|By Roland S. Süssmann|
An encounter with Elie Wiesel leaves no one indifferent, and to pass an hour in intense dialogue with him is a special occasion, even more so when it takes place in Jerusalem. At a time when the Jewish people is at a crossroads, when anti-Semitism is raising its head again in Europe and when, following the disappearance of Ariel Sharon from the political scene, a new era is commencing in Israel, again at war, we thought it would be useful to be guided in our thoughts by a witness of our times and of the century, who has known at first hand the greatest crime committed against the Jewish people and the renaissance of the Jewish State.
Could you in a few words sketch out for us your feelings and then give us a quick assessment of the state of the Jewish people today?
Everything starts with hope… and ends with hope. It can be easily, and rightly, said that our generation is the most privileged in history. There has never been a generation like ours. Just a few years after the worst catastrophe, here we are in a sovereign country. Sovereignty in Jewish history has never been very long, never more than 80 years, always in a state of emergency, threatened from all sides by Babylonians, Romans, Persians and others. Today we have a State that is strong and even rich. When one of the world’s leading financiers decides to invest 4 billion dollars in Israel, that is an undeniable vote of confidence. Psychologically, we should have been a morbid generation, and there were enough reasons to be so. Following the destruction of the Temple we were. Yet today that is definitely not the case. There are many great things happening in many fields. In military matters, Israel has created inventions that have elicited the envy of the great powers. In business, science and politics today, especially in America, Jews have attained the very highest positions. And lastly, in Israel Nobel Prizes have been awarded four times in a row. Further, the entire center of Jewish intellectual life is in Jerusalem. There are many more yeshivot in Israel today then there ever were throughout history. Of course, there is another side, assimilation, which in my opinion does not represent a true danger for us. Mixed marriages are very far from making up the majority of Jewish couples. Every Jew who leaves us hurts us, but I can tell you that thousands upon thousands of people come to my lectures (Editor’s note: and with a slightly mischievous smile Elie Wiesel adds, “I wonder why?”), and I have never met there the truly assimilated Jew. You must understand that there is energy in the Jewish people and a life force in Jewish history.
If I observe the place the Jewish people occupies among the nations today, I can say that never in history have our relations with Christians been so productive. A quick glance at history makes me think of what the Christians did to the Jews during the Crusades, during the Inquisition, and what were the consequences of the silence of Pius XII during the Shoah. However, today, thanks to the actions of John XXIII who was succeeded by John Paul II, the ecumenical movement is flourishing. Rabbis and priest meet all the time, the dialogue is continuous, and there are more and more joint declarations against anti-Semitism and in favor of Israel. So relations with the Christians are good. Our mistake has been to forget the third partner, Islam. We should have invited their representatives each time there was an ecumenical conference. Having said which, there can be no doubt that Islamization represents a true danger for the entire world and not just for Israel.
You tell us of the excellent relations between the Christian world and the Jews. However, during his visit to Poland, Pope Benedict XVI did not make a stop at the Warsaw Ghetto and, in Auschwitz, he limited himself to several fairly surprising, not to say scandalous, declarations in respect of the Shoah. How do you explain that?
Firstly, this is no way detracts from the greatness of John XXIII or the lamentable personality of Pius XII. I do not believe that trip to Poland will directly impact on the current state of Christian-Jewish relations. It should not be forgotten that the Vatican is also a political entity and that every gesture is carefully calculated in advance. I do not know who are the advisers of the new Pope. The fact that he did not stop at the Warsaw ghetto was not a slip but a thought-out gesture. Just as he spoke of “six million Poles” and so little of the Jews, he said that Hitler “wanted to kill everyone who was not for him… as well as the Jews”. Now I believe that the specificity of the Shoah exists and that it cannot be denied, but he did so. Further, he spoke of “G-d’s silence”… But what of the silence of Pius XII? Why does he place the blame on G-d?
You have just mentioned the relations of Jews with Christians and Muslims. But what do you think of the relations between Jews themselves?
Here too, there is nothing new under the sun. It is always worth rereading the Bible to recall that relations between us hardly do us honor. Every people when it speaks of its forebears does so with pride. Not us. Look for example what the Children of Israel made Moses go through, even though he did everything for their good. For many years now I have been convinced that by not allowing Moses to enter the Holy Land, the Almighty was not punishing him but rewarding him. We have always been an excitable and hotheaded people. We are not neutral and for four thousand years we have been constantly on the move. Happily, our internal conflicts are in general ideological and debates about ideas. For example, at the time of the Talmud, there were Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, two major currents of thought and study, who never agreed on anything between them save 18 points. Yet these two masters loved and respected each other enormously. Notwithstanding deep differences of opinion, they were nonetheless able to cooperate.
What is essential today is the relationship that exists between Israel and the Diaspora. I think that over the years these have changed a bit. At the beginning, in Israel there was deep disappointment and complete incomprehension that the Jews of the Diaspora did not all come to settle here. It is true that after 1948 there were large waves of aliyah, but the Jews of the USA, Australia and even Europe in general did not really come. A sense of “contempt”, somewhat moderated, was formed between the two communities. The Israeli Jew was a good Jew, while the Diaspora Jew who donated money was certainly appreciated, whereas the Diaspora overall was not respected. I recall that wherever he went, Ben Gurion asked the same question, “What are you doing here?” I personally always considered it my duty not to answer. I have never criticized Israel outside of the country. When I think something isn’t right, I come to Jerusalem to meet the Prime Minister privately and tell him what I think. I would never publish an article in a major US or French daily in which I criticized Israel. I can imagine only too well the pleasure that would give our enemies if I did so. I know that today there are arguments and rivalries, but I believe that every sort of division represents a danger for us all. It’s true that I do not live in Israel, but I could not live without Israel, which is not just a part of my life but represents its central motif. Having said which, we are living in a period when, apart from during the Six Days War, Israel and the Diaspora have never been closer. Even during the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Jews of the Diaspora maintained a certain “neutrality”. In fact, the Jewish people just did not react. Ben Gurion was furious, because not a single Jewish leader stood up to defend Israel. By the way, Ben Gurion wanted to close down the Zionist movement and replace it with an association of friends of Israel.
Do you think we are witnessing today a certain lack of interest towards Israel on the part of Jewish youth in the Diaspora, which then translates into a drop in financial support?
I don’t think so. The opposite is true. Did you know that after Theodore Herzl saw the Sultan he could have purchased all of Palestine for seven million dollars, which he could not raise, even though he knocked at the doors of the richest Jews in the world? Then, at the start of the State there was a surprising passivity by the Jews of the world towards Israel. When the country obtained a credit of a million dollars there was rejoicing in Jerusalem. Today we speak of billions, and enormous investments are made in the country. At the beginning, Jews hardly went to Israel, not even for a visit. Today the hotels are full, even if overall there are still not enough tourists. But Jewish history is long, and a bit of patience is required. I well know that as Jews we want to live forty-eight hours a day, but you have to look reality in the face and I believe that all told we are going in the right direction. Prior to 1989, who would have imagined that a million Jews from the USSR would come to settle in Israel?
But having said that, I think that today we are facing another danger that lurks within a certain crystallization. The good are the best, but the bad are the worst. By “bad” I mean those among us who are on the extreme left and who campaign against Israel, against Zionism, in fact against everything Jewish. Unfortunately, in all the anti-Israel camps there are always Jews in key positions. The non-Jews have every interest to let them lead, saying, “even they who are Jewish…” In general these people are very vocal, listened to and appear at every occasion. They are invited because they are Jewish and dare to speak badly of Israel. Obviously, I deplore their influence. Never forget that we should be proud of Israel, proud of the history of Israel and of Israel’s successes in every field.
With all your optimism, what in your opinion is the greatest danger we are currently facing?
It’s an international, worldwide and Jewish problem: fanaticism. This danger is threatening the entire world, and as always we are involved. In our own ranks there is fanaticism of the left and of the right and even religious fanaticism.
What can be done to fight this?
There is only one antidote, education on a grand scale. We have to create platforms, seminars, newspapers, at every level, including governmental. The other, parallel danger is that in the Diaspora we badly lack leaders. You see, to develop leaders you need several generations. Those who should have been leaders today were murdered in the Shoah at the age of 2 or 3 years old. The world has not yet grasped the results and consequences of what happened. Great leaders like for example the Vilna Gaon or the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, were not made in a day. They were the result of a long development that lasted at least a generation. We are starting to feel the loss, the loss caused by death because they killed those children.
How do you see things developing?
Firstly there must be an awareness of the situation and of the shortcomings. In the world of art, weakness is transformed into strength. We are a people with a crazy, amazing imagination. Our history itself has inherited this imagination. We must therefore think up replacements and find solutions.
What do you think of the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe, where today it is politically correct to regret the Shoah, with an increase in commemorations, and at the same time to deplore the lot of the Palestinians and castigate Israel?
There is no doubt that there is a danger in the short term. In the long term I am an optimist because we have survived all the attacks over the millennia since we have existed. Even though anti-Semitism is serious in its own right, you should be aware that when anti-Zionism starts it becomes anti-Semitism. In this connection, I return to the problem of those Jews who are leading the campaign against Israel, who by acting this way appease the conscience of the anti-Semites. By the way, I must say that the very fact that anti-Semitism still exists represents one of my greatest disappointments. In 1945 I was convinced that this curse had disappeared forever. How wrong I was. Because, who in fact is an anti-Semite? He who hates me even before my birth, who detests a Jew before he is born and even a dead Jew. The Germans did not attack the dead, because they hated the living Jews. But what characterizes anti-Semitism is not the attacks on cemeteries but the violent hatred of the Jew for who he is.
Moreover, in this connection I never cease to repeat that we must take seriously the Iranian President, who repeats to anyone who will listen “that there never was a Shoah… but that there will be one”.
After everything you have lived through, especially during the Shoah, from where do you draw this boundless and infectious optimism that so characterizes you?
If I were not an optimist I would risk sinking into deep pessimism. It is because I refuse falling into that abyss that I cling to hope. I must also act that way for the youth. I found from a survey that most of my readers are young. I am not allowed to let them despair. I have never submitted a manuscript to a publisher without there being at least a spark of hope in it. The darkest of my novels is The Forgotten, which I kept in a drawer for a very long time: it is about Alzheimer’s. In the end I managed to find a way of working in a message of hope by talking of the transfusion of memory. I could so easily have evoked despair. There are many reasons for being pessimistic, but there are so many others for being confident, especially about Israel. Do you notice, I am much more pessimistic about the world than about Israel. The world is sick, violence continues, in Darfur, in Somalia etc. One day Iran and other dangerous regimes will possess nuclear bombs. Let’s not forget that in the former Soviet Union there are nuclear bases that are guarded by people who could be bought. At my foundation we regularly organize seminars. This year we still had a conference at Petra, together with King Abdullah and his Queen, that brought together 25 Nobel Prize laureates. One of my “colleagues” once asked me what was my greatest concern at the time, and I answered, “nuclear terrorism”. He explained to me that I was wrong, because everything nuclear is detectable, whereas biological weapons are not. So the question that must be put today is how to save the world from destroying itself. I have no direct answer, but I firmly believe that what is happening today is directly linked to the Shoah. The fact is that the world was never punished for the Shoah. It has, however, been punished for letting one and a half million children be murdered. Among them were future Nobel Prizewinners in medicine, chemistry etc, who for example might have discovered a drug against cancer or systems to successfully combat the chemical and biological weapons that threaten us today. Everything that is now taking place in the world, unconsciously and mysteriously, is the punishment for the Shoah.
On the subject of the Shoah, there is a question many people ask: why did the Jews never actually take revenge?
That would have been too easy. You do not get rid of a problem like that just by killing those responsible. That would have let a leaf be turned, it would have been an open door to forgetting. The punishment of the guilty, that is our memory, and the creation of the State of Israel is also a product of memory.
During our conversation you mentioned that at the end of June 2006 you organized, together with King Abdullah and his Queen, a conference at Petra that brought together 25 Nobel Prize laureates. During it, a breakfast that received worldwide media coverage took place between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in a constructive and promising atmosphere. Yet now, less than a month later, on July 12th, an Arab attack against Israel has again been launched. What do you think of this dramatic change of events?
I accuse Hamas and Hizbullah, the two worst totalitarian and terrorist movements in the world today, of having wrecked all the promises. Shortly after the start of the war, a major, official demonstration of support for Israel took place in New York, at which a large number of personalities of every stripe from the Jewish and non-Jewish world took part, including Hilary Clinton. A few days later a journalist from the Times called me and asked why during the demonstration the word “peace” was not mentioned even once. He was even more astonished that as a Nobel Prize for Peace winner I had not mentioned the word. I told him that he should know that never did peace seem further away to me than today.
In that case, the question to be asked is, where is hope?
I think it is important to recall that Israel’s national anthem is entitled “Hatikva”, the Hope, in which the key phrase, “our hope is still not lost” (Od lo avdah tikvatenu), is in complete contradistinction to the verse in the Book of Ezekiel that says that the old men of Israel believe their hope is lost. Now, 2,500 years later we contradict that statement. Hope is the air we breathe, it is our dreams, it is the bread we eat. For the time being the situation is extremely serious, for we are seeing how a small group of murderers influence history to make it murderous. The first victim is Lebanon, which even though it has no signed peace agreement with Israel has always lived on good terms with the Jewish State. Hizbullah has commandeered Lebanon and has provoked the destruction.
In this situation what is our duty, the Jews of the Diaspora?
Our first duty is to ensure that Israel never is and never feels alone. We must always show our solidarity with Israel, and despite everything retain some imagination that in the end there will be peace.
Do you believe we are paying today for the illusions engendered by the Oslo Accords, the precipitous retreat from Lebanon in 2000 and the disengagement from Gaza, which in practice came down to the liquidation of the Jewish towns and villages in that area?
I would not want to set myself up as judge on past actions of Israeli governments. I am not Israeli and therefore I accept what the country, the people and the government of Israel do. But having said that, I must state the following facts: following Oslo, Israel suffered the Intifada and attacks by human bombs; following the withdrawal from Lebanon Israel harvested the present situation, together with rocket attacks; and lastly, the evacuation of Gaza was followed by the election of Hamas and the rain of Kassam rockets on southern Israel. So the question that must be asked is whether each time Israel makes a generous gesture, in truth really generous, it receives violence. I would note that Ariel Sharon wanted two countries to be able to live side by side on this land, and this concept was taken up in the same terms by Ehud Olmert. And in answer Israel got the kidnapping of its soldiers. It must be understood that this cowardly act, without any heroism, impugns the dignity of the nation. How can a country lay claim to even the minimum self-esteem if it accepts without reaction that its soldiers, who are charged with defending it, are kidnapped? These kidnappings were a provocation, and Israel reacted as it should.
What is your message to the youth?
It should make itself aware in particular of Jewish destiny. It is not everyone’s lot to make history, but it is incumbent upon us to take part. Let us never forget that we are Jews because we are human beings and human beings because we are Jews.
In conclusion, do you have a special Rosh Hashanah message for readers of SHALOM?
I wish that all our prayers be heard. Those for ourselves, those for the ones we love and who love us. And that those among whom we live should respect us more. In the light of the tragic events through which we are living, the question is to know how to approach the New Year. I believe the answer lies in that magnificent dictum, “The year that is ending should remove its curses – and that the New Year should start with its blessings.