Writer, teacher, and Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel discusses anti-Semitism.
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GUEST: Elie Wiesel
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I think perhaps it was George Will who put today’s subject most succinctly, reflecting that “Anti-Semitism is the world’s most durable ideology.”
Surely it has been the most persistent – and pernicious – throughout my near four score years.
And though my guest and I discussed anti-Semitism here just a couple of years ago, its outrages remain such a source of concern for all thoughtful persons and surface so often these days …the British and Italian press, in the streets of France and Germany and elsewhere beyond our borders, even in truly disturbing public opinion polls here in the United States, I return to it again with writer, teacher, much honored Noble Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, witness to and victim of the inhumanity of anti-Semitism in the years of the Holocaust.
Now my guest has joined me here on The Open Mind many times over the past twenty years. Indeed, the transcripts of the two dozen and more programs we have done together – edited by Tom Vinciguerra – form the basis of the most recent soft-cover edition of our Random House-Schocken Press volume titled Conversations With Elie Wiesel.
And as I look back over our book, ranging from our very first conversation on “The Nature of Human Nature,” I can’t help but imagine the pain my guest feels as he must again and again – seemingly unendingly, without surcease – face the abomination of anti-Semitism.
And I ask – I hope he will not think brutally – as I have asked Elie Wiesel before: in its presence, what faith can he maintain? Elie, that’s a question we’ve discussed …
WIESEL: I know.
HEFFNER: … before, and I wonder about your ability to maintain your faith.
WIESEL: You and I have been friends for so many years, isn’t it sad that when two friends meet we should discuss anti-Semitism?
HEFFNER: Yeah. Yeah.
WIESEL: We should discuss literature, poetry, beauty, music and even more than that, just our lives. And here we are to discuss anti-Semitism. One of the ugliest manifestations of the human spirit because it is stupid. The anti-Semite is not only a racist, he’s stupid.
HEFFNER: Why do you say “stupid”?
WIESEL: Because he really believes that we control the world. That is absolutely the basis of the Protocols of the Sages of Zion which is a kind of a bible for the anti-Semite. They are convinced that we have more money than everybody, or more, more friends in high places and more to say. And that when we say something, people obey. Come on. They’re stupid. They believe that one can be poor and be an anti-Semite. And rich and be an anti-Semite. Because they believe that the Jew is to be hated. For what he or she is.
Now if had power would we have endured so many persecutions? So many tragedies? And even now the anguish that fills a Jewish child in Israel … especially the parents of the child … never knowing whether the child, who is taking the bus to school, will not be led afterwards to a cemetery.
So, it’s, it’s incredible, but it’s there … and what hurts me most, my good friend, you should know that by now … I’m sure we spoke about it … I was convinced in 1945 … that I will not have to fight that battle again. I thought there would be other battles, but not this one. And here we are. Once more. To fight what we call the most ancient prejudice in history.
HEFFNER: Elie, let me ask a question that is … well, I won’t characterize it … if in 1945 we weren’t looking forward to the creation of the state of Israel, do you think you would be experiencing … I would be experiencing … our children would … the potential for anti-Semitism, to the degree that we must today?
WIESEL: Jews were hated before Israel was born and after. Somehow it’s enduring. Jews were hated because they were believers and non-believers because they were particularists and Universalists. They were hated and they still are. Except today … because … it’s true … because of the … let’s say the experience, the historical experience of, of Israel, things have changed a little bit. The direction has changed. Until … let’s say … until recently … last fifty years … who was the anti-Semite … from the Right Wing. The reactionary. Usually for religious reasons.
Now it’s the Left Wing. They hate Israel to such an extent that it becomes anti-Semitic; although in the beginning they are not. But it, it runs over. And then what you mentioned … the press … in, in Europe you see the press … it’s anti-Semite, not only anti-Zionist or anti-Israel … and therefore you have in the middle … the critical mass of Muslims in Europe. You have 6 million, if not more, Muslims in France. And they are in the middle; they are so violently anti-Zionist that there … again, it runs over.
HEFFNER: What’s going to happen?
HEFFNER: Not just to us and ours. What’s going to happen to a world in which this, this disease is so prevalent.
WIESEL: Oh, it’s not only anti-Semitism. I always believed that who hates, hates everybody. Anti-Semitism is hatred; hatred is a cancer. If it goes from cell to cell, from limb to limb, from person to person, it begins with anti-Semitism and then it goes to others.
Today the real threat is the suicide terrorists. It began in Israel, not in Japan. People call it “Kamikaze” … wrong. The kamikaze was a soldier and giving his life in order to attack only military targets. The suicide terrorist is a killer and he merely kills children. Not only in Israel.
Look what happened now in, in Russia. I, I cry. I don’t like to cry. I cried when I saw those children. And the killers shot them in the back. How can they do to children things that they shouldn’t even do to their enemies?
I would have had sympathy for the Chechens … after all, they want freedom … I am for a people that wants its freedom. But it blew me away like that. How? They don’t think that they deserve … if that is what they do, in order to get their independence. There are certain limits … you cannot go beyond those limits and still be called “civilized”. It’s not only there, its everywhere. Look in our own country, we live in fear. Let’s admit it. The home … the homeland security is actually in response to fear. We live in fear. Any day the terrorists can come actually, and we cannot seal the borders and we cannot turn our nation, which is a nation built on certain values … you cannot make it into a dictatorship, which means to use terrorist methods to fight terrorists. You cannot do that.
HEFFNER: Elie, that brings me back 20 years or more to the first time we sat at this table and our topic was “the nature of human nature”. What are we saying now about that question that we dealt with 20 years ago, when you were, if I remember correctly, much more optimistic, much more positive about the nature of human nature. Much more hopeful. Do you remain so?
WIESEL: I force myself. I’m serious. I force myself to be optimistic. I have no right to give despair to our young readers or viewers. I have no right. I can … if I speak of violence in some of my books, because I’m against violence … but the same if I speak of despair because I’m against despair. And we must do whatever we can to give the proper means to these young people, to not despair.
HEFFNER: Right. Except that what are we saying about … about ourselves … about our fellow human beings … about the nature of human nature. If it has room for the horror of the Holocaust, but perhaps even more importantly the horror that we just witnessed …
WIESEL: Well, first of all that human nature is we haven’t learned anything from that dark day. We haven’t learned that whoever kills … and goes on killing … they killed Jews, but not only Jews and now they kill everybody who doesn’t agree with them. They will kill their own brothers and sisters and parents … they will do that. They haven’t learned … which means we have not transmitted the right message. That’s what worries me most. I tried all my life to bear witness and to teach. I’m not sure that we have found the right words.
HEFFNER: Do you think, perhaps, Elie, and I know what you’re going to say … you’re going to say “no” because you must not be despairing … but is it impossible to think of us as unteachable?
WIESEL: Look … we are teachers after all … we are teachers in spite of everything (laughter) … look I think I must have said it 20 years ago and there are certain things which I believe … I cannot give in … therefore I cannot give up … it’s true there are all the elements now that move me to despair … because I see what’s happening again … not only in Israel. Israel is closest to me therefore of course I suffer with Israel whenever tragedy strikes Israel. But when I see others as well, it’s all over the world … to this day there are 65 conflicts on the planet. Haven’t people learned anything about war? That war is grotesque, that it’s brutal. War means corpses, orphans, widows. They go on.
HEFFNER: You can’t believe that. You can’t believe that it is true. But it does seem to be true.
WIESEL: It does seem so.
HEFFNER: We don’t learn.
WIESEL: Yes. But we … let’s be honest … who are these people who do that? They’re a minority. In every country they’re a minority. Even in Islam, they’re a minority.
So I don’t want that they should hijack history, that we should say, “therefore because these people in these places … let’s say the extremists in certain lands … because they do what they are doing, that they are inhuman, that they are traitors against humanity and I should say, therefore, that humanity is bad”. There are also people who fight them with words, or with political means, or they fight them, they oppose them. They, too, are part of humanity. So I would rather wager on humanity. But I say it with a heavy heart, you know that.
HEFFNER: Good and evil. We’re in the midst of a … once again … of political exchanges in which presumably the forces of evil are arrayed against the forces of “good”. Hasn’t that been a curse we have suffered from throughout man’s history?
WIESEL: From Cain and Abel. But it began, actually, with Adam and Eve. When they ate from the wrong tree … I thought …
HEFFNER: The wrong tree.
WIESEL: The wrong tree. God said, “eat from anything … do that”. And God was a very poor psychologist because he should have known that because he said, “don’t touch that tree, but eat from that [the other] tree”, they would precisely eat from that tree. God should learn psychology.
But then came Cain and Abel, the first murder. Death entered history as a murder, and what murder … a brother killed a brother. So, of course, we know that. But Adam and Eve had other children. They didn’t stop. Had they stopped I think it would have been better. But then we wouldn’t have our exchange here.
HEFFNER: You’re joking, of course.
HEFFNER: But maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not a joke.
WIESEL: Ahhhh, it’s not a joke. It’s not because … 2000 years ago when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, there were people, they were called Pharoses … and they left their wives … Pharisee means from the Hebrew word Parosh, “separating the separated from their wives”. And they said, “We don’t want to have children anymore”. They said, “If this is what God wants, to destroy a temple, a city, a people, we don’t want more children”. I understand that. But they were overruled.
HEFFNER: “If this is what God wants …” and that, that … I, I touch on these grounds very gingerly … your own faith, you’ve never been ready, willing or able to talk about faith and God …
WIESEL: Ahhh, I think we should have another book …
WIESEL: To have another volume, second volume, 20 years later. I do. I do. Naturally, I do. I cannot not do because I remain … inside faith … I never left … I never divorced God. I wanted to be rather a victim of God, than be an orphan of God.
HEFFNER: Explain yourself, please.
WIESEL: I never give up on God. I went on believing him, because I believed that I have problems with him, I still have problems … I quarrel with him all the time. How can … I always ask him, “How can YOU, you are the one who gave us the law, you have written this and this and this … how CAN you be silent? You want me to speak up when an injustice is committed. You want ME to bear witness when a person suffers. You have millions of people suffering and you are Silent?”
I speak always from within because I come from a very religious family. My father was religious, my grandfather and his … I go back many, many generations. In our tradition we become descendants of Rashi, the commentator. I don’t want to be the last who speaks to God.
HEFFNER: What is the answer you receive, pray tell?
WIESEL: That’s the problem. He doesn’t answer. Or maybe he does? That’s what theologians will tell you … maybe he does. But I ask the questions in my language and maybe God answers in his, but it’s not the same language.
HEFFNER: Why don’t you hear the language … or …
WIESEL: Maybe because God doesn’t want me to hear the language. When we speak theologically, of course, when we go from question to question … not from answer to answer. The answer is a phonetics answer, but not a theologian’s answer. The question should be … there was a great Hassidic master, who had a great sense of humor … he said, “If the atheist knew that even his denial of God is willed by God, will that be for him punishment?”
HEFFNER: Why do Jews asks questions … always answer with a question.
WIESEL: Because we are the question mark in history. Really. What are we doing in history? We are the only people of antiquity to have survived antiquity.
HEFFNER: That’s a very interesting point.
WIESEL: Furthermore, there wasn’t a period in history where …somewhere on the planet Jews were not persecuted. It was always as if history were to say that … to the Jewish people, “what are you doing here? We don’t want you. Go away.” So they tried persecution …didn’t work.
They tried seduction. It didn’t’ work. There were times in Poland … when a Jew converted, he got nobility, he got … they tried everything. In Spain, if a Jew converted … really … he wasn’t touched. They tried everything. And here they are, and they say, “Why? What are you doing here?”
I wrote a play once, called “Zelman, The Madness of God”, it was … and it’s a play. It’s about Russia actually. And there I describe an old Rabbi, the last Rabbi in a certain place …
HEFFNER: “Zelman and the Madness of God” …
WIESEL: Yes. An old Rabbi, and his daughter married, of course, a Jewish boy. He was a Communist … in those times many Jews were Communists. And they were arguing about the Rabbi’s grandson, who was going to have Bar Mitzvah.
And finally, finally, the young Jew, the Communist, said to the Rabbi … “Listen, I have told you a thousand times and I will say it again … I am a Communist, I don’t want my son to be Jewish. Because I don’t want my son to suffer. My father suffered as a Jew, my grandfather suffered as a Jew; his grandfather suffered as a Jew. I don’t want my son to suffer as a Jew. I want that hatred and that suffering to stop. And with my son it will.”
When I wrote that part, I had problems. It’s a good argument. What can I ask of the father who says I don’t want my son to suffer because he feels basically the Jew will suffer.
HEFFNER: How did you answer?
WIESEL: Oh, I answered that it’s not so really … Judaism is not the history of suffering, it’s a history of responses to suffering. What are we doing with suffering? We try to transform it. Surely to limit it. I don’t want people to suffer because I suffered. I suffered and therefore I don’t want other people to suffer.
HEFFNER: But therefore the question that, that the Communist asked …
WIESEL: It’s a very good one …
HEFFNER … it’s a very good one.
WIESEL: A very, very good one. Except I don’t believe it’s possible. It doesn’t work. We tried even that, it doesn’t work in Jewish history. The grandchildren of great Communists come back to their Judaism. Companions of Lenin, who left Judaism, their grandchildren turn back to Judaism.
HEFFNER: Proving what, Elie?
WIESEL: Oh, I proved it … first of all it proves the power of memory. If you wanted to define the Jewish people’s obsession, it’s surely not with money, as the anti-Semites say. Not even with power, as other anti-Semites would. It’s with memory.
HEFFNER: Memory, not genes.
WIESEL: Genes have their own memory. DNA has a code … the memory code.
HEFFNER: What’s happening to that memory in this country now?
WIESEL: Oh, in this country. I am so depressed … I don’t even want you to know because of the way this campaign is being waged. I don’t remember a campaign being so mean, so nasty. I, I think of writing something about it because I, I cannot take it.
I would like in an election campaign, especially in such a country which has such power and such prestige … such ideals … to speak about ideals. Not to go down, not to bring the debate down … but lift it up.
Really, we see … what do we hear now, people accusing each other … not, not the candidates themselves, but on both sides … their surrogates, the speak about lying, about falsifying documents. Is there one speech in this campaign, which will go down in history as a great speech? About ideals? About values? About aspirations? About dreams? So I’m … I don’t know really what else we could do, really. Because after all, again, we teach. But to teach a generation takes a long time.
HEFFNER: But … from what you have just said … and certainly from the way I have read you and heard you and from what I feel myself to be so true … it is not that we have not yet succeeded in teaching. It’s that we have moved back and back and back. You’ve just said you don’t remember a campaign like this.
HEFFNER: In our country, at a time when we … let all of those old values go by the board. Oh, there’ve always been tricks and games played …”games” in quotation marks. But that’s different from …
WIESEL: Not like this. It’s mean. It’s just mean.
HEFFNER: So much at stake.
WIESEL: Yes, it’s always been at stake like that. The Presidency, after all, is a seat of power, not only for America, for the whole world now. And you are waiting, you want to hear a word, a message …on either side, really. I don’t … I’m not a politician, I don’t …
HEFFNER: You think that somebody would believe it. I mean isn’t that the problem, that we don’t believe anything anymore?
WIESEL: If it’s said properly, if the person who says the words would believe in them, it’s true that people are cynical … true. Because they have learned their lesson … the wrong lesson … they have learned the lesson, that politics is a nasty … is a dirty business. It used to be a noble business. To work in ancient Greece, when it began … to work for the populace, for the city, for the republic, for the community …is there anything more elegant. Anything more inspiring and inspired than that? To work … should be worthy of that power that one wants to get and gets. I, I don’t really know, maybe they have the wrong advisors. Maybe they should take poets as advisors. Philosophers. And not politicians.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you once said that the closer a poet, the closer an intellectual gets to the seat of power …
HEFFNER: … the less you like it.
WIESEL: It’s true because a Talmudic sage said to me, in the books, in Ethics of Our Fathers, don’t come too close to power. Absolutely. It’s dangerous because power is seductive.
HEFFNER: Do you wish that even more than you have in your lifetime, you were closer to power in any way?
WIESEL: No. No.
HEFFNER: Couldn’t you have achieved more of what you wanted to achieve?
WIESEL: I don’t think so … no. What I have achieved? I have achieved nothing, really, except I’ve written books. I think I’ve given … I’m serious … I, I’m not …
HEFFNER: That’s not achievement?
WIESEL: I’m not playing modest. We know each other too well. Achievement means in terms of power … of, of
WIESEL: … you know, my books are not bestsellers. They’re not bestsellers. I write them because I must write them, not because I want to sell them. I write them, I have no choice, I want to write them. What else would I do? But to say that I have any power … no. And I don’t want that.
HEFFNER: You think then, and we have 30 seconds left, that the wrong people are advising our candidates, rather than that the candidates are the wrong people?
WIESEL: No, I think the wrong people … I don’t … I shouldn’t say “wrong” … I would have preferred let’s say those people who advise them, should advise them in matters of ideals, not in tactics. But politics is a method for tactics and I am not a tactician.
HEFFNER: Elie, I wonder what the case will be as we look back when we meet again, two years from now, one year from now … four years from now. Look back …whether things will have gotten even worse.
WIESEL: No. I hope not.
HEFFNER: Because they couldn’t. Or because you want things to be better?
WIESEL: Because I want things … I want tomorrow to be better. I, I told one of your people who work with you … whenever I go into my classroom, I see these young boys and young girls, all beautiful, eager to learn … I feel sad for them. We believe that the 21st century will be a better century because of the 20th century, that its shadow still is being felt here. I felt this one will be a better century. Look, we’re four years into the century …
HEFFNER: It will be better, Elie.
WIESEL: It must be better.
HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me again today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
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.