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Wiesel, ever a witness to inhumanity

The Nobel Peace Prize winner says that he worries most today about the children growing up in a violent century.

By Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004

When Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel visited St. Petersburg last week to help Eckerd College celebrate the award of a Phi Beta Kappa Society chapter, Neighborhood Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore sat with him to talk.

Wiesel, 75, a soft-spoken man known for his unrelenting commitment to the rights of the downtrodden, is a survivor of the Holocaust.

Late last week, he spoke of his shame at encountering racism in the 1950s South and his refusal to remain silent in the face of its inhumanity. He has spoken on behalf of Cambodian refugees, Soviet Jews, Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, Argentina's Desaparecidos and persecuted people worldwide. Former President Bill Clinton said Wiesel convinced him to change U.S. policy in Bosnia.

La Nuit or Night is his harrowing personal account of the Holocaust. In it, he tells of his youngest sister and mother being killed at Auschwitz and his father's death from starvation and disease at Buchenwald.

Wiesel, who is married and has a 31-year-old son, lives in New York and commutes to Boston University, where he teaches. A writer who speaks at least eight languages, including French and Hebrew, Wiesel has produced more than 40 books. Besides the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1986, Wiesel has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 1980 he became founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Visitors leaving the permanent exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., can read his words: "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness."

Q. You've long been concerned about the persecuted. At this point in time, what most concerns you?

Today's children are on my mind. I think more and more, we gave them life and now we are in a century which I had hoped would be better than the previous one, and something went wrong. Something went wrong. In science, in medicine, we made tremendous progress. We go to the moon. We want to go to Mars, and somehow human nature hasn't changed. The desire to humiliate, the desire to persecute, the desire to dominate. ... During the 20th century, I hoped that we had learned a lesson. Apparently we haven't. So that's what's been on my mind, especially now with the suicide killers ... the human bombs. They became threats to humanity.

I always come back to my mantra: It's education. Somehow we should educate tomorrow's adults ... that fanaticism is not an answer. Hatred, it is destructive. It is self-destructive. These are essential and basic lessons that we try to give, that I try to give. I'd hoped that this generation would live without fear, but it isn't true. Take a plane and you'll see what they have conditioned us to become. Twenty years ago, if anyone opened my suitcase, I felt violated. Now I'm glad when they open suitcases. Twenty years ago, if they had stopped me in the streets or anywhere and go through my pockets or something, that's an invasion of my privacy, my dignity. Today, I'm glad when we do that. ... What kind of world do we live in? And yet, hope is the only option we have.

Q. Please talk about the fence Israel is building. The Israeli government says it is to protect its citizens from suicide bombers. Palestinians say, in part, that it is cutting them off from their land and livelihood.

Look, I believe that there should be two states, the Palestinian state and the Zionist state, hopefully living side by side in peace. And I think that it is important that it should happen. In the meantime, the problem is that these suicide terrorists have gained too much power. Unfortunately, what I hear from people in Israel is that Arafat is behind them. ... The latest one, which was a few days go, actually, was one of the terrorist groups that is under Fatah, one of Arafat's movements.

What should Israel do? One must protect one's citizens, and I believe that the fence is not so terrible for the moment, because it is not a political event. It is a security measure, which means the moment these two countries, these two people, get together and start negotiating again - I'm convinced that it will happen sooner or later - they can dismantle the fence in a few days. ... The fence is vital because every day they stop suicide terrorists, every single day they stop them. So the fence can stop, save Jewish lives and Palestinian lives, because each time there is an explosion what happens is that Israel retaliates and Palestinians die and sometimes even innocent Palestinians. When I see a child being killed, I'm not checking his or her ID. A child is a child.

So I think that the fence temporarily is saving lives from both sides. So what's so terrible? Let them sit down and start negotiating, and I can swear to you, and I know it in my guts that the fence will be taken down.

Please discuss growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

I attended a one-day seminar in Brussels (Feb. 19) where I gave the keynote address. ... I said: Look, I understand that the European Commission, which is the government of Europe, is now facing this problem because it is a European disease. It began in Europe. You go back in history, you'll see what happened in history with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms. ... It's a European disease and, of course, the climax of it all is what happened in my own lifetime.

In the beginning, it was always the right wing that was always anti-Semitic. It was a tradition. Now we have on the extreme left a new anti-Semitism which actually in many cases begins with anti-Israelism. ... They are so anti-Israeli and anti-American. When you see on television the anti-Iraq demonstrations, they said Bush equals Hitler, Sharon equals Hitler. My God. How dare they? You can be against the war, but to say something like that?

We who have been involved in human rights and interreligious dialogue made a mistake. After John XXIII - he was a great pope - began opening up the church, there were all kinds of ecumenical efforts. In every city there were rabbis and priests meeting and discussing things and signing petitions. And we forgot Islam. ... After all, they are one of the three monotheistic religions. And that was a mistake. ... I said in Brussels, and it created an uproar all over the world. I said I met people in Europe who came to me saying, What should we do now? When should we leave? They don't even say, should we leave?

Q. Have you been concerned about Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, that it could ignite anti-Semitism?

I haven't seen the picture.

Q. You have spoken out on behalf of black South Africans, Soviet Jews, Cambodians, Bosnians, Rwandans and others. Are you concerned about the civil rights of Muslims in America in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

We should always listen to victims whoever they are. Look, America is fighting a war, the whole world is fighting a war against terrorism. ... We have to solve this crisis with terror. How to do it, I don't know. ... I think we should listen and pay attention and say, look, your sensitivity is important to us and explain that there are certain things we must do for national security or the interest of the country.

Q. Have you any thoughts about the right of gays to marry?

I believe that there should be a debate. The debate is taking place, and we should listen. Whatever it is, remember that gays suffered a lot for many years. They were humiliated, and that was wrong, and no group should ever allow itself to be humiliated.

Q. We've had several incidents of intolerance in the Tampa Bay area in recent months, including a student who had a noose put around his neck, gays who were beaten as they left a restaurant and an exhibit about tolerance vandalized.

That means again that something is wrong in our society. We have to educate children today.

Q. What is your overall message?

You try to sensitize. It's the least we can do. We can sensitize. When a person suffers, at least listen to that person. If somebody is a victim of injustice, at least be there.

[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]

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