Elie Wiesel’s top priority was Israel, but he chose to live in the Diaspora, according to historian Dr. Joel Rappel, the curator of the Limmud FSU’s Elie Wiesel Memorial Exhibition that opened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities on Tuesday.
How does one explain this apparent contradiction in Wiesel, who died in New York on July 2 at the age of 87? “Elie’s top priority was Israel. He always said if Israel needed him, he would come here immediately. He said if the State of Israel would not exist, the Jewish nation would not exist,” Rappel said. “But he thought his role was to be there, not here. As he said in his last interview with journalist Nahum Barnea, he sees himself as a Jew of the Gola [Exile] and not a Jew of the Geula [Redemption, i.e. Israel].”
In an article about why he didn’t live in Israel, published in the Baltimore Jewish Times, Rappel recalled, Wiesel wrote: “If someone had told me formerly in my childhood that in my lifetime, I would see the resurrection of a free and sovereign Jewish state, I would not have believed it, but if they had added that a Jewish state would be reborn and I that I wouldn’t live in it, I would have believed it still less.”
Dr. Joseph Ciechanover, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, member of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and one of Wiesel’s best friends, said the doors of everyone from kings to presidents had been open to Wiesel.
“For Elie, the most important thing was the security of Israel. He said over and over again that without the State of Israel, there is no Jewish people, and without the Jewish people, there is no Israel. And that’s why we must defend her in every situation, during war and peace. He never paid a visit to anywhere in the world in which he didn’t hear criticism of Israel, but he himself never uttered a word of criticism against Israel.”
He noted that two prime ministers, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, had offered him the presidency of Israel, which he had declined.
“Both times, he politely replied that the president of Israel must be chosen from among its citizens, and there are people in Israel worthy of the office. I am not a citizen of Israel.”
Talmudic scholar Prof. David Weiss Halivni, 89, said he and Wiesel, whom he called Eliezer, had studied together in their youth at heder in Sighet, Romania.
“He would sit next to the window, and look outside, and I saw this as a symbol of his outlook. I used to sit next to him, and for me, this was a symbol of our friendship. The Holocaust ended all that, and Sighet was never the same again.”
Halivni said his son had visited Sighet four weeks ago, and found fewer than 100 Jews living in a city that was once home to some 10,000 Jews, two-thirds of them hassidim. “That’s just a sign of the destruction that befell us,” he said.
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, who was chief rabbi of Romania, recalled accompanying Wiesel on his trip to his birthplace in 2002, where he received the Star of Romania Award from president Ion Iliescu.
“There were hardly any Jews in the whole Sighet area, maybe 60,” Hacohen said. “But they had a special ceremony in the municipality and later in an old wooden building that served as the synagogue. Elie stood at the pillar of the prayer, put his arm around me, closed his eyes and in front of all the distinguished guests, sang the whole of ‘Ya Ribon Olam,’ in the old Viznitz melody.”
Sylva Zalmanson, a former prisoner of Zion who was jailed in 1970 for attempting to hijack a Soviet plane to Israel with Yosef Mendelevitch and 14 other refuseniks, said Wiesel’s landmark 1966 book, The Jews of Silence, had inspired the “Let Our People Go” campaign.
“Without that book, the world wouldn’t have known what was going on,” she said. “After the Six Day War, we felt we needed to come out from the underground to launch a more active campaign. In 1974, Zalmanson was released as part of an American- Soviet prisoner exchange; she made aliya and advocated for the release of her husband and other dissidents. “I met Elie Wiesel only once in the Knesset, and was most impressed by his personality,” she said.
“I couldn’t understand how he could have gone through the hell he did, and still smile. He was a fighter and a believer. Because of people like him, we have a future. I really believe that.”
Matthew Bronfman, chairman of the Limmud FSU International Steering Committee, said his first impression of Wiesel was in 1985, when he stood in front of president Ronald Reagan and told him not to visit the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where many burial plots were dedicated to the Waffen-SS. “This, in his quiet, elegant and forceful way, was an act of courage, and an act of overwhelming humanity. It spoke volumes to me about a man of convictions and ethics and morals.”
Later, Bronfman said, he met Wiesel many times, and 17 years ago, traveled with him to the bar mitzva of his oldest son, Jeremy. “There’s a story in the Torah that children are supposed to outdo their fathers. It was a big deal, and I spent hours and hours working on my speech, and on the bus from the bar mitzva to the dinner Elie looked at me and said, “Matthew, your speech was wonderful, and your son’s was much better!”
Hebrew University President Menachem Ben-Sasson said the Mandel School, “which connects between the mountain [Mount Scopus] and the village below [Jerusalem],” was the perfect location to memorialize Wiesel’s legacy. “This is the place to study someone who derives his roots from the past, and takes on missions in the present in order to serve the future,” Ben-Sasson said.
“One of Elie’s great lessons to us was not only to deal with the past or the present, but to get involved. Indifference, he taught us, was almost tantamount to a crime.”
The exhibition traces Wiesel’s life from a boy in Sighet through surviving the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, studying in France and moving to the US in 1955, becoming a prominent journalist and writer of almost 60 books, including his most famous, Night, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for being “a messenger to mankind.”
Tuesday’s event, organized by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler, was moderated by Prof. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Academic Center of Law and Science, and attended by dozens of dignitaries, including Herman Kahan, 90, who also grew up with Wiesel in Sighet, also survived the Holocaust, and now lives in Norway, and Wiesel’s Canadian-born nephew, Dr. Steven Jackson, a prominent neurosurgeon at the Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva.
“Elie Wiesel was the spiritual father of Limmud FSU a decade ago,” said Chesler. “This exhibition commemorates his story and life work, and ensures that they will not be forgotten.”