A conversation with Elisha Wiesel is like stepping into a Talmudic debate. Quietly spoken and urbane, he gives deep thought before delivering considered answers.
Despite his famous father’s larger-than-life legacy, he is his own man with his own ideas and strong opinions. He will take part in the March of the Living for the first time this year and is acutely aware of its significance – not simply from a personal perspective but as a powerful tool to strengthen Jewish identity and also create a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of Israel.
We live in an age in which we hoped that antisemitism would dissipate, where the world would take a step back and realize that words and actions have consequences, sometimes genocidal ones. But Europe and the United States are grappling with increasing levels of antisemitism, and one feature in particular caught Wiesel’s attention.
“What’s notable about the strain of antisemitism at the moment is that it is being masked as anti-Zionism and it is being embraced by the Left – and in America that is tragic. We are talking about causes where the Jewish people have been so closely aligned.
“Take the Black Lives Matter movement. It is incomprehensible to me that they have incorporated language from Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Where is the connection? It is disappointing. If you look at the history of the NAACP, US Jews were there from the beginning. That BDS is being swept into BLM saddens and disappoints me.”
The BLM movement began in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who shot and killed African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. But its progression to becoming a more significant actor on the national stage followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. At the same time, the BDS movement’s response to Operation Protective Edge drew the attention of the Black Lives Matter leadership, and it was at this point that two seemingly disparate issues converged into a fight, as the leadership of the movements’ saw it, against oppression.
Talking about the BLM and BDS movements brought the conversation to college campuses, where standing up as a proud Jew has become more challenging.
“Being a participant in March of the Living should build the sense of legitimacy that we as a Jewish people have a right to exist,” Wiesel said. “We have a right to a country which, as part of its national fabric, asserts that we will never be without a home again. To understand the importance of Israel as a strategic response to the existential crisis that we faced is something that students should understand. They should embrace the opportunity to challenge antisemitism, which is too often masked as anti-Zionism.”
Wiesel said that this would be the first time he has participated in the March of the Living, and he eagerly anticipated the transformative effect it could have.
“This is one of the reasons I think so highly of the March of the Living,” he said. “The concept of bringing Jewish youth to see these places where the atrocities occurred shakes them out of their everyday experience. This is real, and not just images in a book. These are things that happened to our people. The enemy came to our villages, towns and cities and sought to destroy us.”
Wiesel is also able to take a more bird’s eye view of Jewish history, drawing back to see where the events of the Shoah fit within this context.
“Taking part in March of the Living,” he added, “gives Jewish history an immediacy; it shows just how fragile Jewish history can be. If Hitler and Nazi Germany had won, they could conceivably have killed all of European Jewry. It is important for Jewish youth to understand that, and I hope that participating in the march will help to renew a sense of identity and determination that we are not going anywhere.”
Naturally, the shadow of Elie Wiesel looms large in our conversation, and as his memorial year draws toward its conclusion, it seemed appropriate to inquire of Elisha how his father’s work and his legacy, with its focus on justice for all oppressed peoples, was continuing without his physical presence.
“My father didn’t leave anything unsaid,” he stated. “It is up to all of us now to further his vision. He worked tirelessly on behalf of those who were voiceless. I hope that those who seek to understand and promote his legacy will do so by finding ways to support the oppressed, to support fundamental human rights that transcend religion, gender, skin color and sexual preference – and to champion peace and security.”
Wiesel added that many Holocaust survivors could have chosen to be done with Jewish tradition, after their harrowing and unimaginably traumatic experiences. He acknowledged that his father had endured a period of questioning and distancing, but not to the extent that it led him to lose his connection to Judaism.
“Ultimately, he felt a responsibility, to both previous and future generations, to marry a Jewish partner, to raise a Jewish child, and to engage in Jewish teaching [and learning].
“He was very clear that Judaism had an important place in the world, not because it was older or better than other religions, but because it had something unique to teach about devotion to learning, the importance of history, and in its absolutely being consumed by ethics and the right way to live.”
In a final word about his father’s legacy, Wiesel outlined that we must strive, as his father did, to find points of confluence, to acknowledge one another’s basic humanity, in spite of divisions and differences of opinion.
“My father believed in dialogue, and we live in a world today with warring Facebook and Twitter feeds, where people are very quick to categorize themselves and others around their political views. With the exception of those who held truly hateful political views, in particular Holocaust deniers, my father would engage with others, including those with whom he disagreed. It is the only viable path to bridging misunderstandings and finding a way to live with one another.”
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