GUEST: Elie Wiesel
AIR DATE: 12/26/09
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And just a decade ago, at the very turn of what I still think of as our new century — when Elie Wiesel, my guest today and I had just put together in book form excerpts from what even then had already become our rather extensive collection of televised conversations — I noted that the very degree to which his beliefs were so deeply rooted in and reflected his Judaic tenets and traditions, while mine were quite so secular, had added an important and provocative dimension to the very quality of our exchanges as together we embraced John Milton’s singular inquiry, “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
But one wonders whether time has been all that kind to such innocent thoughts. And as my dear friend – author, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust witness and survivor Elie Wiesel – joins me here on The Open Mind once again today, I would put that question to him once again … would he, could he, now as then as baldly proclaim “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
For surely then it was still for me — though no longer — a statement of faith, more than a question. And today, Elie, I would ask what is it for you? Question? Statement of faith? Have … how have we changed?
WIESEL: I think the question’s becoming deeper and deeper. Even then both of us favored questions … the fact is that you are the one who asks the questions and I’ve tried always to answer them with more questions.
But now, really, with the years, I realize that the questions remain … answers don’t.
HEFFNER: Answers don’t?
WIESEL: They change. Answers change. According to the origin of people, nationality of people. Upbringing of people. But the questions remain always the same. Asked by or given to all of us.
HEFFNER: Do you think as many people ask questions today or make statements today?
WIESEL: If … ahhh … we are talking about intellect … intelligent and sometimes intellectual men and women, then they must ask questions. One cannot, one cannot really be part of the human society without questioning its goals. And, and the limits to which that society’s ready to go to achieve aspiration, attain a certain goal … you cannot … without a question, the person is not whole. It is the question that gives us the dimension either of sacredness, if you are a believer, or of death if you are an agnostic. But the main thing is, it is the question that, that leads you. There is quest in question. And therefore I love it.
We are both members of that so-called group … we are participating in a quest.
HEFFNER: But you know, I always thought … you say … talking about intellectuals … I always thought that I could depend upon Elie raising questions and I would smile … I would know that the answer to my question was always another question. That it was a wonderfully Jewish tradition.
WIESEL: Oh, it is really. You know in ancient, in ancient times an academy session would never be opened until the President of the academy would ask us one word … Sha’alu … means “ask”. Without that word no session began.
And we learned from that. Remember that the first question in scripture after all which is the book of our religious history at least, not secular, but religious history … is God asking Adam “Where are you?”
Adam’s hiding and God asked him “Ayekha” … “Where are you?”
And the question really is what God didn’t know where Adam and the answer is that God knew, Adam didn’t.
HEFFNER: And you keep asking.
WIESEL: Of course.
HEFFNER: The same question.
WIESEL: I ask myself, “Where am I” because you go on actually saying, but God meant where are you in your life? Where are you in this world? What are you doing with your life? And what are you doing to this world, so that the world becomes more inhabitable? More welcoming. And surely more human.
HEFFNER: Elie, is the world since we first sat at this table together which is a long, long time ago … is the world more welcoming?
WIESEL: Ah, depending to whom. There are still enough strangers, aliens who are looking for a home, for a refuge and cannot get it.
In a strange way I have the feeling that more people are in exile these days than before. Even people who live at home, who have a good job, have families … but the sentiment of exile, somehow … something is happening to our civilization. And that’s what worries me.
HEFFNER: A feeling, a sense of exile.
WIESEL: Of exile. The exile … the exile … illegal exile. For instance in some places there is still dictatorships … that we accept dictatorship anywhere on the planet is wrong. It means that we … we exiled our own ideas. And our ideals. And our commitments. That we don’t do what we should do.
I, I have been fighting, for instance … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad … who is a madman, a fanatic madman, a danger to the world. If he had an atom bomb he would use it because that’s what he says he would do. And I trust him. And therefore the world is … not doing anything.
I just read what he’s doing to those who protested the elections. My God … when that happened … I saw it on television … the young people, in the thousands, in the tens of thousands … there, there to defy him during the campaign … and resisting him, opposing him … he controlled the police, the army, the secret service, the guardian of the revolution, he controlled all the security systems. And nevertheless they dared … so one woman was killed almost in front of the television cameras. Now he arrested many of them and the world is silent?
You remember, because we spoke about it in the very beginning … my first book Night … I called it … I wrote this in Yiddish … was called And The World Was Silent … why did I call it like that? Because I said, I realized in that place of darkness … we had no idea what it was and then the former … all the inmates came to tell us what that place was. I turned to my father … I said, “It’s impossible. Impossible. We are living in the middle of the 20th century. And the world would be silent?” So I said, “Yes” and the world was silent.
And again, although I don’t compare the events …the world is silent. So what we did … a little foundation which I created with my wife Marion, we published a full page ad in The New York Times as you may have seen … I had 50 or more Nobel Laureates joining their signature with mine … simply a, a letter to those young men and women to tell them “You are not alone. We think of you. We are with you. We cannot come and fight on your side. But you are not abandoned. So abandoned by so many others.”
HEFFNER: Not by those who signed …
HEFFNER: … that ad.
WIESEL: Oh, no.
HEFFNER: But by the United States of America?
WIESEL: And the United Nations and even the United States and France and Britain, by what we call the leaders of the free world.
HEFFNER: And the difference between now and the time of Night?
WIESEL: Oh, I, I don’t compare periods of tragedies. It’s, it’s … analogies are dangerous because it goes both sides. It’s a two way street usually. If, if, if … if I were to say that it means that Auschwitz was only that … no. That’s why every tragedy deserves to be judged on, on its own cruelty.
HEFFNER: But the reactions to it?
WIESEL: The reaction must be the same. Whenever there’s warning, the reaction must be a moral response and that somehow the morality is, is absent. That’s what worries me today. We talk about everything … about the economy and about politics and about strategy and about military operations. One word is missing “ethos” … morality.
HEFFNER: Whatever we do … I remember you’re saying that … we must do … or whatever we think about … we must think about in moral terms.
WIESEL: That’s right. Absolutely. Whatever the answer is, the moral commitment must be its major component.
HEFFNER: What could we do. I don’t mean militarily, I don’t mean physically … what could we do that would indicate a moral involvement?
WIESEL: Oh, let’s say … suppose the President of the United States summons a group of moral leaders from all over the world, just to deal with this kind of situation, that at least we are together to come and shout or whisper our protest and say “We cannot condone that.”
We cannot go to military operations because we don’t want more wars, we have enough. But at least morally we must voice our real outrage.
HEFFNER: What if the President of the United States should summon such a group to indicate its moral outrage. What would the reaction be of … from those who were asked to do so?
WIESEL: Oh, I think first of all if, if really those people would come, nobody can say no to the President of the Untied States as a rule. And if it’s done with dignity and I, I know this President will be capable of such dignity and, and fervor. Then it creates the mood, it creates an atmosphere, an ambiance, it creates something so that a man like Ahmadinejad and the others, there must be others … small dictators who are as dangerous as he … where we don’t even know about them … like Darfur, for instance. It’s still … the tragedy of Darfur is still continuing. And there we shout … and there the young people by the way respond marvelously well.
I go to universities … the young people chose actually Darfur as a romantic revolution for them. And they are doing what they have to do … meaning signing petitions and go in response to help those victims in Darfur.
But at least what we can do is isolate those criminals who have power.
HEFFNER: Elie, the question I would ask and you will answer with another question I know … the question I would ask is whether that moral tone is possible in terms of what you have just recited as concern for all these other matters … military, economic, political.
Do you think around the world … I, I guess your, your … it is your faith that around the world there would be a moral response to such a moral request.
WIESEL: (Laughter) Dick, my friend, do you think I have more than faith? I don’t have more … I don’t …
HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean.
WIESEL: … I’m not so sure that it would work. I mean there is a marvelous, marvelous saying in the ethos of our fathers, which is a great of morality which says, “It’s not up to me to finish the job. But nor am I free to desist from it.” Which means, “Let’s begin …”
HEFFNER: Let’s begin.
HEFFNER: Is there any sign of that beginning?
WIESEL: These young people. I have faith in the young people today. I know that students that I teach or that I visit in other universities … they are ready to listen.
HEFFNER: The only trouble, Elie, is that I’m sure that if I go back to the many exchanges we’ve had I will find you saying that. And they’ve grown up now, they’re not young people anymore. They are those who turn more of a deaf ear to the kinds of plea you make.
WIESEL: There I, I, I am more … a little bit more optimistic. Maybe more naïve. I am convinced that those of … students who were your students or mine … that they are not … they are not silent today.
HEFFNER: What happened to them? What’s your guess of those, their counterparts of our students today, counterparts of 20 years ago, 30 years ago … where are they? Where are they at the barricades? Where are they expressing, given expression to the concern … the moral concern that you have? I don’t find them.
WIESEL: But at the table, the family table, I’m sure they discuss it. And that’s were it begins.
The French Revolution began not around the table, but in the street. But the modern revolution begins at the table, the family table.
HEFFNER: Elie, there’s a question … you know what I was going to do, I was going to take our Conversations with Elie Wiesel and have … and go through the, the various chapter headings and ask you whether you had changed your mind about things. Do you look back and feel that you have changed?
WIESEL: Oh, it depends, I may have changed attitudes, but not deep down. I … we spoke about it, about change in general and I think I told you once that if what I went through during the war didn’t change me, you think something else can change me?
HEFFNER: I’ll always remember …
HEFFNER: Always remember that.
WIESEL: But our attitudes certainly. Because we live with people and people are … each and one of them is unique. And therefore he or she has the right to say “Listen to me, and when you hear my story, or my view or my opinion or my pain, then you will change your attitude.” I must listen.
HEFFNER: You dedicated resources from your Nobel Prize to meetings together … conversations. As you look back how do you feel about the efficacy …
WIESEL: First of all, one of the first things we did, actually … you remember in 1988, together with Francois Mitterrand, the President of France, we organized the very first Conference of Nobel Laureates …
WIESEL: … from all the disciplines for the very first time. And we came to it because I felt that this is the most exclusive club in the world …
WIESEL: … and the members don’t know one another … they didn’t. So they came to it, and we had 79 Nobel Laureates. The Foundation, which Marion and I created, actually, she’s the one who handles it, it’s on her shoulders. I am … it is my name, but she is doing everything. But that was the beginning. And since then we have many more conferences, the latest one we had in Jordan with King Abdullah four times he brought together Nobel Laureates from all, all over the world … you know to try to find, if not the answers, at least the questions. So I think more and more people now are sensitive to that need to ask the right question.
HEFFNER: One couldn’t avoid … given the proximity of your … of these last meetings … the question of the state of Israel. Your questions, have they changed about Israel?
WIESEL: Yes. I was much more optimistic last time we spoke. Because I … we brought together for the first time Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas. And when the met they fell into each others arms. And that actually made me very optimistic, saying if that is possible … because we had tears … they had tears in their eyes and we had in ours. And if that is possible, that means everything is possible. That means both sides should say “It’s enough, come on, it’s enough. We cannot take it anymore. How many generations have to suffer? Before, before the, the magic … the magic word of, of reconciliation or peace has some effect and some weight?”
But now, unfortunately, we are still waiting. Will it come? It has to come. At one point it has to, you know.
HEFFNER: Why do you say that … it has to?
WIESEL: Because both sides must be tired … just that … tired. I think that 30 year old … that 30 year war ended because both sides (laugh) or all sides are tired. And here again, tired … it’s 60 years, 60 years. How long can it go on?
So the problems remain the same, actually. And they became more acute. In truth, the real problem today, as we talk is not between the Palestinians and Israel … it’s between Palestinians and Palestinians and Gaza on one hand and the Territories on the other. So which is Palestine? You cannot have two Palestinian states.
HEFFNER: Could one say with any fairness it is … not equally … you’ve disabused me of looking for parallels, but that it is Israeli versus Israeli?
WIESEL: Not really. In Israel you have most of the Israelis … most of the Israelis including the present Prime Minister who is … after all comes from the Right, Right Wing … really most Israelis believe that the solution is a two state solution. They agree on that.
HEFFNER: Well, would Israel act on that belief?
WIESEL: They would. Absolutely. There is no counterpart … a real adversary who is ready to become an ally. I have no doubt it would happen. It’s not easy. Not easy.
But the main thing is, I think, they should start with that idea in, in their heart. Meaning to somehow push aside for the moment insoluble questions and then wait. But start with those questions that cannot be answered easily.
HEFFNER: Like what?
WIESEL: Like what? Simply give up violence on both sides. Violence. And then create a state … a Palestinian state. The insoluble question that is Jerusalem, for instance. Let’s say a moratorium for ten years, we don’t talk about Jerusalem, what it is … what it is for ten years. But in the meantime Israel is ready to, to give up … but by then I think 90% of the territories and the other 10% in some big settlements, will be compensated by Israeli territory. So that can be, that can be solved in, in 24 hours.
HEFFNER: You’re serious about that?
WIESEL: I’m serious.
HEFFNER: Certainly that doesn’t conform to so many of the reports that come from Israel.
WIESEL: Oh, no, because it, it’s lasting … again and again and again. So Abbas, Abbas is too weak and I think we should help Abbas because he is moderate. But then you have Hamas in Gaza … and democratically elected.
So either are the elections now and what do we do if Hamas wins … even in the Territories. So there are imponderables.
HEFFNER: And where do we go next then?
WIESEL: Where … there?
HEFFNER: You … we’re, we’re, we’re … yes, let’s say there. Elie Wiesel will make the decisions. Elie Wiesel will call the shots which does he call? What’s the first step?
WIESEL: The first step is to being them together, officially. To bring, let’s say the Prime Minister of Israel, the President of the Palestinians and their staff … and there’s only one item on the agenda. And the agenda is the end of war, the end of violence … whatever it is, whatever it takes … the end. No more killing. No more wars. No more attacks. No more suicide killers. No more bombings. And, and the next step therefore will be a Palestinian state. With which Israel has to live in security and in confidence.
HEFFNER: And the role the United States must play? Can play?
WIESEL: Oh … can, of course. You cannot do it without the United States. And the European community now … they’ve become … a very forceful element in the game.
HEFFNER: Are they likely …
WIESEL: I think “Yes”. I think a major, major conference in Europe would accept American leadership.
HEFFNER: And what must that leadership do now?
WIESEL: Ah … speak morally (laugh) … I’m serious, really.
HEFFNER: Speak morally?
WIESEL: Speak morally. That’s not only a political … it’s not only … or no longer a political problem, it should be a moral problem. Can yourself … if you can solve a political situation because you view it in its moral structure, then we are half the way through.
HEFFNER: We don’t seem to be doing very well at that.
HEFFNER: At solving that problem in a … in moral terms. But rather it seems to me that the moral questions are being more and more dealt with in political manners.
WIESEL: So what do we do?
HEFFNER: That’s why I ask you …
HEFFNER: … Elie. I can’t find that Elie, my friend, doesn’t have answers that I search for and don’t have.
WIESEL: I don’t have the answers. I, I live with that pain …so do you. So much wants it to be … really stop it. It’s too long, too long, too long. I know from the Israeli side, really, so many parents who lost their children. And I note again, when I speak and I go to Israel … we, my little foundation Marion takes care of … we take care of a 1,000 Ethiopian children in Israel. Education and so forth. And it’s … what, what we can do with children, you know, we would do the same thing with Palestinian children with great, great joy.
HEFFNER: When we first sat here would you have dreamed … could you have dreamed that we would be back here so many years later with the same discussion?
WIESEL: Didn’t I tell you that questions remain? (Laugh) And answers not. All the answers were wrong until now. Take the Oslo Accords. I, I was for it …
HEFFNER: I know.
WIESEL: I went to Washington to the ceremony and so forth. I was for it. I, I thought it was a great day. Now everybody believes it was a mistake.
HEFFNER: Why, why really a mistake?
WIESEL: Well …
HEFFNER: But it wasn’t a mistake.
WIESEL: I am for it. I’m for it … sure. But if you speak to the Israelis … very, very few Israelis will accept that it was a good idea. It didn’t … it didn’t work.
HEFFNER: Could there be any other path?
WIESEL: I don’t really … there must be something very dramatic … simply to shake them up and say “It’s enough. Come. Sit down. And let’s talk. And let’s talk. And we don’t move from that table until we leave with that, with that solution which is independence for both States and peace for both people.”
HEFFNER: Which is probably the best way to end this latest of our programs together with that wish. Elie thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind.
WIESEL: As always. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.