Conversations with Elie Wiesel
VTR Date: October 26, 2001
Guest: Wiesel, Elie
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Conversations With Elie Wiesel”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I’m never prouder than when I can once again welcome to it my dear friend and colleague, Elie Wiesel, author, witness, much honored winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, specially today as Random House’s Schocken Books publishes our Conversations With Elie Wiesel in which many of our broadcast words from over these many years appear together in print.
Now, surely Elie Wiesel is the guest I most closely identify with The Open Mind’s very purpose: to probe as deeply, as honestly, and as freely as concerned men and women can into both the clearly universal and the seemingly more personal issues that in our time must challenge all thoughtful individuals.
Of course, the very degree to which Elie Wiesel’s beliefs are so deeply rooted in and reflect his Judaic tenets and traditions, while mine are quite so secular, has added an important and provocative dimension to the quality of our exchanges as together we embrace John Milton’s singular query: “Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”
Mr. Wiesel once said here that “whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms”.
Later that became the hallmark of the home video Dialogues series we produced together …as it is now of our book, Conversations With Elie Wiesel, taking us both back many years, through a generation of warm friendship and mutual respect, of affection indeed of a brotherly love that I know we feel equally.
And always –as I think our viewers have long realized, and as I hope our readers will, too –civility and a continuing search for the truth and for a sense of personal responsibility in framing our response to challenges, have characterized our work together.
Now perhaps readers will feel as I do, that the most compelling of all our newly published Conversations is the last one, titled “The Mystic Chords of Memory.” In it, my guest says, “The word ‘memory’ combines almost all my obsessions, all my priorities. We are committed to memory. I am because of what I remember. If I do what I do, what I’m trying to do, it’s again because I remember. And therefore ‘memory’ is probably the key word in my vocabulary.”
Yet Elie Wiesel also feels constrained to warn that: “… memory itself, which should be a sanctuary, has become almost an abomination.”
And today I would simply ask my friend to explain that warning… as I did the last time we set here together just days before September 11th, 2001, a day that everlastingly shall challenge memory. What is it, Elie, that you think we need to do to understand that abomination comment?
WIESEL: Well, September 11th is an explanation. These murders become murders because they, too, remember. But they remember the wrong values, the wrong concepts, the wrong injunctions. They, too, speak about God. But they turn God into an accomplice, an accomplice to murder. They make God into a murderer. Therefore I say, “beware” there are no absolutes. Memory itself cannot be an absolute. We must choose. Choose what to do with memory. If memory becomes a bridge, a link, a spark that brings people together, then I am for it. But I have seen on a different level in Bosnia, where they, too, invoked memory on both sides, just to kill each other. So we must re-evaluate, I think, now in the shadow… in the shadow of the flames and the smoke that hang over our town…
HEFFNER: Elie, do you think we’re capable of making those distinctions that you would make?
WIESEL: We are teachers, you and I, we are trying to teach our students to make those distinctions. Which means to look deeper, to think higher.
HEFFNER: Yet, others have not succeeded because we have spoken so many times, and in our book we speak about our conversations, or about those instances when, whether we’re talking about The Crusades or something more recent, that has not been the case, we have not managed to do it.
WIESEL: We … who? (Laughter).
HEFFNER: Well, “we… who?” That’s a fair question. But what’s the answer. Not everyone?
WIESEL: Not everyone. Never was. A matter for everyone to become good or to learn lessons. There are good people, and people who are not so good. I will tell you what changed me. We speak about the change of, of America, the change of our time, of the era …since September 11th. Not only the horror and the absurdity of the crime, but even the way it was done. These men, 19 men, and their accomplices have decided to kill almost 6,000 people simply because they were there. Just because they were there… Jews and Christians and Muslims. Young and old. Rich and poor. Learned and unlearned. They were there, and therefore they killed them. And they didn’t even bother to tell us why.
I have studied the concept of terror in history for years. I was afraid of nuclear terrorists, I was afraid of terrorism, because terrorism means fear. It means humiliation through fear. Never, in the history of terrorism have you encountered such a case, when either people commit suicide or kill or together do both without bothering to tell us why. Which means they wanted to offend us even before and above the offense, that we are not worthy of an explanation. Their deed became not only a message, but an offensive, humiliating message, that they are above us. Only they say only death is your explanation. You understand only death. Well, for the first time that happened. And therefore, everything changed.
I’ll give you a different example, which bothers me terribly. We live in a world now, which you know, there’s no more privacy. I came by train today, and people on their cell phones talk about things that I don’t want to hear. Either business or personal things. No more privacy. But still there was one area of privacy that remained, and that is the letter. I remember when I was young I was waiting for a letter from a friend, or from a girl friend or somebody I loved. And indeed, the trembling, the, the palpitations, when we opened the letter, which was destined only to me. Meant only for me. And today you can’t open a letter anymore. Because they invaded even that area of our intimate life. So things have changed. Does it mean that they have learned something from terror?
HEFFNER: Does it? Have they learned? Had they learned before…
HEFFNER: …they terrorized us this way? And don’t you thin we are terrorized?
WIESEL: We are. That’s why I’m so bothered and that’s why I believe that, what I said about memory can be said now about anything. About culture, and about life, about honor. They thought that they were living a life of honor, that they were dying a death of honor. And indeed, in the eyes of their accomplices, and there may be many, that was the case. But we know that that is not true.
HEFFNER: But Elie, I’m puzzled a little at what you say about, um, not telling us, not deigning to explain the act. Hadn’t Bin Laden, hadn’t others for a period of years now warned us that there was here a battle against the Great Devil?
WIESEL: Yes, somebody else spoke for them, but not themselves. Until now…
HEFFNER: Those 19 men.
WIESEL: Exactly. Until now, they did it. Those who killed used words as well. And these 19 men decided no words, just death. That became their word, their language.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that because they, themselves were the missiles, they themselves were the bullets and not those who fired the gun and who loaded, with money, as well as ideas and ideology…
WIESEL: And fanaticism and hatred. Absolutely, but that means exactly why we are talking about the same thing. The day… as, as missiles, as means… became the language, their death became the language. But words. After all. I want words. I want to know. They should say, “I am going…”. They didn’t… look they didn’t ask for anything. They didn’t demand anything. They didn’t protest against anything. They didn’t claim anything. They didn’t even use the, the occasion for ransom…saying, “look, unless…” Israel, for instance… they didn’t care about Israel. Bin Laden couldn’t care less about Israel. Israel is too small for him, he’s a megalomaniac… he wants America. If suppose they would have said, “unless Israel evacuates Jerusalem in 24 hours… we do that”. Or “we’re doing it because Israel is not evacuating”. Not even that. And that is a precedent. It never happened before. During the French Revolution, when this happened, terror, we knew why. There were words for it. Robespierre used words. And today, what does it mean… there are no more words?
HEFFNER: What does it mean? What does September 11th, 2001 mean to you in the sense of how does it change you, literally? We spoke here a few days before… you said many things that appear in this book, appear in many, many of your major works. How does Elie Wiesel look differently at the world? After that infamous date?
WIESEL: I cannot in truth… I, I must make an effort to speak to my students with greater hope.
HEFFNER: Greater hope?
WIESEL: Yes. To tell them, look, nevertheless, we… and yet there is hope. There must be hope.
HEFFNER: Because you feel less?
WIESEL: No I feel there was less hope because if that, if that could happen in our country. I said, maybe something was not wrong with, but with the whole world. I, I, this is still a time, really, I believe, not yet for self-examination. Not yet. I don’t think America should now, at this point, say, “what did we do wrong?” Everything must be concentrated now on the mourning, on the healing, and on the idea of terror. And fight the war. I am, I am for the war that President Bush is waging against terror. I’m for it. With a heavy heart. I don’t like war. I abhor war. But we must fight it. If not they will use tomorrow… they may use and they could use and probably would use tomorrow means, weapons, hatred, armed hatred that would cause more, more casualties. So, I have to find now a way of saying, “look, this is what I know” …people says it’s because of… we didn’t care less, didn’t care enough about the poverty of people. That… the day after tomorrow. For the moment… the dead haven’t been buried yet.
HEFFNER: True. True. Elie, uh, Question. You mentioned Israel. You, you said, “they didn’t say evacuate Jerusalem… 24 hours, 48 hours or this will happen, or something will happen”. Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times, the magazine section… two weeks perhaps after September 11th, wrote an article, um, in which he said, “it is, yes it is a religious war.” Do you think that it is?
WIESEL: It is also a religious war. But not only a religious war.
HEFFNER: You think Bin Laden is simply looking for power? When I say “simply,” I don’t know why I say that. Power? Control? Wealth?
WIESEL: I think he wants to broaden the power of Islam. Of his concept of Islam. What he really wants is not America, even he knows he cannot get America. He would like to control Saudi Arabia, the Emirates. He would like to become a kind of Caliph or Emperor of, of all the Arab nations in the Middle East.
HEFFNER: And then? Hitler told us what he would do once he conquered.
WIESEL: Well, he doesn’t say more. He simply says that. But you can imagine what he would do with the Infidels. But for the moment, as I think what he wants… but it’s enough.
HEFFNER: But the point of “yes, it is a religious war…”
WIESEL: It’s also, I said, “also a religious war.”
HEFFNER: What does that… what light does that throw upon your sense of, of Islam?
WIESEL: I don’t know enough about Islam. I read the Koran, I read the Commentaries, the Sutras about, about the Koran and Mohammed. There are good things in Islam as in other religions as well. There are also things in every religion that are not so good. Even in ours. You read the Bible there’s a lot of violence in the Bible. There is, for instance, in our text, in our text… in the Bible, speaking let’s say about the Malachites, we are supposed kill all the Malachites… literally, men, women and child. However, there was a bit of a correction. In the Talmudic Commentaries, everything is being done so that we should never know who is a Malachite. That means we cannot use the excuse to kill somebody because he or she is a Malachite. But it’s in, in the old text. So we know what to choose and what to do with it. And our sages knew what to do with it. To prevent violence … simple, stupid violence. Killing is always stupid. In the Koran there are good things. And there are people I believe, who believe in those good things. But Bin Laden and his people chose the wrong the things.
HEFFNER: What do you think the, fate of Jews in America will be in terms of how that fate will be modified because of September 11th?
WIESEL: Well, first of all I really hope that we will really not hasten to pass collective judgment on the Muslim citizens in America. We should not do that. We Jews especially have learned what it means to be on the other side. On the receiving side of collective condemnation. There are good Muslims, as there are others who are not so good, I submit. That is true of Muslims or Christians or Jews. The terrorists have to be fought. And their accomplices have to be fought and imprisoned and judged. But simply and mostly because he or she is a Muslim, we should not. We should treat that person and that child with honor, with, with respect and with affection.
HEFFNER: You’re not concerned, are you that the changes that are being made now, even as we speak, in our laws, will permit that kind of, activity?
WIESEL: No, I don’t think it will permit. I think, on the contrary, I think everybody really from the President down, will speak about it. “Be careful. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Do not, do not,” because we should not do that. I… it’s not because I am afraid of anti-Semitism. It’s because it’s something we shouldn’t do.
HEFFNER: Israel itself. How unsafe it must be now.
WIESEL: I was there since we spoke actually. I was there for the holidays. For the Sukkoth holidays. Israel is like here now. But Israel went through it differently. Day after day with the suicide bombers. Again… mourning, funerals, fear, parents who are afraid because their children haven’t come back in time. They’re afraid to send them to the shopping center, to the shopping mall, to the movie house. Because terror is terror. And the only mistake I think that… I think that the Alliance has made is to choose between good terror and bad terror. That Bin Laden is bad, but Arafat’s terrorists are not so bad. They are as bad.
HEFFNER: How, you talk about the way Israelis live, in a reign of terror, feeling the terror imposed upon them. I wanted very much for people to come here and talk about what the British did during the war. What other peoples have done. How have they survived. Have we the strength to do what the British did in the war, what the Israelis have been doing for years now?
HEFFNER: Do you think we do?
WIESEL: I remember Henry Kissinger telling us that he spoke to Assat the father, previous president, of Syria. He said, “we shall always win because America and Israel cannot take suffering.” That is true in a way because for us the moment a solider dies… it’s a headline. And rightly so, because when a person dies we should be sad, we should be outraged that that person died as a victim of injustice. But I think we’ll be able to take that because what is at stake is our… not only our future, but our life. I am more and more concerned. They are talking about anthrax. Anthrax is the easiest, the simplest poison that, that has been inflicted upon us already. But there are worse.
HEFFNER: Do you think that the concern that has been expressed… certainly in the press lately about Saddam Hussein and his involvement… possible involvement. This is warranted.
WIESEL: It’s possible. I don’t know. It’s not my field, as you know. I’m not a General, nor am I a scientist. But I hear, in Israel, and I really believe that he was involved.
HEFFNER: Which makes it all the more dangerous.
WIESEL: It’s dangerous because if, if Saddam Hussein attacks… if, let’s say, if America attacks Iraq, Iraq attacks Israel. That happened in ‘91, through the Gulf War. I was there. It was, it was incredible. Israel really didn’t budge because the President, the father Bush, asked Israel not to intervene, not to move. And day after day, there were Scuds falling… falling on Tel Aviv and other places. I was there. And I used to be with… see the Prime Minister there and other generals, and they didn’t move. For the very first time in Israel’s history, Israel did not respond to a direct attack on its.:. people. I don’t think that will happen now.
HEFFNER: You don’t think that Israel will be… will be that self-controlled…
WIESEL: Not this time.
HEFFNER: Will not choose to be that self-controlled?
WIESEL: No, this time I think if Israel is attacked, Israel will respond.
HEFFNER: That means nuclear weapons, doesn’t it?
WIESEL: I hope not. If it begins then … I hope not, really.
HEFFNER: And the rest of the world and its attitude toward us now. You travel a great deal.
WIESEL: In the beginning, we had the sympathy of the world. After all how can one be civilized and not feel sympathy for America, because, you know, they have said it so often, everybody has said it, we must repeat it, even among ourselves… because we are two friends, we say everything to each other. The way New York responded was a source of hope and pride to everybody. And therefore Giuliani deserves all the praise, and the policemen and the firemen. The way New York citizens responded…I went to Ground Zero soon after. It breaks your heart when you think of the victims and the families. But it also, it moves you to tears because of the way we responded as human beings, as brother and sisters of those men and women. So in the world at large they felt close, as cousins, let’s say, but not as brothers. But slowly I’m afraid it’s moving away. I think the only friend now for the moment, who’s all out is Tony Blair, England.
HEFFNER: You single out the Prime Minister. You don’t say “England.”
WIESEL: I say England, too, apparently. It is, after all, the English troops are there. The only troops that fight are the English, the British troops… commandos and the marines and they fight. And it’s a good fight. It’s a just fight. We cannot, we cannot allow terror to prevail.
HEFFNER: One of the few things we did not discuss in our book… we’ll have to do something further…
WIESEL: We’ll do another book.
HEFFNER: …is the concept of a just war.
WIESEL: Naturally. Sure.
HEFFNER: You’ve never had trouble with that? That concept?
WIESEL: Because it’s so rare.
WIESEL: Because a just war is very rare. There are wars and wars. In our tradition… the Jewish tradition… just wars are so difficult to obtain… that the… what, what it needs from God and from the High Priests and through, from the Sanhedrin…to declare a just war… that once the just… once the war becomes “just” there are all kinds of things that are being done. But there are wars and then there are religious wars even in our…but just wars is a… it’s a very rare thing. We should discuss it one day.
HEFFNER: Elie, it’s not a fair thing to ask you… we just have a couple of minutes left… when we meet again here… and we will in …
WIESEL: Of course.
HEFFNER: …in six months.
WIESEL: Of course.
HEFFNER: …a year… whatever… what do you think we’ll look back on and say “what an incredible change, we couldn’t have imagined.” I’m asking you to imagine it.
WIESEL: [Laughter] Richard, my friend, you know that prophecy is a dangerous business…
HEFFNER: Oh, I know…
WIESEL: ..in the Jewish religion…
HEFFNER: And you always maintain you are no prophet.
WIESEL: I am worried. I am worried that the war will last too long. Which means we won’t get the terrorist. If it lasts too long the danger is that winter is setting in. It’s going to be difficult to fight a war in Afaghanistan. Bin Laden may emerge as a kind of Saladin, as a hero. He will say, “look I stood up, not only to America, but to the whole world.” That will give him more prestige, more power, more money, more influence. I’m afraid of that. My hope is that he will be caught soon.
HEFFNER: I… is there any indication, in your mind, that we’re capable of catching him?
WIESEL: Oh, I think what we should take, is take… send James Bond. [Laughter] And Rambo, whoever they are, commandos. I think it’s not the bombing, but bombing is probably as important. I hope that we’ll dig in. I, I am convinced, really, with all my heart, that no American pilot would ever bomb civilian targets intentionally. I am convinced of that. But people die. But I, I think it will be a matter of commandos. They will, they will get him.
HEFFNER: And our faith, our feelings, our attitudes in this country… the ones that are good, the ones that historically have made you proud to be an American, as you are. You think they will sustain themselves, too?
WIESEL: I think so. I think people will become closer to one another.
HEFFNER: Well, that we have…
WIESEL: As a result of that.
HEFFNER: That we have.
WIESEL: It will continue.
HEFFNER: Elie, I hope that you’re right.
WIESEL: So do I.
HEFFNER: Pessimist. Optimist. Pessimist. Pessimist.
WIESEL: Both. Pessimist. Pessimist.
HEFFNER: That’s the trouble.
WIESEL: But the two pessimists together can create an optimism.
HEFFNER: Two negatives may make a positive.
WIESEL: You know, I make… for once let me quote, which I’ve never…I don’t quote myself. At one point when I needed optimism, I wrote one of my novels, “we all are question marks, but when two question marks meet something beautiful can emerge”.
HEFFNER: That’s a nice point at which I have to say to you, “that’s all the time we have.” Two question marks. Elie Wiesel, thank you so much for joining me again today. And thank you for the privilege of working on Conversations With Elie Wiesel.
WIESEL: Of course. It’s mine, too.
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 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.S. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.