Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Boston University Professor Elie Wiesel has worked on behalf of oppressed people for much of his adult life. His experience during the Holocaust led him to apply his talents as author, teacher, storyteller to defend human rights and peace throughout the world. A devoted supporter of Israel, he has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s “disappeared,” Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, South African apartheid victims, famine victims in Africa and more recently the victims and prisoners in the former Yugoslavia. Author of the well-known trilogy Night, Dawn, and Twilight.
Interviewer: What’s it like to not have a country, to be in exile?
Elie Wiesel: Well, to be in exile. I think this century more than any other really has seen the phenomenon of people being uprooted in such numbers, such a degree. They even have a word for it: The refugees. It’s a new word, a 20th Century word, but refugee is actually a misnomer. Once upon a time refugee meant somebody who has a refuge, found a place, a haven where he could find refuge. Refugee today means somebody who has no home. No homeland. No security. No government to protect him or her. And it is of course one feels not only uprooted, one feels useless. One feels always surrounded by hostile forces. Arousing suspicion. You cross a border and the policeman or the frontier policeman look at you, What are you doing here? Why are you coming? How long will you stay? Well, if I had nearly enough years, I would write a novel about being a refugee.
Interviewer: Maybe you could elaborate a little on the speech you gave in “Why Are We Silent?” in terms of talking about the passivity of countries within the relationship to Tibet where it appears that economic concerns are placed before the concerns of the people.
Elie Wiesel: Well, Tibet’s a tragedy. It’s an insult to human decency. It’s a small country based on religious principle, religious traditions. It never wanted any conquest. It never sought any territory. All it wanted is the conquest of the soul, that people should attain a kind of inner sovereignty, inner independence, inner freedom. And inner strength to attain the absolute. So, Tibet, why is it occupied? For political reasons maybe they have a reason. I don’t know. But religiously, why? The fact that the religious community is being oppressed and persecuted is something that every single person in the world who has any religious faith and religious feeling for — for people who have faith should speak up.
Interviewer: How should they speak?
Elie Wiesel: Well, in enough ways today. We live in the age of communication. Write letters to the editor. Speak to your congressman, to your senator. If you are young, especially young people are taken by this human rights activities. They should organize the universities. The Vietnam War ended because of the campus situation. And so many other injustices have been corrected in the World today only thanks to the young people. So, young people especially have a responsibility for Tibet.
Interviewer: You know Desmond Tutu said, “No change comes from politicians.”
Elie Wiesel: Politicians, they give the visible aspect of the change, but the change, the root, the anchor are in young people.
Interviewer: What happens when governments use religious repression as a weapon?
Elie Wiesel: I don’t think they use it as a weapon, they use it as a as a means of — of oppression. To stifle opposition. To mute resistance. It’s not a weapon, they don’t kill, they don’t conduct massacres, although massacres have been committed and many people were killed, but they stifle religion, they’re afraid probably. I think those governments who resent religion, they’re afraid of religion because religion may be in their eyes, in their views be seen as a counter government or a parallel government. A religious person answers to God, not to the elected or non-elected official.
Interviewer: It appears in the case of Tibet that they are systematically using religious repression as a means to control these people.
Elie Wiesel: To control, but not to kill. Of course — to imprison yes, but not to kill. Weapons means killing. Weapons is ah, I’m simply sensitive to the word.
Interviewer: Maybe we can talk about the term spiritually new traditioners and moral obligation to save life.
Elie Wiesel: The term is piqua nevish [?] it means to save a soul, to save a life. And that commandment supersedes all others. It means literally you may violate almost everything except, I think, three commandments of the heart, 613, — you may do anything, violate any commandment and the injunction simply to save a human life. And there are enough lives to be saved in — in Tibet. The whole community must be saved. And again, I be effected, not enough people are speaking up, but they curb the course of free religious belief in Tibet. It’s puzzling.
Interviewer: What would it look like if the world’s religious communities, the world’s interfaith communities, came together around the issue of Tibet?
Elie Wiesel: I think it would help a lot. First of all it would even influence the political leaders. They listen. One thing they listen, if they don’t listen themselves, they have pollsters and they listen. If enough people are sensitive to the tragedy of Tibet, I think it will produce a change politically as well. But furthermore, it’s important for the people in Tibet. Now communication is such [that] people know what is happening. Even Tibetan people would know that the Interfaith or the international group of religious people — that everybody who is religious is taking up their cause. It would help them a lot if we give them courage, and that in itself is enough.
Interviewer: How far should the Tibetans bend?
Elie Wiesel: I would hesitate to give advice to the Dalai Lama and his people because they are suffering. The Dalai Lama suffered from exile and the people in Tibet suffer from oppression. I don’t know. One thing is they should not give up hope. That’s — even [if] it lasts a century. My discussions with the Dalai Lama always were about that. They asked me– How did you manage not to give up hope and your dream of returning to your ancestral homeland for 2000 years? The same must apply to them. They should not give up hope.
Interviewer: What advice did you give when asked that question?
Elie Wiesel: Oh, you know, education, books. I said to him, I believe in books. And when our people [coughing] — our people of Jerusalem, let’s say after the Romans destroyed the temple and the city, all we took is a little book, that’s all. Not treasures, we had no treasures. They were ransacked, taken away. But the book — the little book– and this book produced more books, thousands, hundreds of thousands of books, and in the book we found our memory, and our attachment to that memory is what kept us alive.
Interviewer: Is there any statement or would you like to say anything to the Chinese government?
Elie Wiesel: Oh, I would say to them, You don’t need Tibet really. You don’t need all the problems Tibet creates for you. It’s so small, so far away. Give them their religious freedom and I know that they wouldn’t misuse it. They wouldn’t use it to torpedo your policies, your international policies. You are a huge empire now, you’ll soon be — in a few years two billion people in the world. So, you should be more compassionate, more understanding. And above all, you don’t need all their trouble.
Interviewer: Do you think Tibet is more trouble than is worth it for the Chinese government?
Elie Wiesel: I’m sure of that. Except if it has some historical meaning for them to have Tibet under their control. I don’t understand why they want it so much.
Interviewer: Some people say Tibet is essentially a colony.
Elie Wiesel: What for? What do they get from that? They have no industry. They have no nuclear powers. No plutonium, whatever? No diamonds. What do they have? Except their own faith. What are they afraid of? That Tibet would conquer China?
Interviewer: It could be one of those situations where they’ve gone so far down the road, now to admit it was a mistake…
Elie Wiesel: Oh, listen. If communism, if Gorbachev who was then number one in Russia, he had the courage to say: Look we made a mistake. Let’s stop it. Why shouldn’t they have the same, and that they too recognize their mistakes. Mao Tse Dung, the Cultural War, they know now, they admit it was a mistake. So, here too — it’s so small except the — the importance of Tibet is beyond it’s geographical size. Only in religious terms.
Interviewer: Speak a little about that.
Elie Wiesel: They came because the Tibetan religion has a past. And furthermore it has such an appeal. There again young people today are drawn to Buddhism and to Tibet. It’s not only because of the Dalai Lama. It’s because of what Tibet represents. There is a vast reservoir of knowledge, of mystical knowledge, which can be found in Tibet. So, the Chinese shouldn’t be afraid of that really. They have other means of survival.
Interviewer: This comes from your book and is a strong statement. I’m not sure if it applies in this situation. But let me ask you, in the guise of the Tibet/China situation, could you talk about the “power of evil” and complexities of neutral countries?
Elie Wiesel: Yes, but I would not like to draw analogies, with the past. But we spoke already earlier about the indifference of people, about the apathy of people, about the fact that they are passive and complacent and silent. That’s strong enough. Governments, leaders, intellectuals, mainly intellectuals who should know the ethical dimensions, are so important, so essential to culture, religion, to civilization, and to our own lives. And that means what? It means not to be indifferent, not to stand idly by. That is a biblical commandment that we are committed.
Interviewer: So what makes it so for people in this country (USA)?
Elie Wiesel: It’s not only this country, I think it’s also — there are many reasons of course. First of all it’s easier to be numb, to be indifferent, when you’re not involved. You’re not in danger. But, I’m giving you the answers I receive, not from my students. There’s too much information. I remember when the Vietnam War was going on, but of course in America, as you know, it had to be on all the networks at the same time. Live from Vietnam during dinner, 6:30 or 7:00 pm, and in the beginning, when people were watching people being killed, or killing others, they stopped eating. After a week or two they continued eating. They saw the same pictures. Different characters because different victims. Casualties, but they went on eating. And that is maybe why there are so many stories that now we know, we have no answer. We have no excuse to say we didn’t know. We do know. We can see it on the screen. We read it in the papers. Listen to the radio. We know, so how can you deal with so much knowledge. Go on eating.
Interviewer: The same time — and my answer then is what is the alternative? Not to have it? No, I think we should. We should. Except we should educate the viewer and say, Look, our duty has to be to report to you. Your duty is to absorb it, to digest it and to do something with it. But it’s education. It’s what is needed, really in our world is the education of the viewer, of the teacher himself, herself, with the parent, with the children.