The Last Kaddish for Elie Wiesel
Before the serious policy disagreements on Iran and Syria that came between me and Samantha Power, America’s former ambassador to the UN, I remember studying with her at the White House. During one session, we read the words of last week’s Torah portion from Leviticus 19: “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
This Biblical exhortation is arguably the only missive in any ancient religion that calls upon the powerful to protect the lives of the vulnerable, even if it means risking life and limb. It is the ultimate source for R2P (Responsibility to Protect) — the modern political doctrine that calls on great powers to intervene in the face of genocide. Whereas the New Testament says to turn the other cheek and love your enemies, the Jewish Bible forces us to fight evil.
On May 21, our organization, The World Values Network, will hold its fifth annual Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala in New York. For an organization like ours, which is committed to commemorating past genocides and preventing those of the future, the past year has been one of the most crucial and meaningful in recent memory.
On July 2, 2016, just a month after our last gala, the world would bear the loss of its chief moral authority, Elie Wiesel. President Barack Obama once called him “the conscience of the world.” And Wiesel’s very name has come to represent the most fundamental values of the Jewish people: faith and struggle, strength and pride, and righteous indignation and the courage to forgive. Elie was, and remains, an eternal beacon of wisdom for us and our children, and an essential element in the moral bedrock of the world.
Elie’s absence was felt most during the slaughter in Aleppo, Syria, last December. As barrel bombs fell on children, there was no voice that could shame the Western world into taking action. Indeed, the government of the United States encouraged the passage of a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements, even as the council could not muster the support to condemn the mass murder in Syria (largely due to the obstruction of Russia and China).
Our gala this year will be dedicated to the memory of Professor Wiesel, commemorating his incredible life work. It will be held exactly eleven Hebrew months to the day of his passing, which, according to Jewish tradition, is the last day on which we recite the Kaddish prayer for the deceased. At the event, Wiesel’s only son, Elisha, who will attend with his mother Marion, will recite the Kaddish prayer.
We chose the date of the gala to coincide with Elie’s last kaddish, as a poignant reminder of the everlasting memory that Reb Eliezez (as I affectionately called him) lent the six million victims of the Holocaust — who had no kaddish said for them.
Last month I visited Auschwitz as part of the March of the Living. At the event, Elisha spoke beautifully to 12,000 Jewish young people from around the world about this father’s legacy and what it means for us today. He spoke about the Jewish community standing against gay men and women being slaughtered in Muslim lands, and the need for America to take in refugees from Syria. It was a courageous and unforgettable speech, and Elisha continued his father’s defining virtue of speaking truth to power.
The Trump administration gained tremendous moral authority when it punished Syrian President Bashar Assad for using chemical weapons in Syria. It can gain so much more by welcoming refugees from war-ravaged nations, especially Syria, even amidst our legitimate need to keep America safe.
Elie Wiesel dedicated his life to commemorating the victims of mankind’s greatest crime, and ensuring that they would never be lost to the public consciousness. Unlike many survivors, who could not bear to face the horrors of their pasts, Wiesel decided to write Night, and thus relive every horrid moment of his years in Auschwitz — all so that the world might know what befell the Jews of Europe, captured as it was from his own perspective.
Yet Elie’s life was not dedicated only to memory, but to action, too. Publishing over 40 books in his lifetime, Wiesel’s works and ideas launched him to the global fore. And once he’d achieved such influence, he committed himself to doing all he could to protect innocent life. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel would use his renown and influence to enshrine the memory of those for whom help never came — and to protect those for whom it still could.
It was Elie Wiesel who would push President Jimmy Carter to commission the United States Holocaust Museum; who would admonish President Ronald Reagan for speaking at the cemetery in Bitburg that contained graves of SS members; and who would call upon President Bill Clinton to protect those being slaughtered in Kosovo and the Balkans (and then ask him the piercing question of why America did nothing while yet another genocide was taking place in Rwanda).
It is fitting therefore, that at a night dedicated to the memory of history’s greatest witness to genocide, we should host President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whose courageous actions in 1994 ended the slaughter that saw nearly one million of his countrymen brutally hacked to death with machetes.
Which brings us to our world today.
In the past year, the world has watched the slaughter in Syria turn into what can be described as nothing short of genocide, as Hezbollah, Iran and Alawite militias have targeted Sunnis for destruction. In Assad’s December Aleppo offensive, his armies murdered at least one thousand civilians. The offensive brought the death-toll of the six-year conflict horrifyingly close to 500,000 people. Then, just over a month ago, Assad took a note from the Nazis and once again employed poison gas against civilians.
I believe that every Jew must be committed to fighting genocide and our organization is dedicated to international media campaigns highlighting the evils of mass murder. Whether it was our campaigning against the Iranian mullahs, who threaten Israel constantly with yet another genocide of the Jews, or our push for Obama and Donald Trump to take action in Syria, defending the infinite value of every human life is at the top of our agenda. At our gala this year, we’re taking things to a new level with the announcement of a permanent Anti-Genocide Center.
With a fusion of aggressive lobbying, sweeping media campaigns and on-the-ground activities, the Anti-Genocide Center will work to ensure that the world hears the voices of those facing the horrifying prospect of wholesale slaughter. The center will have its headquarters in the world’s diplomatic capital — New York, and there will be satellite offices in both Jerusalem and Kigali, Rwanda. The locale of these offices is key because this initiative will bind together Jerusalem and Kigali in the mutual mission of ensuring that the horrors that befell our peoples never again be allowed to occur anywhere across the globe.
At the gala, we will be presenting President Kagame and the people of Rwanda with a Torah Scroll bearing Elie Wiesel’s name; it will then be placed in a planned Jewish Center that will be part of the anti-genocide initiative. At the gala we will complete the last letters of the Torah — with its unforgettable declaration that God created every human being equally in His image.
Beyond campaigning for human life, Elie Wiesel was also an ardent warrior for the Jewish state, and at our gala we will also honor some of the world’s most fearless defenders of Israel. There could be no better time to recognize those who fight for Israel, since our gala will be held just two days before Yom Yerushalayim — the anniversary of the reunification of Israel’s eternal capital.
This year’s gala will be a commemoration of one of the true princes of the Jewish people, and a call and commitment to action.
Together, we can make the worlds “Never Again” mean exactly that: Never Again!