Questions for Elie Wiesel

by Mark Chmiel

Elie Wiesel—Holocaust survivor, author of Night, 1986 Nobel Peace laureate, adviser to American presidents, acclaimed humanitarian—is speaking at Saint Louis University on Tuesday 1 December 2009 at 7:00 p.m.. What follows are some questions students and others might consider as they listen and then respond to Mr. Wiesel.

Mr. Wiesel, do you think the Obama Administration should put pressure on Israel’s government to cease building illegal settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank? Would you support President Obama in calling for such pressure?

Do you support a major troop increase by President Obama for the war in Afghanistan? Why or why not?

Do you think both Israelis and Palestinians should be prosecuted for war crimes they committed during last December and January’s conflict in Gaza?

In the 1970s you wrote about South African apartheid as follows: “Only, when you go inside Soweto, outside Johannesburg, you are confronted by concentrated poverty and humiliation without parallel. You see men and women barely able to keep body and soul together. You see children without a future. You see a hopeless world.” In the late 1970s you worked closely with President Jimmy Carter in establishing the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Yet Jimmy Carter has recently said that what Israel is doing in the occupied Palestinian territories is akin to apartheid. Would you please comment?

In the news there has been a lot of concern expressed about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Do you think that the entire Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone, that is, Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, and Israel should dismantle its nuclear arsenal? Would you support weapons inspectors going into both Iran and Israel?

Your life has been a testimony to the imperative to remember the Holocaust, particularly in the United States with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Do you think that Americans and Israelis should take it upon themselves to remember the Palestinian nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their cities and villages by Israeli forces and never allowed to return?

In your 1986 Nobel address, you proclaimed, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.Sometimes we must interfere.” What do you think of Israelis like Jeff Halper who try to interfere with Israel’s demolishing of Palestinian homes, or the Israeli pilots and soldiers who have refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories?

One stated reason among many Western governments for its opposition to Hamas is that it doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Could you name any current or past Israeli leader who has explicitly recognized Palestine’s right to exist?

You have been a fierce critic of people who use the Holocaust for political purposes or engage in offensive analogies. What do you think of Israeli leaders like Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion who have used the Holocaust to discredit Israeli political opponents or to compare Yasir Arafat or other Arab leaders to Adolf Hitler?

In the Los Angeles Times in March 2003, you wrote in support of George Bush’s impending invasion of Iraq, even though the UN Security Council did not grant authorization. Two questions: First, do you believe that the U.S. government is entitled to ignore international law? Second, after all that has happened in Iraq—the hundreds of thousands dead, the four and a half million people displaced, the destruction of its infrastructure and culture—do you still believe that the U.S. invasion and occupation have been justified?

Do you think former President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld should be held accountable for their authorization of torture during the war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo?

Do you now think former President Bush took the U.S. into war under false pretenses with his claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMD threat and alleged connection to the 9.11 attacks?

Over the decades, have Christian audiences become more open to your critiques, such as the following, from your book, A Jew Today: “How is one to explain that neither Hitler nor Himmler was ever excommunicated by the church? That Pius XII never thought it necessary, not to say indispensable, to condemn Auschwitz and Treblinka? That among the S.S. a large proportion were believers who remained faithful to their Christian ties to the end? That there were killers who went to confession between massacres? And that they all came from Christian families and had received a Christian education?” [Note to reader: The undergraduate library at Saint Louis University is named the Pius XII Memorial Library.]

In your memoir, And the Sea Is Ever Full, you wrote, “In spite of considerable pressure, I have refused to take a public stand in the Israeli-Arab conflict. I have said it before: since I do not live in Israel, it would be irresponsible for me to do so.” Mr. Wiesel, you did not live in Iraq, but that didn’t stop you from strongly criticizing Saddam Hussein. Could you offer criteria for responsible criticism of policies of a variety of governments, such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Cuba, Sudan, Guatemala, and Israel?

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How is it possible that a man so intelligent, knowledgeable, and informed could not have been aware of the anti-Jewish laws of Vichy? The plundering, the persecutions, the arrests, the roundups — how could he have failed to know about them?

–Elie Wiesel, on French President François Mitterand’s World War II experience

 Israel’s occupation of Palestine is the crux of the problem between the two peoples and it will remain so until it ends. For the last thirty-five years, occupation has meant dislocation and dispersion; the separation of families; the denial of human, civil, legal, political and economic rights imposed by a system of military rule; the torture of thousands; the confiscation of tens of thousands of acres of land and the uprooting of tens of thousands of trees; the destruction of more than 7,000 Palestinian homes; the building of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands and the doubling of the settler population over the last ten years; first the undermining of the Palestinian economy and now its destruction; closure, curfew, geographic fragmentation, demographic isolation and collective punishment….Occupation is about the domination and dispossession of one people by another. It is about the destruction of their property and the destruction of their soul. Occupation aims, at its core, to deny Palestinians their humanity by denying them the right to determine their existence, to live normal lives in their own homes. Occupation is humiliation. It is despair and desperation.

–Sara Roy, Gaza expert, Harvard researcher, daughter of Holocaust survivors