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Peace Warrior 

Talk preview: Elie Wiesel

In awarding Elie Wiesel the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee described him as a "messenger to mankind." Wiesel, 78, will bring his message of activism against genocide to Burlington on April 25, when he is scheduled to speak at the University of Vermont.

The author of some 40 books, Wiesel is best known for Night, the disquieting account of his imprisonment as a young Jew in a series of Nazi death camps. Wiesel lost his mother, father and sister to the Holocaust.

"Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live," Wiesel writes in Night. "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

Wiesel may have lost the desire to live, but not the compulsion to warn humanity of its capacity for inhuman actions [see The Elie Wiesel Foundation]. In the course of his career as a journalist, professor and novelist, Wiesel has used his personal experiences and the history of the Holocaust to appeal for an end to the slaughters of peoples.

But the world has not listened.

Wiesel's status as a latter-day prophet has not exempted him from charges that he expresses outrage only when it furthers his own political agenda. Some especially cutting criticisms pertain to his defense of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Wiesel's views on the Middle East led Christopher Hitchens, a formerly left-wing iconoclast, to describe him as "a contemptible poseur and windbag" in a 2001 essay in The Nation.

Seven Days recently spoke with Wiesel by phone from his office in Manhattan.

SEVEN DAYS: You'll no doubt be speaking about Darfur when you come to the University of Vermont next week. What will you say about the genocide going on there?

ELIE WIESEL: I was among the first to try to alert the world to the tragedy of Darfur. I call Darfur the capital of human suffering in the world today.

SD: Right, but what specifically would you urge be done to stop the killings?

EW: We must apply pressure on the Sudan government to stop it, or at least allow an international force to come in and divide the different sections to prevent them from killing one another. It's an unspeakable situation. At least 200,000 dead and 2 million people displaced. I used to be a displaced person myself, so I know what that's like.

SD: In addition to Darfur, what will you be talking about?

EW: It's very special for me to come to Vermont's university. I am a professor, so I enjoy being in these settings, and also it's because Raul Hilberg has taught at Vermont. Hilberg [now a professor emeritus of political science at UVM] wrote a masterwork on the history of the Holocaust. I will be honored to speak with him.

I will be discussing how we are the generation that tried to tell the tale of what happened in the war so that in some way we would improve the world situation. We have tried to convince people not to do what was done in Europe during those dark years.

The world has not changed, though.

SD: It must be very disheartening to have written so many books, made so many speeches about the Holocaust, and to see that the message has been ignored: Rwanda, Bosnia, now Darfur.

EW: That's exactly the thing. If Auschwitz didn't teach the world a lesson, then what will?

I do know that whatever the answer may be - if there is some answer of some kind - education must be a major portion of it. That's why I go on writing and speaking.

SD: Some people say you haven't spoken out sufficiently concerning Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. What's your response to those criticisms?

EW: I understand those criticisms. The reason I am not taking up [the Palestinians'] cause the way they want me to do is because they still believe in violence. Look, the Palestinians have chosen a government led by Hamas whose charter says Israel must be destroyed. How can I support them when they are calling for that?

SD: Israel carries out violence, too.

EW: I am not one-sided. I try to bring Palestinian and Israeli leaders together. I helped organize a convocation of Nobel Laureates last year in Jordan that brought [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas and [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert together. They fell into each other's arms.

There's hope there. And I do believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There's an important difference between Israel's actions and the Palestinians'. The Israeli response doesn't include suicide terrorism. It's an unworthy thing.

I don't think everything [the Israelis] do is correct. But they don't act without provocation.

SD: You said you're hopeful about peace?

EW: I'm not optimistic about the world as a whole. We're living in a time of fanaticism unprecedented since the Middle Ages.

But I am hopeful for a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. I actually think it could happen fairly soon. Both sides are tired. Both sides are speaking to one another. And if you can bring them together and keep them together, then peace is a real possibility.

SD: You spoke earlier about being part of a generation that tried to warn the world against repeating the Holocaust. What about the younger generation - the students you speak to. Do you think they are more likely to learn and to prevent genocides?

EW: It's difficult to speak of entire generations doing anything. There's good people and not-so-good people in any generation.

Students somehow may have more conscience. I try to teach them about former times. I urge them to send petitions to the U.S. president and to the U.N. secretary general. They're willing to do so in regard to Sudan and Darfur, so that's positive.

My own generation was struggling to understand, but was very optimistic, you know, in the aftermath of the war. I'm not so blasé that I think nothing at all has been achieved. I get at least 100 letters a month from high school students who have heard or read [what I say] and want to know more. Every one of them gets an answer.

SD: You say we live in a time of fanaticism unprecedented since the Middle Ages. I presume you're referring to Islamist fanaticism. Is that right?

EW: Fanaticism in the Middle Ages meant anyone who didn't believe in certain things would be put to death. In my time, we have seen political fanaticism, which was centered in Moscow, and racial fanaticism, which was centered in Berlin. And now we have the phenomenon of suicide terrorism. For some people in Islam, it is an absolute weapon. It began against Israel and now it is used against the whole world.

I have studied the Koran and, like with any holy book, I find good things and not-so-good things in it. I do not believe we should condemn Islam or the Islamic community but rather those who preach hatred. It's not limited to Islam. We see the growth today of fanaticism in Catholicism and even Judaism. It doesn't mean these fanatics will go so far as to preach death, but in Islam we do see this happening.

SD: There's another conference taking place at a college in Vermont next week at which a scholar will talk about his estimate that 650,000 Iraqis have been killed in that war. Isn't it the case that with so many civilians killed, there's something like a genocide happening there?

EW: I won't use the term genocide in that way. I won't use a Holocaust term that applies to what happened to the Jews. Let me say I don't believe in war generally. I've seen what war can do and I don't look at war as an answer - unless it's a just war, and the only just war I know of is the war against Hitler.

In the case of Iraq, there was not a single intelligence agency in the world that did not tell us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I don't think the American president went into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein or for other reasons than destroying the weapons of mass destruction. But, OK, we found out he didn't have weapons of mass destruction.

SD: So are you opposing the war actively? Are you calling for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq?

EW: Every person is irreplaceable. Every life is worth saving. Wars don't save lives. My feeling is we should go to our traditional European allies and ask them to help us get out of Iraq honorably. We should work with them to arrange an orderly withdrawal.

SD: But you must not regard the U.S. war in Iraq as a just war, since you just said the only just war was the one against Hitler.

EW: It's not a just war.

SD: What's the main theme of your address to the students at the University of Vermont?

EW: They need to understand that they have a long life ahead of them and can accomplish much. My advice to students is always that they should speak out, to try to stand for what is right. Whatever you do, I tell them, think higher and feel deeper.

SD: Think higher and feel deeper. You want them to apply that to Darfur, for example.

EW: It's advice that can be applied to any situation. At any time in life and anywhere in the world.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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