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Elie Wiesel.
In Their Own Words

Interview with Elie Wiesel

-- Charles Smolover

Elie Wiesel is a Romanian-born French-Jewish novelist, political activist, Nobel Laureate, Holocaust survivor and outspoken advocate for justice. He is the author of over 40 books, the best known of which is Night, a memoir that describes his experiences during the Holocaust. He is attending the AIPAC Summit in Philadelphia at the end of October and spoke recently with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

PJV: You will be in Philadelphia next week for the AIPAC Summit and you are no doubt aware of The Israel Lobby, the critical book about AIPAC by Walt and Mearsheimer. Setting aside the many factual errors in the book, is it possible that there is a kernel of truth to their argument, that AIPAC’s power hinders United States politicians from offering legitimate criticisms of Israeli policies?

I have not read the book, but I have read about it and read some excepts. The people who have criticized it are responsible people and I have confidence in their judgment. Nevertheless, I cannot really comment having not read it myself. As to the general question you ask, as to AIPAC itself, I think AIPAC is a useful, important and vocal organization. I think the Jewish community needs it and I think Israel needs it. Does it mean that because of AIPAC some statesmen or politicians feel threatened? I don’t believe that. We live in a democracy. Nobody is afraid to speak up. This is not Stalinist Russia. AIPAC is good be cause it mobilizes all those Jews who love the Jewish state and the Jewish people, but I don’t think it represents a threat to those who disagree with the policies of the Israeli government.

PJV: The subject of the Armenian Genocide has been in the news. The U.S. Congress has been debating whether to officially recognize the events in question as genocide, and the Turks, to no one’s surprise, are not pleased. Some in the Jewish community are reluctant to touch this issue for fear of damaging Turkey’s relationship with Israel. What is your take on this issue?

I have been fighting for the right of the Armenian people to remember for years and years. How could I, who has fought all my life for Jewish remembrance, tell the Armenians they have no right to remember? But I understand the administration's view. Fortunately, as a private citizen I don’t have to worry about Turkey’s response. But I do feel that had there been the word "genocide" in those days, what happened to the Armenians would have been called genocide. Everyone agrees there was mass murder, but the word came later. I believe the Armenians are the victims and, as a Jew, I should be on their side.

PJV: If the Armenians have a right to remember, don’t the Turks have an obligation to take some responsibility?

No one is asking for the Turks to take responsibility. All the Armenians want is the right to remember. Seven generations separate us from the events that happened in World War I and nobody in his right mind would say that today's Turks are responsible for what happened. The Armenians don’t want reparations, they don’t even want an apology. They want the right to remember. The Turks would gain a lot if they simply acknowledged the reality of what happened. I have spoke with Turkish leaders at the highest level and their attitude about this issue is totally irrational except for one thing which I do understand. They don’t want to be compared to Hitler. But of course, nobody does.

PJV: Is anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe?

I am not sure I would characterize the situation in Europe in terms of whether there is a rise in anti-Semitism there. Europe clearly has an anti-Semitic past and there are clearly anti-Semites in Europe today. The question is whether they are part of a growing movement. I don’t think they are. But there is a trend, a trend of being anti-Israel, which you also see in American in certain circles. This anti-Israel feeling, when taken to an extreme, becomes anti-Semitic.

PJV: What about in France? And what is the impact of the election of Nicolas Sarkozy?

This anti-Israel trend is certainly true in France. But I have a feeling that Sarkozy and his government will take steps to contain it, to mute it.

PJV: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will soon convene yet another U.S.- sponsored conference to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Absent some fundamental change in the status quo, do you expect this conference to have a different result than the many that have preceded it?

You now how dangerous prophesy is. As a French poet once said, the future isn't what it used to be. But I can tell you that the current situation in the Middle East cannot go on indefinitely. People are tired. I organized the first meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert. They fell into each other’s arms. It was quite moving. They sat around the table, they ate breakfast and they discussed a range of issues – scientific cooperation, economics, education. Everything looked great. Three weeks later, Hamas and Hezbollah ignite new violence and the process ground to a halt. But we cannot stop trying to make peace. We cannot stop. Are we justified in feeling more hopeful about these new talks? I don’t know. There is no telling how terrorism can effect the situation. That is the evil power of terror.

PJV: Much has been written lately about Israel entering a so called post-Zionist period that is marked by some disturbing trends, including a rise in draft dodging, increased tension between secular and religious Israelis and a growing disparity between the wealthiest and poorest levels of Israeli society. As a frequent visitor to Israel, what is your sense of the zeitgeist?

I go to Israel at least three or four times a year. I hear about these trends and it is depressing. But I believe it is a passing phase and that Israel’s citizenry has the resources to overcome it.

PJV: One last little question: What is the single greatest challenge facing the Jewish people today?

Years ago when I was a journalist, David Ben-Gurion asked me to go to America and meet with various leaders and explore the question of who is a Jew. That was a big concern of his. Today I think the challenge is understanding what it means to be a Jew in today’s world. Of course, various communities of Jews have answers. Zionists will say that being a Jew is about making aliyah. Orthodox Jews may tell you it’s about performing mitzvot. But I think we need a deeper understanding, especially today when we are threatened around the world by the rise of fanaticism. It would like to see a high level conference of intellectuals, thinkers, moralists and philosophers convened to address this question.

Previous Interviews

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