‘Give fanaticism power and we're all in danger'

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel talks about Iran, his optimism over the peace process and why Israel mustn’t deport the children of migrant workers.

Elie Wiesel 311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Elie Wiesel 311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
US President Barack Obama is deeply committed to peace and wants to enter history as the man to finally end the Arab- Israeli conflict, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said in Jerusalem on Tuesday, shortly before receiving the World Jewish Congress’s first Guardian of Jerusalem Award in recognition of his lifetime of achievement.
“My feeling is that Obama really wants to enter history as the one who finally brings this conflict to an end,” Wiesel said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post and international media outlets. “After all, Obama has already entered history as the first black president.”
Wiesel, who has met one on one with Obama and also traveled with the US president to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where Wiesel himself had been a prisoner during the Holocaust, said Obama was “very sincere in his pursuit of peace and very deeply committed to peace.”
He added that he was “very optimistic” about the chances for success of the talks commencing in Washington this week, but cautioned, “I’m a very poor prophet and I’ve been wrong in the past.”
Asked what he based his optimism on, Wiesel replied: “The participants cannot afford another failure.”
He added, however, that for the negotiations to succeed the issue of Jerusalem must be left to the end. “If you begin with Jerusalem there is no way of obtaining any success at any moment.”
Earlier this year Wiesel published an open letter in several major American newspapers calling for Jerusalem to be above politics and saying that it must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital.
In answer to a question from the Post, Wiesel said he understood criticism of that letter from Israeli intellectuals, including Israel Prize laureates Ze’ev Sternhell and Avishai Margalit as well as former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, who said that they lived in an “earthly Jerusalem” while Wiesel lived in a “celestial one.”
“In a way they are right when they say, ‘We live here, we face the dangers, leave us alone,’” Wiesel said.
“But they didn’t understand certain things. They thought I was saying we have to keep Jerusalem and forget everything else. But want I really wanted was to hasten peace and [stress] that we have to let peace take hold. If Jerusalem is first, there is no way.”
Wiesel denied that letter was a political act. “I did not take any position in favor of the government,” he said.
The author of over 60 books, Wiesel, 81, was born in Romania to a family of Viznitz Hassidim. He survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but with the exception of his two elder sisters most of his family was murdered. After the war he found asylum in France and embarked on a career in journalism.
In 1956 he applied for American citizenship and he currently lives in New York.
Turning to the issue of the nuclear threat from Iran, Wiesel said, “Today of course my obsession is [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahamadinejad, who is the No. 1 Holocaust denier in the world, who publicly and repeatedly has said that he wants to exterminate the Jewish state. I have learned to take the enemy’s threats seriously and therefore, wherever I go, I say this man should be arrested and brought to The Hague and indicted for incitement for a crime against humanity.
In that particular crime [genocide], the intent itself is a crime and not only the implementation of the crime.”
While he would not comment on whether he would support a preemptive strike on Iran, Wiesel said his feeling was that “Israel and America are closer on Iran than on many other issues.”
Wiesel added that regardless of Iran’s threats to Israel, Ahmadinejad’s treatment of his own people branded him a criminal.
“One thing I do know about Ahmadinejad is that not only did he steal the elections in Iran but that what he is doing to his own people – the stoning of Sakineh [Mohammadi Ashtiani] – how can one in our century do that? I feel that he should simply be excluded from civilized society.”
Wiesel said he stood by a statement he made almost 20 years ago that the greatest danger of the 21st century would be nuclear power in the hands of a fanatic. “Fanaticism is bad enough. Give it power and we are all in danger,” Wiesel said.
He added that it was not inconceivable that a suicide terrorist would try to carry out a nuclear attack. “A suicide terrorist is not someone who wants to die, a suicide terrorist is someone who wants to kill. In order to kill more people he kills himself... How do we know that tomorrow a terrorist will not take a little nuclear device? It’s not unthinkable.”
MOVING ON to the campaign to delegitimize Israel, Wiesel described it as a “a very big worry,” but added that the whole world is not against Israel.
“Israel has allies and Israel has friends. Sometimes one group is more vocal than the other,” he said.
Talking about his recent criticism of the government’s decision to deport approximately 400 children of foreign workers, Wiesel said: “It is the first time I have criticized Israel in public like that. Usually if I have something to say, I get on a plane and come and see the prime minister and say, ‘Look.’” Wiesel said that he had been shocked when he read about the decision.
“A father who cannot feed his children, his human rights are violated just as if he were politically persecuted,” he said. “Secondly, no human being is illegal. He cannot be illegal. He can do something illegal, but he cannot be illegal... I was shocked [by the deportation plans].
What about Jewish heart, Jewish compassion, what about Jewish morality and Jewish conscience? I grew up in a different tradition. I used to be a refugee, so I feel empathy with every refugee.”
After being asked whether that empathy extended to the Palestinians, Wiesel replied: “I can not ignore the suffering of the Palestinians, but because of my personal history it’s not my main cause. Let Palestinian violence stop, let terrorism stop and I would surely take on that cause.”
Wiesel also had a take on recent inflammatory remarks by Shas’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who delivered a sermon in which he called on the almighty for the death of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Wiesel labeled the comments “unworthy and scandalous... I respect religion and religious people.
I count myself a religious Jew,” he said. “But how can one wish the death of anyone?”