Knowledge is important if it becomes a moral instrument, according to Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who spent a week at Chapman University as part of a five-year appointment as a distinguished presidential fellow.
Wiesel, the internationally renowned author, human rights advocate and Holocaust survivor, said, “Information is important, but it’s not enough. It must be turned into knowledge, which, in turn, must be turned into sensitivity, which, in turn, must be turned into commitment.”
According to Wiesel, who addressed a convocation entitled “Knowledge and Ethics,” this is an information-hungry era, in which people are looking for information rather than knowledge. He added, “We learn faster and faster about things we don’t care about. We know what’s happening in space but not about our neighbor on the same floor.”
In the Jewish tradition, Wiesel said, it is “a betrayal not to use what I receive. I must turn it into an offering, so that people can benefit. Humanity is defined by one’s attitude toward humans.”
Ethically, one cannot live in society and choose isolation, Wiesel, who has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University since 1976, explained. In the Talmudic commentaries the community is obligated to choose self-sacrifice if an enemy comes to the community and wants to take someone to be killed or raped. “But the other person must think in the same terms,” he said.
After the Ten Commandments comes the law about slavery, Wiesel said. A person is free by definition. “I am free, because others are,” he said. “My freedom is curtailed when others are not free.”
Of the 613 Mitzvot the one that inspires Wiesel the most is “thou halt not stand idly by,” so he has spent his life fighting indifference. He believes that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.
“Indifference makes evil stronger,” Wiesel explained. “People ask why they should spend time caring about people they have never met. Because it enhances humanity. So many tragedies could have been prevented if people had stood up against them.”
For that reason, Wiesel and his wife, Marion, established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity soon after he was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace. The Foundation’s mission, according to its website, is “to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”
The Foundation runs multiple programs both domestically and internationally. In the U.S., the Foundation organizes the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest for college juniors and seniors and bestows the Elie Wiesel Humanitarian Award to a deserving individual. Outside the U.S., the Foundation organizes a regular calendar of international conferences for youth in conflict-ridden countries and gatherings of Nobel Laureates. The Foundation also runs Beit Tzipora Centers for Study & Enrichment in Israel that give Ethiopian Jewish children the opportunity to overcome early educational inequality and participate fully in Israeli society.
“We inspire students to examine what they’ve learned about ethics,” Wiesel explained. “They have remarkably sensitive voices.”
As a Jew, Wiesel said that he speaks from a Jewish viewpoint but not a viewpoint of superiority. “Hitler was convinced that he could exterminate the Jews, and some people didn’t bother challenging him,” he said. “When an enemy hurts one person, they all hurt. When an enemy hurts one nationality, humanity hurts.”
Wiesel’s concern for humanity has taken him to places where people are hurting. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to go with a delegation to Bosnia where he asked people to bear witness to their experiences. “They talked about rape, violence, torture and killing. Nobody finished a story, because everybody broke down in tears. I felt that it was my mission to connect their tears and turn it into a story, so that nobody else should shed tears again.”
Opining out loud about whether Auschwitz was the end or just a warning about human cruelty, Wiesel said, “When I was liberated, I had a sense of gratitude mixed with sadness. Discovering gratitude was a great moment. I wanted to be remembered as a good husband, a good father and a good grandfather. All the rest is commentary.”
Wiesel said that he remains a refugee in his heart. He came to the United States as a journalist and as a homeless person. He was afraid of the police and of customs agents. He has always been on the side of immigrants, because “it’s horrible to be an exile for your whole life.”
Wiesel encouraged the students not to think that hate is an answer. “I don’t want to give the hater the honor of being the goal of my life,” he said. “Instead, I spend my life for the victims and not for the haters.”
He believes that “the world will never learn because it hasn’t,” citing genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia and Darfur as examples of how this generation has not learned from the horrors of the Holocaust. However, he continues to use his talents as an author, teacher and storyteller to further human rights and peace throughout the world.
“I believe in words more than I believe in images,” Wiesel said. “You can’t reduce the Holocaust to images, especially in films, but I don’t want to criticize the attempt.”
Prior to the convocation, Chapman students and members of the community were invited to watch a documentary about Wiesel called First Person Singular. Chronicling Wiesel’s experiences during and after the Holocaust, the film showed Wiesel going back to his childhood home many years later and finding a watch – a gift from his grandfather – that he had buried in the yard when he anticipated being captured by the Nazis.
At the question-and-answer session after the talk, somebody asked Wiesel why he decided to bury the watch again. “I thought that something of my family should remain in that town,” he said.
Somehow, part of Elie Wiesel will be found everywhere that love and understanding are being used as antidotes to indifference.