Elie Wiesel – writer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, as a survivor, a leading spokesman on the lessons of the Holocaust – published a huge paid advertisement in major newspapers in the United States last Friday under the headline, “For Jerusalem.” In it, he wrote: “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.”
Critics are now saying Wiesel has become part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to continue building in Jerusalem. The ad appeared the same week World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder published a sharp open letter to United States President Barack Obama, asking him to reconsider his Middle East policy and his pressure on Israel.
“I am not part of some organized campaign,” said Wiesel this week, in an interview with Haaretz. “It’s my view and my opinion, and I publish it when I feel right, just as I mobilized other Nobel laureates to sign letters on Iran.” (In August 2009 and February 2010, following the official suppression of public demonstrations in Iran, Wiesel recruited dozens of Nobel Prize laureates to sign two public letters: The first expressed support for the demonstrators in Iran, and in the second Wiesel and his colleagues appealed to the leaders of the U.S., France, Russia, Britain and Germany “to do what is needed to help these courageous fighters who risk their lives standing up to their government’s immoral, inhuman and illegal official policy.”)Wiesel’s latest ad was published in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune, and included a call to postpone discussion of the question of Jerusalem until the end of any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Wiesel stresses, however, that, “This was not an open letter to the president. It was simply to the American people. I don’t live in Israel, I don’t involve myself in Israeli politics. I help when I can any Israeli prime minister, whoever it is. And when Netanyahu asked me to introduce him [before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York], I was happy to introduce him, as I would introduce anyone else.”
Before his speech to the Presidents Conference last September, and after the “Auschwitz building plans” speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Wiesel called Netanyahu a great statesman, a diplomat and a man of vision, and complimented him by saying that no one since the late politician and diplomat Abba Eban has ever been as good and as strong in defending Israel’s reputation and honor.
“What I said then – it was something special because of his brother, Yoni,” says Wiesel, referring to the premier’s late brother Yonatan, who died leading an Israeli raid to rescue Jewish captives held in Uganda following a plane hijacking in 1976. “I got a letter from his father that said: ‘I had no idea how your books have impacted my son Yoni.’ It was immediately after the Entebbe [rescue]. I was shivering. And then he asked if he can come and bring me copies [of the letters], and he did it, and we both read them and cried. I cried like a child.”
And what is your impression of Benjamin Netanyahu as a leader? Do you think he is a man of vision, a man capable of compromise?
“I didn’t speak then about his policy or his programs, I spoke about his oratory. He is a great orator. Great speaker. For the other things, let the Israelis decide, not me.”
So what led you to write this appeal, “For Jerusalem”?
“I knew that there are tensions, and I don’t like these tensions over Jerusalem. I may be a solitary voice, because I’ve heard in Israel some people going against it. But I believe, it’s my only advice, that you must go ahead toward the peace between the nations, but leave Jerusalem to the end.”
In an article in response to the ad, Yossi Sarid wrote that Americans for Peace Now offered you a tour of East Jerusalem with the promise that when you see the reality on the ground you will change your perspective. Would you agree to take such a tour?
“I never met Yossi Sarid, although we spoke by phone. I know who he is and I absolutely respect him and people in Israel who disagree with me – after all, I live here, and those who live there have the full right to disagree with me. They have more information than I on what is happening in Israel, and I respectfully listen to them, of course. I don’t belong to any group, and Israeli politics is alien to me. I even try to stay away from American politics, although I live most of my life in America. I’d go and see. I’ll certainly go and check it, I want to know the truth. I don’t know APN, but I know enough left-wing people that will take me around.”
Wiesel says he has no idea why President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu don’t get along.
“I don’t know. When it happens, it always seems the worst. I remember [president Ronald] Reagan and AWACS [when Israel lobbied hard to prevent the U.S. from transferring sophisticated airborne surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia, in 1981], I remember when [president Gerald] Ford and [secretary of state Henry] Kissinger spoke of reassessment of relations. It was bad, and then they made up. I think they’ll make up. They must make up.”
Wiesel is certain that if President Obama had been asked whether he wanted to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace – the same prize Wiesel himself received in 1986 – he would have refused it.
“I am completely sure that if he’d been asked before if he wants it, he would have said ‘no.’ I am sure. I know the man. He would have said no. But he got it and I think his Nobel speech was a very, very good speech. I was very, very surprised and happy to read that the two speeches he read before preparing his own were mine and Nelson Mandela’s. It’s a great compliment. And remember as well – it’s the American people who got this prize as well. For electing for the first time a black president. For me it meant something. I was at the inauguration, and I felt elated that history was trying to correct its own injustices. At the day of the inauguration, I said: ‘Now I am convinced that one day my son or maybe my grandson will stand here in my place to celebrate the election of the first Jewish American president.’”
Do you see a solution to the Iranian crisis?
“If I had access to intelligence reports I would tell you, but I don’t. I know one thing: [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is monstrously anti-Semitic. This man is the No. 1 Holocaust denier in the world. This man publicly wants to destroy Israel. And I urge people – many, many people – I tell them that he should be arrested in Paris or Spain or wherever he comes, and sent to The Hague. And indicted for incitement for crimes against humanity. That would be the best thing to do.”
He isn’t the only one in Tehran who holds those opinions.
“He is the president at the moment. He is the symbol, the leader. I am convinced,” adds Wiesel, “that the Western world together, now with Russia and China, will not allow Iran to become nuclear. I don’t know how, but I know they will not allow Iran to become nuclear.”
What makes you believe that? You’ve already seen nations slow to act to prevent catastrophe.
“Precisely because it happened then, I think it cannot happen now. They must have learned from it.”
Is the much spoken-about military action an option for you?
“I prefer not to answer.”
The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University has said there has been a 100-percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents this year. Elie Wiesel is not looking for the reasons for increased anti-Semitism in Israeli actions like last year’s Operation Cast Lead or the Goldstone report.
“Whenever anti-Semites are active I am worried. But they don’t need reasons. One day it’s because of this, the other day it’s because of something else. In Russia or in America or in Belgium, anti-Semites have their own contradictions – they hate a Jew because he was too rich or too poor; because he is a communist or because he is an anti-communist … I’ve read that it’s because of the operation in Gaza. It’s a pretext. Anti-Semites are anti-Semites.”
Of the left-wing demonstrations in the United States at which comparisons are made between Israel and the Nazis, Wiesel says: “It’s disgusting. These are people ignorant of history. Yes, I know some of them are Jews. But they are really marginal.”
Wiesel has been criticized for promoting the “Jewishness” of the Holocaust at the expense of advancing awareness of other cases of genocide.
“In my work, I have written almost about any tragedy that occurred after the war, trying to do something about it. When [president Jimmy] Carter appointed me chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, we made clear that not all victims were Jewish, but all Jews were victims. And Jews must do whatever they can to prevent other tragedies and public injustices.”
The Jewish community in America has been grappling with, and is in the long term losing, the struggle against assimilation.
“I am a teacher and I’ve been teaching for over 40 years and I go to the universities, and I don’t encounter that problem of assimilation. I know it exists, but I don’t encounter it. All those who come to my classes and to my lectures – they are not assimilated, so I don’t know. I am the wrong person to ask.”
Wiesel, 81, is still lecturing and writing. Currently, he says, he is working on his “54th or 55th” book (we counted 57), which he has already written in French. Between his concerns for Ethiopian Jewry, the reports from Darfur and the headache and heartache caused him by Bernard Madoff’s sting, which emptied his foundation of his endowment, this year as every year there was the day when for him everything stops and becomes still: Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Occasionally I have no choice and I have to speak at the Washington Holocaust museum, I am involved in it, I am committed to it. But sometimes I stay at home. And just write something else about that time.”
It was only years after the Holocaust that he wrote his first book about it, “Night” (1955), which he also recommends to young Israelis as the first book of his they should read.
“Since then I’ve written so much on different subjects, but … maybe four books deal with the Shoah.”
Asked what he wishes for Israel on its 62nd Independence Day, Wiesel says, in a rather amused tone: “I wish that all the promises made by all our leaders, right and left – and the wish of peace – of course, will be fulfilled. We are the people of the promised land, but we also are a people of promises. So I force myself to be optimistic. What is the alternative?”