Elie Wiesel

Anti-Semitism Redux

VTR Date: June 26, 2002

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: Anti-Semitism Redux
VTR: 6/26/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today, as my guest and I prepare an expanded soft-cover edition of our Random House-Schocken book, Conversations With Elie Wiesel, I realize that in the two dozen programs we’ve done together over the years (programs whose edited transcripts form the basis of our book), we never sufficiently or directly enough dealt with the more and more troubling question of re-emergent anti-Semitism … in other countries, and here in our own.

Now we can avoid it — if that’s perhaps what we were doing – no longer. For daily news reports make that impossible as well as irresponsible, whether they are reports of anti-Semitic outrages in the British and Italian press, or in the streets of France or Germany or elsewhere beyond our borders … or of truly disturbing public opinion polls here in the United States.

My guest today, of course, is my dear, good friend, colleague and co-author of Conversations With Elie Wiesel.

Writer, teacher, much honored Noble Peace Prize Laureate, witness to and victim of the inhumanity and outrage of anti-Semitism in the years of the Holocaust, I would ask Elie Wiesel first to comment on the finding of a June 2002 nationwide survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League that 17% of Americans, or about 35 million adults, hold views about Jews that are “unquestionably anti-Semitic.”

George Will, of course, put it most succinctly: that anti-Semitism is the world’s most durable ideology, and once again it is flourishing. Elie, what’s your response to these figures and this talk and what’s happening, seemingly throughout Europe, as well as most of the rest of the world.

WIESEL: Well, like you, I am astonished, dismayed. Even more than that … I’m angry. But what can one do? Anti-Semitism is the oldest group prejudice in history. Of all the “isms” that vanished, that were defeated, anti-Semitism is still here. Nazism was defeated; Fascism vanquished; Communism discredited. Anti-Semitism is still here. And you wonder why. Now there was a time, it appeared at least, after the War, when anti-Semites where there, but they didn’t dare say it. It wasn’t fashionable. Everybody thought of Auschwitz and Treblinka and Metternich and they thought “Well, it’s not nice to be in the company of those who created those places of curse, malediction and death.” And now, three generations later, people feel they can, already, drop the mask. What does it mean? That those who were anti-Semites, remained anti-Semites, naturally. What about the young people? What do they want to learn? From whom? For what purpose?

We have been accused of everything in the world for the last 2,000 years at least. Of poisoning the wells; of creating diseases; of spreading diseases; of being too rich or too poor; ignorant; too learned; too successful or not enough; too believing; too religious; or too atheistic. There isn’t … literally there isn’t an accusation in the world that has not been leveled against us. All of these things, of course, were nonsense. Simply hatred. They hated us because we are different. And we believe that all people are different … that is our greatness and our vulnerability.

Only I am I and only you are you and nobody is you or me, but you and me only. And they don’t understand that. The anti-Semites don’t understand. They refuse to understand that there is a people, at least, who for four thousand years, at least, carried on a certain mission. Of bringing awareness into the world, of conscience; of trying to help each other. And they don’t understand it. Why do you want to do that?

We have suffered so much. From so many quarters. Of so many crowds, for so many reasons. “You should be like us.” So anti-Semites today, what they say, “You are like us.” Now they accuse Israel of being brutal and inhuman. That’s exactly what they try to say, “Look, finished … you can no longer pretend … being different … you are like us.”

But I am not a hater. I don’t want to be a hater. My life is not defined by hatred. On the contrary, by the way that I desire to fight hatred.

HEFFNER: But how much is your life defined, and you made mention of Israel … how much is your life, your persona, your thinking, your being defined by your relationship to Israel? How much is the current anti-Semitism a function of attitudes toward Israel?

WIESEL: Well, I think there’s a third element, as well. In Europe, at least … America. Some people in Europe hate Israel because of America. Other people hate America because of Israel. But whoever hates, hates everybody. Hatred is contagious. You start hating one group and then you go to others. One minority and then you include all others. Those who hate, hate me. And those who hate me, hate all others, later on. And they end up hating themselves as well. Because hatred is that, hatred cannot be stopped.

HEFFNER: But why focus on us? On the Jews?

WIESEL: Ahhh, if I knew. We have been asked this question for … at least … thousands of years, and we don’t the reason. Because they say, “Why did God choose you?” Why did God choose us? Ask God. Let him answer. Why should I answer for him. I have no authority to answer for him. And then they say, “Since God chose you, why aren’t you worthy of God’s trust?” This is what used to be the religious hatred. And then there is economic hatred; and political hatred; and metaphysical hatred; and cultural hatred, and all of these hatreds again somehow are focused on us.

HEFFNER: You end there and there’s silence because I don’t know what to ask you. I don’t know what to say after that because, as always, there is this question mark to which there is no answer. And yet, how do we answer our children? How do we explain to our children, to those who come after us …

WIESEL: Occasionally I am asked this question. You know I think we meant to discuss it in one of our previous encounters. “Why do so many people hate you?” There must be something about you that elicits their hatred. And I then say, why should I make their work easier? Ask the anti-Semites. Let them answer. And then I may have answers to their answers. I may refute them; I may reject them. But let them answer. If I start thinking the way the anti-Semite thinks, then I’ve become anti-Semitic. I don’t want to do that. I would never choose any form, any shape, or any mode of hatred. Not only to myself, but to anyone else.

HEFFNER: You know I was looking back at transcripts from 1956, when The Open Mind began and I did a series of programs on anti-Semitism. And there seemed then to be a very real need on the part of my guests to say, “Don’t ever think that this is the problem of the Jews. Don’t ever think that it is our problem. It is their problem, it is the problem of the hater. It is the problem of the anti-Semite, not of the Semite.” And yet, here we are, suffering, and we will suffer more.

WIESEL: It, it has been their problem then, it is their problem now. We are only the victims of that problem. If we choose to be victims. But, my, my good friend, Richard, it’s different now. We are not victims. We can fight. We have words. We have ways of explaining what we want to explain, refuting what we want to refute and affirming what we want to affirm. After all, I am not a victim. I used to be a victim … until … during the War …but not afterwards. Nor are you. So they want us to be victims, but we are not. We are not even their victims. We are their judges. And this one bothers them. We judge haters.

HEFFNER: You said before … well, you say “We judge haters.” What judgment do you make. That they are sick? That they are poor? That they are oppressed? That they are ignorant? Where do we focus our judgment?

WIESEL: Well, all of these elements are in some people. And in certain cases, in all people. Some because they are poor, and they think that we are so rich. That we are the richest persons in the world. I remember we had once a discussion, some …let’s say, important people … and there was a very beautiful, beautiful Black lady … African American lady … and she was on our side, really on our side. They were fighting for the same causes against the same enemies. And at one point, because of something that happened in Williamsburg, here in New York, she said, “But you must understand these, these people because, after all, all the Jews are so rich.” And I said, “Lady, really, all the Jews are rich? I can take you this afternoon to Brooklyn, I will show you how Jews live. I will show you families of seven who live in, in an apartment of two rooms. And who have nothing to eat, except what they receive, either from the community or the government. I will show you that.” Not all Jews are rich, and not all rich are poor, and not all rich are Jews. It depends. Let me say, you cannot say “the Jews are this …” and nothing else. We have our own poor, our own rich, our own good people, our own bad people. We are a people, really, that has lived a long, long life. Has a long history.

HEFFNER: You said a moment ago, you said there was another factor in what is happening now and that is America. And that, to some extent, Israel is the victim of attitudes around the world toward America. Just as America, as we know that from September 11th was the victim because, to some extent, its support of Israel.

WIESEL: No. 9/11 …


WIESEL: … was nothing to do with Israel.

HEFFNER: Tell me.

WIESEL: 9/11 … absolutely not. Bin Laden had never had mentioned Israel in all of his speeches until 9/11. His …

HEFFNER: But America’s attitude toward Israel?

WIESEL: Nothing. He never even mentioned it. He, his enemy is Saudi Arabia. He only attacked America and Saudi Arabia, but not Israel. Only when he realized that it’s a good thing to, to find an excuse, so to speak, an excuse … or a pretext, that he mentioned Israel, as well. Because he had the feeling that people would respond to that better than to others. But nothing to do with Israel.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen in Israel? How is it going to respond? How would you have it respond?

WIESEL: Ahhh …

HEFFNER: Let me ask that as a fairer question.

WIESEL: I wish. I wish I could tell you precisely. But I will try. The first objective must be the end of the suicide killings. If I had it my way, and I suggested it to somebody who could actually implement it, last week, to convene a meeting of the highest spiritual authorities of Islam. And they should come out with a Fatwah and say, “Look, you Palestinians, you are patriots. We admire you for that. You want to fight for a homeland. We will help you. You are right in wanting to have your own land. Your own republic. But there is one limit that you must impose by yourself. No suicide killing. That’s against the Koran, it’s against civilization, it’s against humanity. Don’t do that.” I think that would help. Once that happens everything is possible. Then I think negotiations should start again. I think the President’s speech was good and he is right. There should be two lands, two republics, two nations, two homelands. One, two states. One along side the other. And living in peace. I think it’s possible. But that must first be eliminated.

HEFFNER: You say you think it’s possible. How do you reply to those who say it is not possible because the Palestinians and those around them will not accept Israel and that ultimately there will be a drive again, to drive Israel into the sea.

WIESEL: Oh, I feel it, too, very often. But mainly when I am pessimistic, I feel it. And I ,,, absolutely it happens … you know, when I read the newspapers, I see on television day after day the suicide killings. That hurts. That hurts. In the press, in the media they call them “kamikaze”. It’s wrong, the kamikaze attacked only military targets, never civilians. But these suicide killers killed children and their mothers and their grandmothers. And then you read the stories how they killed, and it breaks your heart. And then, I say to myself, maybe I was wrong in supporting the Oslo Agreement. I was wrong. I was naive. They don’t want us there. And then … I close my eyes …

HEFFNER: And then what? And then what?

WIESEL: And then I say we cannot accept that as the final answer. I am not giving up on humanity. Not even on their humanity. I am not giving up on that. I think even those parents who today are encouraging their children to go and commit suicide and kill other children, even they … I don’t give up on them. I think it’s possible to talk. But the first thing must be the, the removal of this blasphemy. It is a blasphemy to kill children and their parents in the name of the Koran, no. Don’t do that. In the name God? No. Don’t do that.

HEFFNER: You said you have suggested a convening …


HEFFNER: … of religious persons. Why do you feel that this could be …

WIESEL: Because they, because they invoke religious arguments.

HEFFNER: I understand.

WIESEL: So, therefore, only religious authorities could tell them these arguments are wrong, are false. Repudiate them. Do something else.

HEFFNER: But thus far …

WIESEL: But I don’t think it will work …

HEFFNER: I … [agreement laughter]

WIESEL: Because they won’t, they won’t come. Because apparently what I hear is that for the moment, all these religious authorities that I would like to appeal to, they encourage them to go and commit suicide. And kill by committing suicide.

HEFFNER: On the assumption that doing this over a long enough period of time, will what? Will drive the Israelis away?

WIESEL: I think the Hamas and the Luxa, these ultra terrorist organizations, they are convinced that Israel would be tired at the end.

HEFFNER: And do what?

WIESEL: And give up. And they are wrong. We have not waited 2,000 years in exile and made so many sacrifices now for to have a small state, a very small state in, in, in an ocean of Islam. They have not done that in order to give it up. They won’t give it up.

HEFFNER: You think it’s possible to survive in that sea of enemies?

WIESEL: Ahhh, the Jewish people survived in a sea of enemies for 2,000 years.

HEFFNER: I, I don’t want to accept that as an answer.

WIESEL: I think I must … for me in order save my hate, my hope for the future, I must look back to the past. Paradoxically, the past should move me to despair, one generation after another, we were, we were exposed to so much hatred and brutality and killings and, all right, it’s true. But then I turn around, I say, that should be also a reason to invoke hope. Say, “Look, one generation after another we were suppressed and persecuted and oppressed and killed and nevertheless we are here.” We are here. And the book which is our book is still here. And our memory is still here. And our passion for humanity remains, if not intact … or wounded, but it’s here.

HEFFNER: How are we here? How has it, how has it been that we have survived? What? The book?

WIESEL: The great philosopher Nachmanides, he said, “If you want proof that God exists, look at the Jewish people. (Laughter). They’re still here.” To give you an image, the Jewish people is like a sheep among wolves. All these wolves would have devoured it so quickly, so rapidly and so efficiently. And here we are. That means God is protecting us. I would rather say something else. It’s Heinrich, the great Jewish-German poet, in Heidi Heine, he said it beautiful, he said, “We were clever, when we were chased out of old Jerusalem,” he said, “2,000 men, 1,900 years ago, we did not take the jewels, we took a book.” There’s something.

You know, I… went the last weekend, in Iona and there was an arena and somebody said to me, “See this arena is old, 2,000 years old and here it is almost intact.” And I said, “Look, I work for a people that has no arenas, only a book. And that book is intact.”

HEFFNER: Your book is intact. In Israel?

WIESEL: Oh, absolutely. Look, Israel now is also a state, democratic state, a secular state.

HEFFNER: You said a “democratic” state.

WIESEL: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: You didn’t say a “theocratic” state.

WIESEL: I don’t think a theocratic state, except … look, it has an exception, which I would like it to be, by the way, totally, totally democratic, meaning to separate the cynicalcrum from state, from state. Like here. I would like that.

HEFFNER: But, Elie, in a sense, I think … I would, too, and yet, I realize that what you’ve just said, and it rings so true, the book, would we now separate out the book, from the conduct of the state?

WIESEL: Not at all. Except it should not be … it should not be a theocratic state meaning that somebody who is not religious should suffer. I would not like that. I am not God’s policeman. What I do with regard to the Bible, if I observe the laws or not, it’s my problem, or my condition, which is my human condition, my Jewish condition. But if a person does not … who am I to tell him or her, “you are not really a good Jew”. Come on. I don’t even live there. And furthermore, what kind of a Jew am I? I’m so good? I’m not so good, either.

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

WIESEL: Because …

HEFFNER: Why do you say that?

WIESEL: … at least. Look, I feel that I’m not doing enough. Absolutely. I am not doing enough. I …

HEFFNER: Meaning what?

WIESEL: …meaning observing the Laws. Meaning more. There’s always more. I have the feeling, I told you once that I have published so many books, including???? , and always have the feeling I haven’t even begun. That’s why my feeling of urgency which is accompanying me and hounding me all the time. But take another thing about religion. Suppose an atheistic young man goes to the Army in Israel and gives his life to defend the country. Anyone wants to tell me that a Jew, because he observes the law of the Sabbath, for instance, is a better Jew than that young man. I wouldn’t accept it. And therefore I would like, maybe to have, absolutely, to study the Bible and to teach the Bible and the Commentaries and have a Jewish state. But there comes to civil liberties, if they are in conflict with religious liberties, that they should be separate. That the Rabbinate really should deal with religious Jews and tell them, “Look, we will teach you and this is what you should do perfectly.” But if a Jewry says “No”, I do not want to observe that many religious laws.” I am not that. Who am I to tell … I, at least … who am I tell them “don’t”?

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you another question, not unrelated, when you say, “Who are you to tell me, or to tell anyone in Israel”. Is it appropriate for us to have an attitude toward Israel as a kind of litmus test when it comes to our concerns about anti-Semitism? Must someone who is opposed to Israel, and that seems to be happening now, be considered anti-Semite?

WIESEL: I don’t. I don’t foresee that anyone just because he or she criticizes Israel on this or that attitude of Israel is an anti-Semite. What do I say? If a person has shown by example, in the past, that he or she has praised Israel, when Israel was worthy of praise, and now say, “Look, I don’t agree with what Mr. This or General This is doing.” Then it’s not simply … he has the right to be critical. I cannot be critical. Because of my past and my life, I cannot simply criticize. I am not as harsh. I try to give Israel a chance and say, “It’s a young nation, which was born out of an ancient people. It deserves some attenuating circumstances”. But if others are more critical, okay. But if somebody always criticizes, always … has always done so. And will do so, obviously, that person is an anti-Semite.

HEFFNER: Do you think we’re running into the danger of not following what you’re just suggesting? But blaming, or labeling, as anti-Semitic individuals who simply, let me put it that way, simply are even opposed to the idea of a Jewish state.

WIESEL: Oh, I would … I couldn’t conceive really of anyone who is today, who lives in this … who remembers the past and is intelligent, and knows history, who would even say that it is possible, or it is plausible, or the worldwide project … impossible. Richard, in 1948 a state was born, three hours after Auschwitz. If the state had been postponed, not at fifty years, but hundred years … the Jewish people would have survived. Now that Israel is, it’s existence is linked to the Jewish people’s existence all over the world.

HEFFNER: So, inevitably …

WIESEL: Inevitably …

HEFFNER: … our position to …

WIESEL: … anyone who opposes Israel’s existence is an anti-Semite. That basically he opposes Jewish lives in Israel.

HEFFNER: Do you feel so strongly that your life, your Jewish life … mine … is involved with the survival of Israel?

WIESEL: I have no doubt about it. No doubt.

HEFFNER: And in this country, do you think that the, the attitude of most Americans reflects that?

WIESEL: I think most Americans who think, who have certain religious affiliation and who know something of Judaism, about Jewish life, about Jewish culture, about Jewish memory, about Jewish past. They feel that way. Congress is totally on Israel’s side, on our side. The White House is on our side. And I think more than any other country in the world, I think what we feel is respected by the American nation.

HEFFNER: Elie, I wonder what we’ll be saying to each other about these matters five years from now, when hopefully we can sit at this table again.

WIESEL: We have a date.

HEFFNER: We have a date. Thank you for joining me at this date, Elie Wiesel. 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 four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. 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.