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The Life and Work of Wiesel
A Biblical Life
By Alan Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
1997

Elie Wiesel is one of the most important people to have lived in the twentieth century. And yet, the fact that he lived at all beyond his teenage years was purely a matter of luck. He, like millions of other European Jews, was slated for genocide. Most other European Jews, including nearly all of Wiesel's family, were murdered by the Nazis. Elie Wiesel survived. Why he survived, how he survived, and how he could turn his survival into a mission of peace occupied the mind of the young survivor in the years following the liberation. The resulting life work — work that is still incomplete and that will, one hopes, continue for many more years — is among the most remarkable accomplishments in history.

Schlomo, father of Wiesel
Schlomo,
father of Wiesel

In assessing the life of this great and humble man, what is often unappreciated is what Elie Wiesel did not do. Here was a young man whose father lay dying in his arms, and most of whose family and nearly all of his friends were murdered. Consider what others, who experienced lesser tragedies, have done in response to such evil. They have sought revenge. They have continued the cycles of violence and recrimination. They have become terrorists. They have refused to make peace. They have become cynics.

Elie Wiesel rejected that negative path. He showed the way from brutal victimization to gentle kindness. His very life became a shining example of an alternative to the cycle of violence and retaliation which has characterized history for millennia. In this respect, Elie Wiesel has taken more seriously the teachings of Jesus than have most Christians. He has understood the teaching of the Jewish prophets better than most other Jews. And he as lived the kind of life to which many other religious leaders have urged their followers to aspire.

The Jewish tradition has always tried to strike an appropriate balance between memory and forgiveness, between undue emphasis on one's own victimization and undue concern only for the victimization of others. The argument between God and Abraham over the sinners of Sodom, the argument between God and Moses over the sinner in the desert, the argument between God and Jonah over the sinners of Nineveh — all reflect attempts to resolve this eternal conflict. The great sage Hillel tried to summarize Jewish attitudes toward this issue when he said, "if I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am for myself alone, what am I?" Elie Wiesel has succeeded in striking this balance for the post-Holocaust world. He will not forget or forgive. But he will also not allow the evils of the past to justify contemporary recrimination. He has lived Santayana's dictum: by not forgetting history, he as helped us to avoid its repetition.

Indeed, Elie Wiesel's memoirs are almost biblical in nature. Subjected to the satanic testing of a Job, he responded not with the cynicism of Ecclesiastes (though he paradoxically takes the title of his memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, from this book), but the passion of an Isaiah. His examined life is an example to all who have experienced pain, victimization, injustice, and survival. Without forgiving the unforgivable, excusing the inexcusable, or forgetting the unforgettable, he has looked to the future. He has placed himself in harm's way repeatedly in the quest for peace, whether in war-torn Yugoslavia, the rocket-ravaged Israel during the Gulf War, or other places from which even God has seemingly stayed away. There is a wonderful story about a great Chasidic master who was asked whether it is ever proper to act as if God did not exist. He surprised his students by answering "yes": it is not only proper, but mandatory, to act as if there were not God when one is asked to help. Do not say "God will help." You must help. Though Elie Wiesel is a deeply religious man — even when he argues with God or refuses to forgive him — Wiesel acts as if there were not God when he is asked to help. I think I understand why. He saw that God did not help his family and friends. He also saw that human beings did not help, perhaps because they believed that God would help. Wiesel knows that we cannot control God's actions, but we can control our own actions.

Wiesel's sister Hilda and Mother
Wiesel's sister Hilda
and Mother

I was with Elie Wiesel on the night that Iraq sent rockets into Israel. It was feared that they might contain poison gas or other deadly material. Although he had just returned from Israel, Wiesel decided he had to go back in order to be with his endangered brothers and sisters even if — especially if — they were confronting the kinds of poison gas which killed so many who were so close to him. He understood what it meant to face death alone, and he would not permit embattled Jews to experience that feeling as long as he had strength to join them.

In 1986, I was among the academics qualified by my position as a teacher of public law to propose nominees to the Nobel Prize Committee. This is part of what I wrote:

There are many excellent reasons for recognizing Professor Wiesel. But none is more important than his role in teaching survivors and their children how to respond in constructive peace and justice to a worldwide conspiracy of genocide, the components of which included mass killing, mass silence and mass indifference. Professor Wiesel has devoted his life to teaching the survivors of a conspiracy which excluded so few to re-enter and adjust in peace to an alien world that deserved little forgiveness. Wiesel's life works merit the highest degree of recognition, especially from representatives of the world that stood silently by.
Few Nobel Prizes have ever produced so many dividends for the world. May Elie Wiesel continue to challenge us to do more to promote peace. May Elie Wiesel continue to challenge God, who makes peace in his own heavenly domain, to do a better job of bringing peace to our earthly one.

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