no power. The power that he had, he received it from Yeltsin who wasn’t his friend, or from a few security guards, who stayed with him, who stayed loyal to him. But what did he think? He was so sad. He looked so melancholy because he was alone, and I’m convinced that that day was the first day when he came out, immediately after… a few hours after he came back from, from his prison, he must have seen the same thing, that something went wrong with history in his land, and therefore with the psyche of people that he had known.


Heffner: Elie, do you think, and I see that we have a minute left, do you think that in this country we will come to the conclusion that something is wrong and withdraw?

Wiesel: From there? No. I think…

Heffner: Withdraw from the world councils?

Wiesel: I don’t think so. I think we must help them. I really… if I were to say something about it, I would say we must now establish an airlift, a 24-hour a day airlift of food, medication to send to, to the people in Russia. There’s going to be famine… children may die, we must save those children.

Heffner: Do you think that is what we will do?

Wiesel: I hope so.

Wiesel: You know, we reach the end of our program and I’m always hard-pressed to say, “well, that’s it” because you raise so many questions, but that’s your genius… you do…

Wiesel: (Laughter)

Heffner:… raise those questions.

Wiesel: It’s not my vocation…

Heffner: (Laughter) Elie Wiesel, thank you so much for joining me again on THE OPEN MIND. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program, about our guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation, the New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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