Words of Wisdom from Wiesel
Greeted by an audience that welcomed him like a rock star shouting “we love you Elie,” Nobel Laureate Dr. Elie Wiesel returned his admirers warm greeting, recalling that his appearances at the podium of the 92Y are frequent, up to four times a year. The format of this evening was a bit out of the ordinary, consisting of questions and answers, posed and answered by Wiesel and White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod.
Wiesel’s appearance followed meetings of the Conference of Nobel Laureates. After a brief conversation, he initiated the evening’s discussion with a query to Axelrod, asking what worries and what pains him “most of all these days?”
Before responding, Axelrod acknowledged the honor of sharing a stage with the famous scholar, saying the opportunity was “extraordinary” saying that Wiesel’s has been a lifetime to be revered. With palpable emotion, the White House advisor noted that his first concern is the current economic upheaval “has wrecked havoc and caused the loss of so many homes, so many dreams, so many jobs.” How “queried Axelrod “do we regenerate for all… eliminate the growing gap of inequality, and succeed in restoration of the sense of opportunity? How can we restore confidence in the American dream and soul? We need to regenerate the sense of possibility.”
A second area Axelrod noted is concern about the sense of divisiveness rampant in politics, in media, and in communities – which may be a function of difficult economic times: social difficulties that come as a result of economic stress. It is his belief that the world needs a strong vibrant America to lay the foundation for a strong future.
Wiesel’s response during this “conversation between two friends was to raise the question of how to stem incivility in politics and media. Saying he is “outraged by the incivility” in the current political campaign he spoke with sadness of the ability of “certain ‘political commentators’ “ who have the ability to reach tens of millions of people and are using language of hate to influence population groups. (He specifically mentioned comparison of President Obama to Hitler.) Stating that he understands adversity, Wiesel questioned why there is such a level of hatred. “What worries me, what pains me, is the growth of fanaticism. A fanatic who worships Hitler, which is typical of terrorists for whom G-d is a G-d of hatred…is dangerous and unworthy, not in the American tradition.”
Axelrod reminded Dr. Wiesel that there is a history of “mean spiritedness” in American political dialogue, recalling 1824 attacks against Andrew Jackson and slanderous speech about Thomas Jefferson. “Once this language becomes prevalent, the possibility of compromise is eliminated.” As in the early 20th century, media are affirming a point of view, often dividing populations into “corners information” polarizing politics, even affecting mainstream media coverage of political affairs. Wiesel cautioned that “language is here to pull people up rather than down. Culture a language of ideas of hope. We must start over.” Media coverage he warned, can extend the reach of negative discourse.
No presentation before a Jewish audience is likely to be without conversation about religious tolerance. Briefly detailing his own family history, Axelrod recalled that his father came from Eastern Europe, coming to America as a place of religious tolerance. “Are people tolerant?” he asked.
Wiesel’s response was almost poignant. “Fanaticism is like the Black Plague. It’s contagious, and can be found in many quarters… As Jews we cannot forget universality Muslims have the same rights. With historical reference to the ecumenical movement created by Pope John XXIII, he recalled the efforts made by the Catholic Church, working together with rabbinical scholars. “Unfortunately they did not have a Muslim together; they should have studied together… the task is to show respect for the otherness of the other.”
No presentation before a New York audience involved with relations between communities can avoid discussion of the debate and controversy over the “Ground Zero” Mosque. “I respect every person. I respect that religious peoples’ intentions may be good.
But, he continued, in doing (building) the mosque, you are hurting people that have suffered. In the spirit of tolerance, he proposed that Jews, Christens and Muslims should create a center for interfaith activities, planned together, financed together. “This can become a great monument for humanity.”
In every political discussion, the definition and use of power is a basic topic. “What is the meaning of that (Presidential) power?” queried Wiesel. Axelrod reminded that power is not in the individual who is President, but is a trust bestowed on the holder of the Presidency. “Power is an opportunity to try to make country and world a little better, to shape the future to be a force for constructive dialogue, and to be a beacon to the world.” He expressed his belief that power is an opportunity to solve problems and pave the way for future.”
“Power is to help make it better for people.”
Saying he is always conscious of his immigrant past David Axelrod, praised America, saying the United States is “an incredible country,” saying he is “always proud of America.”
As the evening drew to a close, Wiesel asked Axelrod about Gilad Shalit, asking “does the President plan to do anything about (the situation). This analyst believes that this question may not have been anticipated. Characterizing the Shalit issue as “particularly thorny,” the presidential advisor said “it is part of a mix of extraordinary concerns… Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is trying to move forward in such a way that we can create peace and security for Israel and hopefully resolve the issue of Shalit.