Moral Responses to Worldly Issues
VTR Date: September 27, 1987
Elie Wiesel discusses morality, hospitality, and responsibility.
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GUEST: Elie Wiesel
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And once again, today, my guest is the distinguished winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel — writer, historian, witness, survivor, and conscience. Now, it isn’t even possible for me to invite Mr. Wiesel to grace this table without making our theme — writ large — of course the moral responsibilities of a private person. Nor should it be otherwise. In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Wiesel has noted that we are all “survivors” — who should “know that every moment is a moment of grace. Every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.” So that the questions before us today, each day, must be where and when and how to share our blessings, our moments of grace. And perhaps today we can go even further than the last time Mr. Wiesel was here in deliberating upon the practical issues that demand of each of us moral responses. And that will be our theme today, Mr. Wiesel — it always is, I guess, because of your words: ‘what ever we do must be measured in moral terms.’ And I wondered when the pope was here in the United States and spoke about sanctuary for those who would migrate to this country, perhaps illegally; I wondered what your response to that issue is in our times? Is it a moral one?
WIESEL: It is a moral issue and therefore I actually gave the keynote address to the First Sanctuary Conference in Arizona, two or three years ago. Then I made some research about the word and the concept of sanctuary. Strangely enough, in The Bible, a sanctuary is offered to criminal people — meaning, those who involuntarily, unwittingly have committed a crime, mainly murder. And therefore the sanctuary was for those who have committed murder. Today a sanctuary is needed for those who are innocent, those who are victims. And it is, to me, a moral question, not a political question, because I am not a political person. I have the luxury, as you have probably, not to be involved in politics in this respect. Meaning, what we have to do is to answer morally even to politicians. To me, people who are in need of haven, of refuge, it is inconceivable for this country of ours, which is so rich, so wealthy, and so strong, to refuse them — sanctuary. And my feeling is, a father who cannot feed his children, a mother who cannot care for her children, they are also victims of human rights, just as the father or the mother of a political prisoner.
HEFFNER: Yes, but i want to pick up this dichotomization that you pose — political but not moral, moral but not necessarily political. How can you make the separation?
WIESEL: I don’t. I think reality does, in my stead. There are political factors, considerations, and I don’t pay attention to them. Example: After all, there are 500,000 or 600,000 refugees who need sanctuary in our country. And I say, okay, we are 220,000,000, we’ll be 220 and a half million. For the politician — from those places, for instance, from Arizona or from anywhere, who suffer from economic problems, they will say that in that case, if they come here, that will create economic problems. And they have constituencies, they have voters, they have elections every two years, every four years. I have no elections. I don’t have to go and justify myself to the voter. My elector is like your elector — the one, in your case, is somebody who opens your book. Or in my case — somebody who opens my book.
HEFFNER: Yet, you say you don’t have to run, you don’t have to appeal to voters, but don’ you have to, as a citizen, vote and won’t your judgment be made on the basis of how close a political person comes to paralleling what you believe is a moral position.
WIESEL: Absolutely. I would only vote for those whose ideas reflect mine, or at least are close to mine.
HEFFNER: Well then, how realistic, to use your word, is it to say that your involvement is moral but not political?
WIESEL: Well, let’s say, political not in the 80’s . . . in the logical sense of the word. That you work for the policy . . . for the city. Today, politics is something else, politics today is calculation, politics today is all kinds of combinations and machinations and manipulations, and so forth. The word doesn’t have the same meaning any more.
HEFFNER: But the word still has a meaning in terms of acting out what you consider a moral position . . . You have a moral judgment to make on each of these issues, don’t you?
HEFFNER: And what will you do with that moral judgment, to turn it into reality?
WIESEL: Well, I speak up. You are very generous and very nice to invite me to speak up and I do.
HEFFNER: But then I don’t see this nice flip . . . ‘I am not political, I am moral in my approach.’ For instance, let me ask what you think of . . . what you thought of the pope’s visit while he was here, and he addressed himself to issues that of course surface in a political sense.
WIESEL: Yes, but again . . . when I say that I have the luxury of not being involved in political affairs, but I do pass judgment on political affairs, obviously. It’s easy . . . I know it’s easy for me to say that because I am not involved in politics, but in saying that, I already judge or condemn or praise certain people who are involved in politics. Those who make the right judgment are good for me, those who make a wrong judgment are wrong for me.
HEFFNER: How correct do you think it is . . . how proper do you think it is in this nation either for a moral spokesman, as you are, or a church spokesman, as the pope is, or as his bishops are, to pronounce their own individual judgments, or the judgment of the church upon issues that come before us in a political way . . .
WIESEL: Well, there is a difference between the pope and me. The pope speaks on behalf of a church; I speak only on my own behalf. I represent no one, I represent really only the few books that I have written, the few characters that I have created, and probably the person in me that . . . who’s judgment I value. That is not the same thing.
HEFFNER: Do you have any sympathy for those who would say, Wiesel, and then maybe in the next sentence say, the pope and the church? And in the next sentence talk about this minister or that. Should all stay away from those issues that ultimately in this nation become political issues?
WIESEL: Not at all. I think we should quite the opposite . . . introduces our concerns into the political field, otherwise you will have politics without outsiders. I would like to be not an outsider in politics without outsiders. I would like to be not an outsider in politics . . . be able to speak up. I would like to quote Shakespeare . . . and not misquote but quote (chuckle). Not plagiarize, but quote I mean. Those who spoke about Shakespeare . . . Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy . . . why not? Why not elevate the debate? Why not elevate the whole discourse, the political discourse?
HEFFNER: But does it elevate the debate, or does it put it on a plane that is very difficult for a political nation, as America is, to deal with it? And again, I come back to the statements that the pope made in terms of sanctuary. You and he, your statements, both were on precisely the same plane, it seems to me. But there probably are other areas where moral concerns impose themselves upon politics in a way that must drive politicians to distraction.
WIESEL: And the other way round (laughter).
HEFFNER: Yes, I’m sure you’re correct.
WIESEL: Let’s take an example: Nicaragua. Is it a political question or a moral question? How, to many politicians of course it is a political question –we cannot afford having a communist country . . . a communist regime in Nicaragua. But this in itself is already a moral question. It is not that simple, of course. It’s much more complex than it sounds.
HEFFNER: If, as you say, it is already a moral question, then your judgment upon it, your position, must have a great deal of weight in this, or you want it to have much weight.
WIESEL: My good friend, you know that I’m much more modest than that. I know that it doesn’t really. Occasionally here and there people listen, but those who should listen don’t.
HEFFNER: But if you speak you speak because you want people to listen, is that not true?
HEFFNER: What do you want them to hear in terms of Nicaragua?
WIESEL: In Nicaragua? Well . . . I, first of all, there, I am convinced that the human element is missing.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
WIESEL: Somehow. We were so involved there . . . both sides . . . both sides are so involved in trying to defeat the other political mentality that a human element is missing. I would like to go there and see how people live there. Have they elected their regime freely? Yes or no. If they have not, then we have all the right in the world to say that we don’t recognize that regime. But if the people did elect freely the communists or the Sandinistas or whoever they are now, then what can we say? But on the other hand, one generation ago . . . remember, I don’t like comparisons with the past, but we have to make some comparisons on certain levels — Hitler was elected freely. Waldheim was elected freely in Austria. So elections, again, which are the expression of democracy and the noble freedom of the people, even elections can point to the wrong direction.
HEFFNER: If we’re in the mix . . . in the political mix, when the result, even through majority rule, does not point in a moral direction, what position must we take?
WIESEL: Oh, I think that we who are, after all, teachers, writers, we should have the courage to speak up against. Who is a writer? A writer is someone who says no . . . no to the system, no to the surroundings, sometimes even no to God.
HEFFNER: Who believes there is a higher law?
WIESEL: But the higher law, or at least a higher voice . . . that means, a write may say no, I don’t accept it. And because I’m a writer and because I’m a teacher, a philosopher or an artist, I may say I don’t accept the way things are running. I know it doesn’t make much sense because who am I to say to presidents, to vice presidents, or senators, how to run a country. I know nothing about it. But although I don’t know anything about it, I have the right to say I don’t like it.
HEFFNER: Of course, we’ve experienced recently in this country examples of people who say no, do not tell the truth, do not obey the laws . . . I was thinking of Irangate and the hearings there . . . With the notion that . . . Although you reject the notion of higher truth . . . With the stated view of a higher truth.
WIESEL: Yes, but it is to the credit of our country that we have unmasked these people and they have been unmasked. And I don’t like what they are doing . . . I didn’t like what they were doing then. We come from a tradition, the Jewish tradition which I praise because I find it so noble and so comforting. The kings, the most powerful people in the country, had to obey the law. And if they did not obey the law the prophet who represented nobody came and told them that they were wrong, that they were criminals and that they were bad kings. Now in ancient Rome, when an Emperor died, all the laws were abolished because all the new laws had to be ascribed to him. This was not true in the Jewish tradition, in the Jewish history. Kings, if they disobeyed the law they were chastised by prophets and in any other country the prophet would have been beheaded right away. ‘Who are you to speak to the king like that?’ And yet, all these prophets came to the king and said, no, the law is the law and no one is above the law. And therefore, when here in Washington, when we found people who were above the law, they were wrong. Luckily there were people who said so, that they were wrong.
HEFFNER: You know, one of the thoughts that has occurred to me as I thought about this further meeting of ours had to do with a piece that you wrote about another nation. It was the piece you wrote in the New York Times on September 6th, ‘When Hatred Seized the Nation,’ about the Dreyfuss affair. An extraordinary recounting of what happened in that nation — an extraordinary recounting of what happened in that nation — an extraordinary recounting of the viciousness of anti-semitism. At the very end, and i promised myself when I read that first that the next chance I had I would ask you about it . . .
WIESEL: You could have called me.
HEFFNER: I could have called you but then others would not have learned. You wrote at the end: ‘I cannot conclude this text without recalling Theodore Herzl, who as a correspondent for a Viennese paper in France, witnessed the ceremony in which Dreyfuss was degraded. He heard the shouts of the anti-semites crying out for death. It was at this point, according to the legend, that the assimilated writer decided that assimilation was not a valid theory. It was at this point that he decided to found the Zionist movement. In the midst of an anti-semitic nightmare he began to dream of a Jewish state.’ Now, you were doing more than concluding, the piece there.
WIESEL: Of course. Of course, First of all, I think I celebrate Jewish history here. It has extraordinary imagination and sometimes a sense of irony. Here you have a meeting, or non-meeting, between two assimilated Jews, who wanted nothing better than to be assimilated and accepted by the Gentile society around them. Herzl was an assimilated Jew who worked for a very famous newspaper from Vienna. Dreyfuss didn’t even know that he was persecuted as a Jew. The irony of it all. And yet, there was that moment of encounter and two assimilated Jews meet and the result is a Jewish state. And I find it extraordinary. There is a marvelous anecdote, which I must tell you too: Sigmund Freud was from Vienna, Theodore Herzl was from Vienna. Apparently both of them lived in the same street, a few houses apart, at the same time. And they never met. Now, imagine Theodore Herzl knocking on the door and saying, ‘Dr. Freud, I have a dream.’
HEFFNER: Do you think it was a dream that should have been realized or analyzed?
WIESEL: Oh, if I had a choice, of course realized. For 2,000 years we were waiting for that dream. It had to come from an assimilated Jew.
HEFFNER: But when you have sat at this table before there had been times when you have been unhappy and expressed your unhappiness about what has happened, or has been happening, in Israel. Do you feel less so that way today?
WIESEL: Oh, I’m unhappy because of the world, not only Israel. Of course, I love Israel with all my heart and therefore occasionally it hurts and I don’t see Israel the way I would like Israel to be — meaning happy, at peace, and more human than other nations, more prophetic than other nations. Certainly, but I would like every nation to feel that way. I would like a Frenchman to feel that about France, and Americans about America. That is probably the meaning of the concept of the chosen people, meaning that every people is chosen, every person is chosen, every human being in the image of God. So since I’m close to Israel, I say it about Israel. But I can tell you, with all the problems that Israel has, thank God for the problems. I mean, thank god for Israel and the problems that Israel carries. If I have a choice, Israel with problems or no Israel, of course I would choose Israel with all the problems in the world.
HEFFNER: And how does that relate to your feelings about assimilation in this country?
WIESEL: Oh, I’m against assimilation, not only for Jews but for anyone.
HEFFNER: You’re against?
WIESEL: Of course I’m against assimilation. I’m for integration, meaning the legal integration of a community, meaning that we all are equally entitled to the same rights and the same duties. A Jew or Buddhist or Muslim or Black or Hispanic, it doesn’t matter — they are all the same. But as a person, as an individual, why give up a heritage that is 3,500 years old! Look, in this country, last year we both celebrated together — the Bicentennial and the Liberty Conference. Well, think about it, this year we celebrated the Constitution. Why? Because I heard on television ten times, fifty times, this is a document which is a living document and the society is living by its spirit and so forth. The Bible is 3,500 years old and to some people it is still a living document. I always think about it — you know, we are proud of Lincoln who abolished slavery, we have abolished slavery 3,000 years ago. The first law after the Ten Commandments is against slavery. Now why give that up? It is foolish for a writer, for an artist, for a musician, it is foolish to give that up. There is no much in it — There is such an inspiration, such a wealth of ideas and sensitivities and memories in all that.
HEFFNER: Why do you define assimilation as giving all of that up?
WIESEL: Because that is the meaning of assimilation to me, at least, to some of us. Assimilation means . . .
HEFFNER: Do you think it need be?
WIESEL: What else could it mean?
HEFFNER: Well, I’m really asking you of whether you can think in terms of a different non-Israel oriented leaning for American Jews.
WIESEL: I was speaking about the Bible — meaning the Jewish tradition, Jewish history, Jewish consciousness. Which to me is not opposed to a universal consciousness. Quite the opposite — I think a Jew can attain universality through his or her Jewishness and the aim really is to attain universality through that consciousness. And that goes again for anyone — for a Christian, for anyone else.
HEFFNER: Then you help me, of course, and you have helped me distinguish between an assimilation that has to do with not holding on to beliefs, understanding, a bible . . . And that assimilation that says I have really no national relationship to Israel.
WIESEL: Listen . . .
HEFFNER: You do make that distinction . . .
WIESEL: Of course I make that distinction, surely. But to me Israel, of course, is important because of my past, of my upbringing. If there are some Jews that say that they are ready to leave and not to think about Israel — who am I to condemn them? And they can be Jews. I’ll give you even a better example: there is a group of Hasidim, ultra Orthodox, who are more pious than I shall ever be, and even have been, I think, and yet they are enemies of Israel. Am I to say that they are not Jewish? Of course they are Jewish. Judaism is a priviligism. We have our own people who are with Israel, for Israel, against Israel. But assimilation, in my vocabulary, means to give up the heritage, to change everything, to change the name, to change religion, or give up religion, to change tradition. And that I feel is foolish, and Herzl understood it as well.
HEFFNER: If you were to take that tradition again, and this is where we began, and I know this is what you want to do, if you were to apply, not the lessons of that tradition, but the moral impetus of that tradition, how would it relate in a non-political way, and I put that in quotation marks because we know these thoughts have to have political consequences, to some of the other issues that we might discuss — feminism is one of them, integration, as I said, or racism — that is too easy, too simple. Where does it become difficult? Where do you draw the line? Where do you see the moral perspective?
WIESEL: Oh, that would be difficult, I’m sure. Because, after all, a document is so old but the commentaries made it even more complicated because either we accept the rabbinical tradition, which is the Talmud and so forth, and then we are entering into a different area. But my feeling is that it would enrich the present. If I invoke the past for the present, the present would be enriched absolutely. If you were to ask me what is the most important message for instance that I would like to communicate, it would be that we are all princes. And that comes from the Bible.
HEFFNER: And that concept of the dignity of the individual . . .
WIESEL: Sovereignty. We are all sovereign.
HEFFNER: How do you apply it then, in terms of the issues that we face?
WIESEL: Well, when I see a refugee coming to the border, to me that person is a king in exile. If I see a black person being persecuted, I feel it is a prince being persecuted, oppressed. And that only makes my outrage deeper.
HEFFNER: But the sense of human dignity, kingship, princeship, as you would call it, that is given to so few of us. It seems to me — Martin Luther King. So many, perhaps there were many, there have been many in American reform movements who base their sense upon something as essentially moral, essentially religious, essentially related to their sense of the godhead, but this is such a minor theme in our lives.
WIESEL: Oh, because we live in an age of super-communication. We are communicating so many other things that we forget the basics. It could be . . . If American TV and newspapers were to pick up the terminology, I’m sure that in 48 hours you can impart the ideas of human beings as princes very easily.
HEFFNER: And when that idea comes up against the profit motive — let’s not even say reality — but the profit motive or the way one can interpret . . . I was fascinated. . . When the pope was in Hollywood and spoke to the assembled communicators, as they were, of some of the response to the messages, the response was not universally positive. What could the response be to the voice that you raise?
WIESEL: Oh, I know the response — they would say, ‘Well, he is dreaming.’ So why not! Physicians will tell you that without dreams the body couldn’t survive. Not only the mind but the body needs dreams. And if this is true of the body, how much more so of the spirit, the mind, or the soul?
HEFFNER: Is there any reading . . . And I don’t mean is it written, but is there any reading of the past that would indicate to you that we might even experience the kind of sea change that would be necessary for your messages to take on flesh and go beyond the spirit?
WIESEL: Yes and no. The same events that produce optimism are those that produce pessimism. I could tell you, for instance, the importance of the individual. One man, and one man alone, was Moses or Abraham. In other religions it was Mohammed or Jesus or Buddha. And the same thing could be applied to tragedies — one man began the First World War. One man was responsible for the Second World War by bringing so many others into the picture. I think it depends upon us — how to apply the meaning to the word, how to use the word in order not to betray the meaning and how to use words. Words can become spears, words can become rules or prayers or songs.
HEFFNER: I’m so interested that this is what you said in your acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize –one person. Do you think that has made an impression?
WIESEL: I think so. I think . . . but for me, it is important to make an impression on one person. I’m not looking to change the whole world. I used to think that it is possible. Now I want one student, one reader, one friend.
You have one here and I suspect this green represents many more. Thank you so much for joining me today, Elie Wiesel. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you will join us again next time, and if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, goodnight 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 mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, the Richard Lounsbery foundation, Mr. Lawrence a. Wien, and the New York Times Company Foundation.