Elie Wiesel

The State: Its Proper Role in Our Lives

VTR Date: May 5, 1995

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: The State: Its Proper Role in Our Lives
VTR: 5/5/95

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women, you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today; those ranging from racism to the proper role of the intellectual in our lives, from the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its ending, to education for what, for whom? Today our dialogue will focus on the state: its proper role in our lives.

Elie, talking about its proper role, how would you identify the proper role of the state: sometimes that leviathan, sometimes that monster that took so many lives, for instance, in the period of the Holocaust?

WIESEL: Well, shall I give you a program, and platform, and run for election? Of course, there is utopia. I could give you an image of the utopia, but you and I know that that utopia means etymologically the place that doesn’t exist. But nevertheless, let’s try.

I would like a state to be a moral state, meaning that it should see to it that a person is what a person is. Meaning, a child should be a child, not an old person. A mother should have the possibilities to be a mother, so she doesn’t have to go into the street and do things that she shouldn’t do. A father should be a father, not a mother. The words should then mean something to the citizens of that state. In other words, I would like, in a moral state, people to be human beings – glorified, disciplined, but human beings. And the emphasis is on “human.”

HEFFNER: The emphasis, then, must also be upon participation by the state, it would seem to me, in many of the activities of individual lives?

WIESEL: Oh, I believe that the state is here not as an abstraction, but as a real presence, as a framework. Of course, we elect our leaders. But once the leaders are elected, they don’t really care about us. I would like the opposite to be true: that once we elect our leaders to lead us, to work for us, that every day they should think about us – not about our vote, but about our welfare.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that you say that, Elie, at a time when, throughout our country certainly, there seems to be such an enormous buildup of resentment of the state, of government, of a national presence in our lives. You are functioning in a very different way. You see the state very differently.

WIESEL: Well, I speak of utopia. In utopia this is what should happen. But we live in reality. This is literally because I think politics used to be a very noble endeavor. What is politics? To work for the polis, for the city, for the republic. Today, for reasons perhaps that are unfounded, when you say “politician,” it has bad connotations: “He’s a politician,” meaning that he is using his power or her power for purposes or for goals that are not laudatory, are not honest. It shouldn’t be that way. And probably it isn’t; there are good politicians too. But there are so many scandals that appear on the front pages of newspapers, on the programs on television, that somehow people are worried, surely concerned, and always suspicious.

HEFFNER: And your fix on those suspicions and those worries, aside from recognizing the basis for them, you’re obviously saying, not just in a utopia that can’t be, but in the society that you want to see come into existence, there’s got be the kind of trust.

WIESEL: There must be trust. That’s why we elect our governors, or those who govern our lives. Without trust, where would we be, and where would they be?

HEFFNER: Then where do we begin now? When we talk about the proper relationship of the state to the individual, or the proper role of the state in our lives, don’t we either have to fish or cut bait? Don’t we have to say, “Look, these are our representatives. We’re going to assume, we’re really going to assume that government is benevolent, not malevolent”?

WIESEL: Again, I believe they should be, and probably are. But we only know of those who are not because of communication, because of television, because of newspapers, because of the press. I am not attacking the press. I used to be a journalist. I am on their side. But however, when I think about the perception that exists among people who read, and all they know is from what they read – or even worse, all they know is from what they see. Now, what should they think then? I am much more lenient, really, toward those who try to give their best to help us, to help the common citizen, to help society. After all, any senator, any congressman, any mayor, could do better in the private sector. They are giving up a lot.

I was, on a different level, I was at West Point, giving a lecture at West Point. I accepted because you know, I, who come from Eastern Europe, I am really still, deep down, the child I used to be, studying in the yeshiva, very pious. And here I am going to speak at West Point, to thousands of cadets. One of them surely will be a general, maybe ten will be generals, maybe a president. And they gave me a marvelous thing, they gave me a parade. Four thousand, five hundred cadets, you know, paraded and saluted me. But I was thinking of, that these young men give service to their country. They could go to engineering schools, medical schools, professional schools, and make money. They want to serve their country. Therefore, I respect them.

The same, really, can be said about many of our senators and congressmen, many of them. Some are not so good. Some are, let’s say, corrupt. It happens. They’re human beings.

HEFFNER: As you suggest then that the press; you would suggest more the electronic press than the printed press.

WIESEL: I am not against it. It depends. Everybody is human here. We should aspire to higher levels. But we are human.

HEFFNER: But Ellie, there are so many people today . . . Let us remove ourselves for the moment from the matter of corruption, and say that the American tradition is one that can embrace only a very limited government, a very limited state, that the state has very little legitimate reason to enter into our lives. Yes, we have to pay taxes and it has to defend us. But we don’t want it so involved in the making of a good life for that mother, a good life for that father. And I wonder where your head and your heart, where they are in this matter.

WIESEL: I am, rather, for deep involvement. Again, it’s my tradition, the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition is that there are laws. We have 613 commandments. There isn’t a single thing that I could do that would be outside these commandments. Whatever I do or you do, it belongs to that body of laws. Now, the law is what is important in the Jewish tradition. So, we need laws. In ancient times, let’s say in Rome, when an emperor was killed usually he was killed by his successor. And Machiavelli said something very beautiful about it. He said, you know, “Poor Septimius Severus – he didn’t know that no tyrant has ever succeeded to kill his successor.” But they did kill each other. The main reason was to abolish the laws. The moment the emperor died, all the laws were abolished. And he had to give new laws. Not in the Jewish tradition – the law remained law when David was a great king, after all, the great king in our history. When he sinned, the prophet came and spoke truth to power.

So the law is important. I would not want the law to be curtailed or watered down. And I feel, if we have good people in the Senate and the House, and of course in the Supreme Court, somehow the system should work. But we have the right to criticize. That is the great contribution of the American Constitution: that we can criticize. We may say the law is unjust, the law is unfair.

HEFFNER: But, of course, in our times, we find increasingly there are those who dichotomize the situation and who talk about us, or talk about the citizen, or citizens, and government on the other hand. Now, how do you explain that and what are we going to do about that which runs so contrary to your tradition?

WIESEL: But usually those who say that, by the way, are not citizens: they are politicians. When they run for re-election or for election they say “they in Washington”. I remember Ronald Reagan was running for the campaigns. He was president, and he would still say – “they” – “they in Washington,” because it’s a very good gimmick.

HEFFNER: But Elie, if it’s a good gimmick, it means it strikes a chord. And what is that chord today? It wasn’t the chord, well . . .

WIESEL: Always, probably always.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s think in the New Deal times, in the Franklin D. Roosevelt times. Yes, Franklin Roosevelt ran against Herbert Hoover, “they – those people in Washington.” But for some time in my youth, there was such an enormous respect for officialdom.

WIESEL: Well, I wasn’t here, obviously. In the places where I was, in Romania and Hungary later, we had no luxury like that to criticize, or even to vote. I don’t think even we had the right to vote. Today, what I am most afraid of, really, in this state of affairs is cynicism. I see it in students. I try to preserve them from cynicism, because a cynic is not even evil – somehow it’s different, and worse. The cynic is someone who confuses good and evil.

HEFFNER: The cynic confuses good and evil?

WIESEL: Absolutely. Who is a cynic? He doesn’t believe in good, doesn’t believe in evil. So for him, good and evil is the same thing. And therefore today, I’m afraid that we are exposing ourselves to cynicism and to cynics. Therefore, we are cynical about our government. Look, when you read, again, when you read the stories, what else do we have except excess of certain information? What’s going on in Washington? One senator is accused of that, one is indicted of that, and one congressman is this. Of course, it’s only one, or two, or five. But it hurts. It hurts the system.

HEFFNER: How do you break that cycle in which cynicism plays such a large role? I mean, increasingly in the past generation we have had so much reason as citizens to be cynical about big government, about government. There have been so many episodes in which we know we have been lied to about war and peace, about corruption, etc.

WIESEL: Watergate . . .

HEFFNER: How do we break out of that?

WIESEL: Well, today in the media there is a tendency, which I think is a good tendency, against cover-up, which is good, against cover-up. First of all, if that person wants my trust, I must know everything about that person. And private life, which disturbs me, by the way.

HEFFNER: What disturbs you?

WIESEL: The revelations of private affairs. I don’t think we need all of that.

HEFFNER: So you don’t think private lives should be made public.

WIESEL: No it should not be made . . . it should not become sensationalized. It disturbs me. What a person does in his or her bedroom is really not my affair. However, political decisions are about public conduct, or philosophy, ideology, spirituality. I would like to know as much as I can about those who are going to govern our lives. But naturally, you will say one depends on the other.

HEFFNER: Don’t you think that?

WIESEL: Yes, but again . . . you know me already. I do not have firm principles on that, because there are exceptions.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. That can’t be true. You do have firm principles.

WIESEL: Yes, but there are exceptions. The principles are there, but then human beings come out.

HEFFNER: Well, how are we going to make this break in the cynicism that you see in students today? And that one merely needs to listen to one’s neighbor and persons passing by on the street to hear, “There go the politicians again.”

WIESEL: Again, I would like the word “respect” to become . . . respectable. I would like some more respect, meaning, just as I would like to respect the person who is governing my life, I would like that person to respect my life and my individuality and my personality. And, of course, when I say “I,” I mean every citizen in this land.

HEFFNER: Yes, but to respect your individuality or mine, your individual choices and mine; can a public official do that in a nation of more than a quarter of a billion people? Aren’t we perhaps past the time, willy-nilly, like it or not, past the time when you can find a state in which it is possible for the politicians to be respectful of your individual needs and wants? Haven’t we come into a time when obviously we are going to be dealing more and more with a leviathan state that is going to pass more and more rules and more and more regulations, and I may point out to you and as you have said, in the tradition from which you come?

WIESEL: Dick, I wish I knew the answer, the answer, to this question. Which means what should the society be? I know certain parts of it, but I don’t know how these parts could become part and parcel of all attitudes toward society, toward life, toward each other. I have the questions, but not the answers.

Look, one thing I do know, democracy is not working all the time. We see it in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in Russia. It doesn’t work in the satellites, the former satellites, it doesn’t. Nevertheless, I do not know of any other option. I don’t know what could replace democracy. It’s still not only the best, the only way for civilized people, for moral people, or for people who want to be moral, to live with one another. The same is here. It’s not perfect. It would be utopia. That means the system of government is not perfect. And our response to that system is not perfect.

HEFFNER: Yes but, Elie, you and I as American citizens, vote.


HEFFNER: And we’re either going to vote for those who say, “We believe this state, of necessity, must extend itself more and more into our lives, we must live more and more in a welfare state, or more and more in a leviathan state,” or we’re going to opt to vote for those who say, “The American tradition must be maintained and the American tradition is hands-off government, out of our lives.” Now, where do we fall as . . . ?

WIESEL: That’s not really what preoccupies me. What preoccupies me is simple things. For instance, what should our attitude be toward a stranger, toward the weak, toward the immigrant? Where should we apply our pressure, on whom, for what reason? When do we begin to interfere? These are the problems that preoccupy me. But about whether the state – the federal government or the state government have more right and more ways to interfere in my life, that doesn’t matter to me that much.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you say your concern is with what do we do about our neighbor or the dispossessed –

WIESEL: Or the foreigner, or the stranger who comes in, certainly.

HEFFNER: – those decisions are going to be made by government, presumably, by us, and then through us by our government. And I guess my question is, do we want more government? Do you think in terms of a bigger and bigger brother? Although that’s a negative term.

WIESEL: Let’s say some things that I think are simple and very clear. I believe a society is measured by its attitude toward the weak, not toward the strong. At the same time, I do know that we live with what we call “conventional lies,” and with paradoxes. And our society now is filled with paradoxes. We believe, let’s say, that we are the only superpower in the world, and yet we don’t use that power. Economically, we are not a superpower. Economically, we know that the two nations that have provoked the worst war in history, Japan and Germany, have finally become victorious. They won, economically, they won the war. So what is a paradox? This is a paradox.

Furthermore, we know, for instance, that when a person is elected, that person does not have to fulfill his or her promises, which to me is astounding. Here we know that campaign promises are promises. We accept it. Why do we accept it? The moment the candidate is elected the candidate doesn’t really have to fulfill his promises he made as a candidate. Why do we accept that candidate the next time? Because the American way of life is that campaign promises are not serious. Why shouldn’t they be serious? But then everything in our life now is like that. I remember when I came here as a journalist. I came in, you know, the late fifties. I remember it was very simple. I remember that politics was most open, and sex was private. Now it’s the opposite. Now sex is open and politics is private, secret. There are all kind of things like that. We are prolonging life. Never before has medicine made such progress. They are prolonging life. The moment a person becomes old, the person is discarded, mandatory retirement. Or at best we send the old people to Florida. What do you mean? We should respect old people. So these are all part of our system.

But I am proud of the system, by the way. I think America today is still the greatest democracy in the world, with all of its faults, with all of its shortcomings. And there is pride, in me as a former refugee, to be part of this system, of this society. Because I know that I can speak up. If something is wrong, I speak up. If the president does something which I don’t like, I have, I think I have spoken up. When Reagan went to Bitburg, I spoke out, and in other affairs, too. Can you imagine me, from Eastern Europe, to speak up to a policeman? Forget president!

So, it is an imperfect society. Of course it is. But we should try to make it as perfect as possible, knowing we shall never fulfill that dream of ours.

HEFFNER: Is that dream fulfilled? Does it come closer to fulfillment anyplace else in the world?

WIESEL: Oh, you know I am linked to three countries. I am a citizen of the United States. I write in French, I belong to the French culture in a way and I love it there. There are problems everywhere. In Israel, there are problems with Palestinians. Although, I think in spite of everything, we must, I feel, we must support and help the peace process. Again, for respect, I want to believe the Jews in Israel will respect the Palestinians. And I want to believe that one day the Palestinians, even those who today are terrorists, will change and realize that their only hope is in peace and they will respect the Jews in Israel. In France, they have problems now because the right-wing is increasing its might. Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen has in the last presidential elections got almost 16% of the vote. And now the right-wing, also extremists got 5, or yet altogether some 20% of the vote. Three and a half-million Frenchmen voted for Le Pen who is surely not a democrat, and he’s not for freedom, not for generosity toward strangers.

So there are problems. In America, we have problems. Of course we have problems. We have the cults in Oklahoma, and we have the drugs, and we have the violence in the streets, and we have the youth suicides. You know, I am always shivering when I read statistics that so many American teenagers are committing suicide, and more of course are contemplating suicide. That means they have given up on our society.

HEFFNER: If you take that and you take the cynicism that you referred to before, and I ask you how you find them, where you find them, to what extent you find them in Israel, what is your answer?

WIESEL: Israel is different, really. Israel is a certain motivation. It’s a young state, a young state built, or rebuilt, on an ancient soil. And that combination of a young nation and an old country is fascinating and therefore appealing. There is motivation after all, in Israeli youth. They have their own problems there with, again, with violence, with suicides. Even suicides, I read about suicides in the army; recruits who cannot take it for some reasons, probably good reasons. Any suicide, I must grant the person who committed suicide, I must grant that person the idea that it was a good reason.

HEFFNER: Why must you grant that?

WIESEL: Because… I am against suicide, of course, you can imagine that. But once the person committed suicide, I cannot not treat that person with disrespect.

HEFFNER: The choice?

WIESEL: It’s the choice, and the ultimate gesture. It is the ultimate protest.

HEFFNER: Elie, we have half, three quarters of a minute left. Let me go back to the question of Israel. You talked about a young nation. Many of my friends have told me Israel has become an old nation; that Israel has become a cynical nation too.

WIESEL: Oh, there are symptoms. But basically I think, in substance, the soul, the soul of Israel, I don’t think that the soul of Israel has been tainted.

HEFFNER: It’s still young.

WIESEL: It’s not only young. It is a mirror of four thousand years of aspirations, most of them lofty.

HEFFNER: We’ll come back to that at another dialogue. Thank you so much for joining me today on this dialogue, Elie.

WIESEL: Thank you, Dick.