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 this is hardly the first time that my dear friend – author, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust witness and survivor Elie Wiesel has joined me here.
Indeed, it’s the 26th time, even as many of our programs appear together in book form as “Conversations With Elie Wiesel” and on DVDs as “Dialogues With Elie Wiesel”
And, as you would expect, many times in this past quarter century we’ve talked here about the vicious scourge of Anti-Semitism … though surely never with such a sense of immediacy as today.
For while attacks upon Jews have newly surfaced all over the world, earlier this very year my guest was himself physically accosted – here in America, at an Inter-Faith conference in San Francisco – by a presumed Holocaust denier. And once again we find ourselves needing to face up to what George Will has characterized as “the world’s most durable ideology”, anti-Semitism.
And Elie I want to start today’s program by … last night I was going back through our “Conversations with Elie Wiesel” and found that you had said in, in our Chapter on the Anatomy of Hate that, to me, you had said, “I think you are too pessimistic” and I wonder whether today you would say that to me again?
WIESEL: Well, pessimism, it’s changing … intensity, outlook and possibilities. Anti-Semitism has opened a lot of doors … of avenues. And a new kind of anti-Semitism is really, it’s in existence now. The fact that you mentioned is one … until now they used words. All of a sudden at least one of them has used violence. Now who knows how many will try to copy him. On the other hand, for the first time maybe since 1945 …
WIESEL: There is a head of state in Iran … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad … who simply, openly says … again and again that the Holocaust never existed. He became the number one Holocaust denier in the world. At the same time, he would like his country to acquire nuclear possibilities and he said so, to develop nuclear weapons. And he even said why. To destroy the people of Israel and Israel. What kind of language is this?
Let’s say 20 years ago you would have expected a man like this, in this position, to be declared persona non grata all over the world. A man who shouldn’t belong to human society, to civilized society. He shouldn’t belong there. But nevertheless he has been elected … democratically in Iran. He goes on, he has power, money. And he organized the conferences in Teheran.
One was a kind of exhibit of anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, so-called … anti-Semitic Holocaust denying cartoons. With representatives from all over the world.
And the organizer, the curator was asked how long would this go on? And he said, “As long as Israel still exists.”
Then he organized a conference of Holocaust deniers in Teheran. This for him is a system, coherent, dangerous. Now where is the outrage in the world?
HEFFNER: Where is that outrage? What has happened to it? When we first spoke together a quarter century ago, that would have elicited outrage.
WIESEL: No doubt.
HEFFNER: What do you think has happened?
WIESEL: I think it’s farther and farther away from the event. So on the one hand, more people than ever are reading books about it, taking courses about it and are aware of, of the horror that, that, that such a word like Auswitz, such a name evokes. More than ever.
At the same time, the effect of the information one receives has not been transformed into knowledge and the knowledge has not been transformed into commitment.
HEFFNER: Elie are you so sure that more and more people … for more and more people … the word “Holocaust” has the meaning that we attribute …
HEFFNER: … to it.
WIESEL: … of course not. But at least those who read certain books know that it evokes horror … maybe absolute horror. You know, we, we have not … unfortunately, we have never discovered absolute truth.
HEFFNER: But, you …
WIESEL: But we have discovered absolute evil.
HEFFNER: When we first spoke together … memory was so important an item and again, going back through our book …
HEFFNER: … memory is something you have spoken about and written about so many times. Has our collective memory simply been dissipated?
WIESEL: I don’t think so because at the same time … at the same time … museums are being opened, conferences are being held. But maybe in a way we know too much.
HEFFNER: Know too much?
WIESEL: Yeah. That means all of a sudden we know so much that a person who is not ready for it is numb.
HEFFNER: You mean the knowledge is not registering. It’s not … it’s emotional, not intellectual. Or is it the other way around?
WIESEL: It is immediate. But it doesn’t last long. And maybe it is because we live in an age of television … were you can turn the dial and, and, and you switch to another channel and therefore switch to another subject. Very easily.
HEFFNER: Years ago, when one of the great networks did a program, an entertainment program about the Holocaust … or the Holocaust was its background.
WIESEL: It’s called … it was called “Holocaust”.
HEFFNER: You … you were very disturbed by that.
WIESEL: Oh yes, because for the first time I discovered really the cheapening, the trivialization of memory in, in those years.
I remember them very well because I began then a campaign almost … a one man campaign in The New York Times at that time.
HEFFNER: I remember that very well.
WIESEL: And at the beginning, you know … the beginning, when The New York Times called me saying we would like you to review … I was very happy, I thought, “Ahh, at last, a major network is devoting four programs to that subject”. And it was a private screening, without even … without the advertisements … which was horrible, it was ugly, the advertising … literally ugly. And I realized it was so kitschy, full of so much disinformation and misinformation that I, I … I didn’t want to write a negative review. So I called The Times, I said, ‘I cannot do it … I’m too personally involved.” Something like that.
But I told them, “Look, if you don’t, people won’t dare.” And I published a huge piece with the New York Times which created an uproar.
HEFFNER: Now the trivialization that you were concerned about. Do you think that has been part and parcel of the problem in terms of forgetfulness, in terms of the ability for a world leader to speak as you’ve just indicated?
WIESEL: In a strange way, Richard, I am not afraid of forgetting. I don’t think this even can be forgotten. It is the most documented event … not to exaggerate … most documented event in history. Millions and millions of pieces of evidence. Given by the perpetrators; left by the perpetrators and by the victims and by bystanders. Children wrote poems and they became documents. So I’m not afraid of that. I am afraid of trivialization, even today.
HEFFNER: You know, I, I certainly share your feelings about trivialization. But, Elie, forgive me … I don’t agree with you about memory. You deal with students, I deal with students.
But the students you deal with come to you because it’s Elie Wiesel. The students I deal with are generally not … they don’t come to me for something special. They come because they’re in college, because they’re taking history this or history that. Their knowledge … their feeling, sentient knowledge over the Holocaust is minimal. And I, I … I keep thinking of your concerns as expressed here about memory. Now you say you think there are so many avenues for reminding people, that we needn’t be that concerned.
WIESEL: It’s not only the present. I’m not afraid of history forgetting itself. Because first of all … at least we believe … in our tradition … in Judeo Christian tradition … we believe that somehow nothing is forgotten. We still observe … can you image … we observe … if you have some kind of religiosity in you … on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which usually happens in July or August, we observe a day of mourning … literally. We don’t eat that day. We don’t wear anything luxurious … mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. Now if we remember an event that happened two thousand years ago … two thousand five hundred years ago … don’t you think that we would remember also something that happened one century ago.
HEFFNER: But we remember. I’m not talking about us …
WIESEL: You mean the world.
HEFFNER: I’m talking about the world. The world that can do what it is doing today.
WIESEL: I am pessimistic … here I … I confess to you … we spoke about it already immediately after the new century began …
WIESEL: … I, I had high hopes for the 21st century. Silly as it sounds and naïve as it sounds … I had high hopes. I thought the 21st century will be, it must be, a better century.
HEFFNER: It must be.
WIESEL: Yeah. And it ain’t. Just it ain’t.
HEFFNER: Wishing does not make it so.
WIESEL: Somehow it doesn’t work. Some … I don’t know. Maybe it’s the fallout. Sometimes … in psychiatry … about latency … it takes a generation or two for the effect to be produced by the cause. So a long time separates the two phenomenon. And maybe it took four generations for the effect of what happened then to be felt today.
HEFFNER: What was the impact that you felt? What was the impact upon you, personally of the attack on you earlier this year?
WIESEL: Oh, I must tell you … I, I have fear. It was very crazy, I didn’t know what was happening to me. When that guy, a young guy pulled me out … by force from the elevator … and said, “You must come to my room.” I looked … I did not … I didn’t know. And he tried to catch me and there was a kind of ballet … I avoided him and he was in front of the elevator … and I began … I felt fear.
You know, I have been in many dangerous places in the last 30, 40 years. In Bosnia … and I, I … many, many dangerous places. I never felt fear like that. And all of a sudden I felt if I go with him, something terrible will happen to me. I didn’t know why. There was nothing to that young man … he looked normal, even nice … he simply said, “You must …” with obstinacy … “You must come to my room.” And I said, “Why?” then he said, “To interview you.” I said, “Okay, let’s go down … I just came from downstairs and many journalists … I give interviews. I’ll give you …”
He said, “No, no, only in my room. And you must come to my room.” I began literally howling … I have never heard myself howl like that. “Help, Help, Help”. And he was … he remained indifferent. He listened … nothing. Just like that … listened to me and then I stopped howling. He said, “You will come to my room.” And I said, “Help, Help” A few minutes … two or three … it was outside time … and then he saw the elevator coming back, so he thought they came to see what’s wrong. He didn’t run to his room, he went slowly to his room. He simply said to me, “You are afraid of truth, aren’t you?”
HEFFNER: The truth for him …
WIESEL: I don’t know.
HEFFNER: … was what, Elie?
WIESEL: I didn’t know.
HEFFNER: But he was a Holocaust denier?
WIESEL: We didn’t know that. It was from him that we learned that. Because immediately I went down … and something strange … because the security officer said “we heard … we got telephone calls … three people called, saying they heard your outcries” … not one door opened.
WIESEL: There must have been 20 who heard because the way I shouted … not one door opened. So they … on the camera they saw him go to the room, so they went to his room … he had already escaped and for a few days nobody knew what he wanted. I didn’t know.
Until somehow the police found a, a website … an anti-Semitic website located in, in … in Australia where he tells the story. Where he says “Yes.” He said, he followed Wiesel … he said, “I followed Wiesel for weeks” … wherever I would go he was there. And he said, finally he caught me in San Francisco and he wanted to … to quote …”to take me into his custody” unquote and force me declare that the Holocaust was a lie, and so forth … to say this fiction?
Finally we knew what he wanted. And then he ran away … he was running until they caught him, now he is back in San Francisco. There will be a trial and I will testify. But since then … as a result, I cannot move without security.
HEFFNER: What a devastating impact that must have upon you …
WIESEL: I, I had …
HEFFNER: … from all of these years.
WIESEL: For a week at least I was traumatized. Couldn’t sleep. I was really traumatized. What is happening? What is happening? I, I would have imagined anything, but not that.
HEFFNER: Why? Tell me why. Why would you not have imagined that?
WIESEL: That somebody … a Holocaust denier should kidnap … he’s charged with attempted kidnapping … for trying to kidnap me? And, and first of all … did he really think that he could make, make me say this thing … he doesn’t know. Not really that I would ever submit to such torture. No matter what torture. So I … somehow it never entered my mind.
Anti-Semites, yes, I could … certainly I’m their target number one … it’s just normal … okay. Anyone who hates Israel, hates me. Anyone who hates human rights, hates me. Anyone who hates anti-racists, hates me. It’s normal, it’s okay. I accept it.
But that a Holocaust denier, should simply, in order to show that he, his view of history is right, that we are all liars … who would do that to me? So it came to me as a shock and really for a whole week I was … I still have trauma occasionally.
HEFFNER: The Holocaust deniers … ebb and flow or is that growing?
WIESEL: It depends how you judge it. They are there. They are … a big base they have is in California. They have something called Institute of Historical Research or something like that. And they have meetings, they publish lists, or journals … books. Some of them belong to prestigious universities.
WIESEL: Absolutely. They don’t teach history. They teach engineering, like in Northwestern there’s a man who, who … a major one … major Holocaust denier and he’s teaching … I remember 25 years ago … 30 years ago … I went to there, to speak and I demanded the President to fire him. He said “he is tenured.” I said, “Buy, buy out his tenure.”
So they are there. In Oslo, when I got the Nobel Prize, I got a security which I’m not used to it. And there was a press conference … and a journalist asked the organizer of the Nobel … the Director, say … “Professor Wiesel, do you realize that you have more security than the King … our King?” I had no idea. Why? Because that day … the Holocaust deniers had organized a demonstration … hundred of them came from all over Europe.
The whole organization, it was subsidized. Who got them the air tickets, or the train tickets. Who got rooms for them? We don’t know, but they were there.
HEFFNER: You say you don’t know, but by this time …
WIESEL: We don’t … really don’t know …
HEFFNER: … we don’t know?
WIESEL: … we know they have lots of money. Rumor had it … someone said it came from Libya. Other believe from some strange country in Eastern Europe, but we don’t know. At least I don’t know. Maybe … I hope the FBI knows, but I don’t.
HEFFNER: When you say you hope the FBI knows … no connection? You mean … you’re … it’s more than curiosity. Your security.
WIESEL: But I don’t … really they didn’t tell me. I knew very well … Louis Freeh when he was director … of the, of the FBI …
WIESEL: … I knew him very well. He would have told me at that time.
HEFFNER: You put together before in a succession of words … anti-Israel, anti-Semitic. In the past you haven’t done that as automatically … but you do now.
WIESEL: Because most of … really most of the Holocaust deniers are both anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
HEFFNER: Which comes first, the chicken or the egg here?
WIESEL: Then I think … anti-Semitic. They hate the Jews because we represent a certain memory and they believe that that memory indicts society, indicts civilization, indicts humanity. It is so, it isn’t so. It indicts those who have done evil, who have used their membership in humanity, in society to destroy human beings. And every human being is sacred to me. Every human being is immortal until he or she dies. But they don’t think like that. And because it is represented there, they think that we make the whole world feel guilty and they couldn’t take it.
HEFFNER: Only we remember, Elie?
WIESEL: Of course. That’s what they think anyway. They believe that. But I think not. I really believe that in this, in this camp we had a lot of non-Jews who were with us. We have allies in this battle in the non-Jewish world.
HEFFNER: Now, how … how willing are you, in terms of what you believe, what you advocate … politically and otherwise … willing to identify your lifetime since the Holocaust battle against anti-Semitism with the survival of Israel?
WIESEL: Oh, I … I think there … there the battle is the same battle. Look again … Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust …
WIESEL: What’s to destroy Israel. The situation in Israel today is so sensitive and so dangerous … look Israel really has done a lot.
Israel has given up South Lebanon, unilaterally. Just like that. I was in Israel then. Twenty four hours later Hezbollah took it over with weapons … they gave warning … and threatening to destroy Israel … 24 hours later. Sharon evacuated Gaza without any demand. Just like that. Unilaterally. What happened?
They turned Gaza … first of all into bases to send missiles against Israel. Civilian spots. And now they kill each other. So what, what do they want, really? Hezbollah and Hamas? Territorial concessions? No. Their financial compensation? No. They really want the destruction of Israel. That is part of their charter. So what should Israel do?
HEFFNER: Tell me.
WIESEL: I think Israel should be Israel … and, first of all, certainly not to use matters that the others are using …
HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.
WIESEL: I mean … look … we have learned, I have worked on the subject of years … terrorism … what is terrorism? And I studied it from all over. One thing I have learned which was very sad … that the only way to fight terrorism is through counter-terrorism, which I don’t accept.
HEFFNER: Now, you just said you learned this.
WIESEL: I learned from history.
HEFFNER: But you don’t accept it?
WIESEL: I don’t accept it. I think it’s wrong. We cannot … those who are terrorists, are throwing away any principal of humanity. For them the end justifies the means and that’s it. And I believe, “No, the means must be as sacred, as justifiable as the end.”
HEFFNER: Including war?
WIESEL: Including war. But in war, war has its own laws. But you know war is, is … are we at war? In a very high place … I was in Washington some two or three weeks before the war in Iraq began. And I saw some … I was invited by some people … very high up and they asked me what I think. And I said, “I cannot hear myself say it … ‘I am for war’. Because I have seen war. I seen the uselessness of war. The ugliness of war. There is nothing heroic in war, nothing beautiful. It’s only corpses, orphans, widows, destruction.”
So they said, “Then what should we do?” I said, “I understand …” Then we believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “I understand they are dangerous there. Why not use commandoes? Sending the best American commandoes, the best British commandoes, the best Israeli commandoes in American uniforms. Go in, in the evening, destroy the weapons of mass destruction, during the night. Leave in the morning without killing a single person. That is my recommendation. But I am not a General.”
So, that … they asked nevertheless, what do you think should be done? I said, “I have been working all my adult life for human rights. Human rights means intervention. We intervene.” I fought the Soviet Union for its oppressive policies against dissents and Jews … I fought, intervened. Quite a difference, I said.
War is a political option. Intervention is a moral option. And I am for the moral option.
HEFFNER: But the moral option obviously brings with it the instruments of war, the mechanism of war, the death and destruction that appalls you.
WIESEL: Yes, but there was … Richard … there is a concept called “The Just War”. What is a “Just War”? A lot has been written about it. And in our tradition, generally, Talmudic tradition … “what is a Just War?”
A “just war” is only a defensive war. Always a defensive war. When the existence of a community is in danger, the community must defend itself and that is a Just War.
HEFFNER: We have a minute left. What would be “just” in your estimation for Israel to do today?
WIESEL: To be stronger and stronger and simply, I think to, to be ready with gestures of generosity. When the moment comes to be generous, but strong.
HEFFNER: Strong meaning …
WIESEL: Militarily strong, absolutely. Sure. Economically Israel is very strong today.
HEFFNER: You’re not talking about standing still. You’re talking about action.
WIESEL: No. Action. Really strong and defensible just trying to help those who are more moderate, for instance in this case … to help Abbas … I met Abbas and I … he’s a moderate. We should help Abbas as much as we can and we should ask America to do the same and the whole Western World, and the whole world to help Abbas against Hamas.
HEFFNER: Elie, my fervent hope is that when we meet again, finally, we’ll be able to smile at each other and say …
HEFFNER: … it’s better. Thank you so much for joining me again today.
WIESEL: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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.