A Conversation With Elie Wiesel

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The Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor on anti-Semitism in France, Iran's nuclear program, and Syria

eliewiesel.jpgNobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel at a ceremony in 2009 (David W. Cerny/Reuters)

Seventy years after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism in Europe is not a distant memory.

France in particular has been home to several violent acts this year. Mohammed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian heritage, killed three Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse in March. Anti-Semitic attacks increased in the wake of these killings, according to a French Jewish community protection service. And last month, a small bomb was thrown inside a kosher grocery store in a Parisian suburb. According to police, the man whose fingerprints were found on the bomb hailed from outside of Paris, converted to Islam later in life, and was part of an Islamist cell said to have ties to extremists in Syria. That in both cases the perpetrators were self-declared Muslims, and the Toulouse killer in particular reportedly radicalized in Egypt and Afghanistan, distinguishes this anti-Semitism from the kind France has historically confronted. These are merely the two most publicized acts of violence that have occurred of late, signaling that anti-Semitism still plagues the country.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, 84, is old enough to remember Europe's most infamous wave of anti-Semitic violence -- a dark hell few today can recall. At 15, Wiesel and his family were deported to Auschwitz from what is now Romania, because they were Jews. Two of his sisters survived, but his youngest sister and his parents did not.

I caught up with Wiesel prior to his address to a packed hall at Barnard College in New York in October. Wiesel, who lived in Paris after the war, says that he is "worried about anti-Semitism in France."

"Haven't they learned anything, the anti-Semites in France?" Wiesel huffs in exasperation, retaining his slight accent. "Don't they know that anti-Semitism is stupid, and useless, and with the wrong answers to everything? The fact is that some Jews in France live in fear."

That's broadly consistent with what I have observed. While I was living in France from 2006 to 2011, mostly in Paris, some French Jews told me they would not wear Star of David necklaces in public or put mezuzot on their outside doorposts. This is all the more startling because Wiesel says that when he lived in Paris just after the war, "anti-Semitism there didn't exist." An estimated one in four of France's Jews perished in the Holocaust under the complicity of the French Vichy government. Wiesel thinks that, in the years immediately afterward, "the wound was still open," and as a result, "it wasn't nice to be an anti-Semite; it wasn't fashionable or elegant."

'Don't they know that anti-Semitism is stupid, and useless, and with the wrong answers to everything?'

But things have changed since he left in the 1950s, he says.

"Some anti-Semites today feel they can openly hate Jews, not knowing that hatred is not only dangerous and ugly, but stupid. The one who hates me will never see me, never have read anything that I wrote, and simply hate me because I'm Jewish," says the man with over 50 book titles to his name.

He pauses, then asks, indignantly: "How stupid can that be, really?"

But if anti-Semitism is so irrational, why does it still exist, decades later, on the continent of the Holocaust?

"You think I know the answer?" he chuckles. "You should ask the anti-Semites. Some of them hate us because we are too rich, others hate us because we are too poor. Some hate us because we are not religious enough, others because we are too religious."

Both Germany and France have seen recent policy proposals decried for alleged religious discrimination. A lower regional court in Germany recently banned ritual circumcisions, which would affect both Muslims and Jews who practice the ritual (the decision is likely to be overridden by new national legislation). Marine Le Pen, France's extreme right politician who won over 6 million votes in last April's presidential election, said she would ban wearing the Muslim veil and Jewish kippah in public. (France is estimated to have the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe.) Both have been forbidden in French public schools since the passing of a law in 2004 banning any "conspicuous" religious garb, including large Christian crosses.

Le Pen made her arguments, in part, in the name of state secularism -- an ironic twist in Continental history. Laïcité, France's version of secularism, gained strength in the 19th century as a liberal move towards religious and intellectual pluralism.

Wiesel declines to comment on the recent proposals in Germany and France, saying he didn't feel "informed enough" on the particulars. But when I ask him how Europeans could balance secular values with religious tolerance -- for Muslims and Jews alike -- he raises an important distinction.

"The word 'tolerance,' I'm not so sure I like," he says. "I prefer the word 'respect.' Respect for one another is what we are fighting for."

And in a sense, perhaps respect is what Wiesel has been working for since he made it out of the Holocaust alive. "In the beginning, survivors didn't speak because people refused to listen," he says. "When I began to write, it was to tell other survivors to write. All we have is words." Night, which recounts Wiesel's years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, has since been translated into more than 30 languages. And Wiesel is as active a writer as ever: his newest novel, Hostage, was released in August.

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For all the talk about minority protection in Europe, I'm also interested in what Wiesel thinks about the minority Arab population in Israel, largely Muslim and Christian, which comprises one in five of Israeli citizens.

"I read the newspapers, and I go to Israel once a year," he says, acknowledging that many are concerned about problems Muslims are having. "But I think in Israel they do know how to deal with it in order to not offend the minority, whoever that minority is."

That said, he points to the powerful Israeli judicial system. "If any group feels that it has been victimized, then they can go to the courts. The courts in Israel are totally independent and free."

Wiesel is unequivocal about his support for Israel, which he views as a safe haven for Jews in their ancestral homeland. He emphasizes to me that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents "an enemy of humanity, not only of Israel." Wiesel tells me that Ahmadinejad should be brought to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, "charged with incitement to commit a crime against humanity." He is impatient with international inaction regarding the Iranian nuclear program, which he believes is developing a weapon that could eradicate Israel.

"I think he should be arrested," Wiesel said, anger growing in his voice. "The intent is criminal, warranting an international arrest whenever he comes to a democratic state."

He pauses again in thought.

"It should be done."

Wiesel also sees a role for international tribunals for Syria. "Syrian leaders should be brought to an international court charged with mass murder," he insists. "Despite everything, the Syrian leaders are afraid of being arrested."

Later, in his speech, Wiesel reiterates his hope in the broader human community. "I still believe in humanity in spite of man. I still believe in humanity in spite of what humanity has done," he says in closing.

"Despair is never the answer. And indifference is never an option."

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Rachael Levy is a graduate student at Columbia University. She has written previously for Slate.

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