Elie Wiesel, Border-Buster
As I prepare to embark on my next book tour, my mind returns to a previous tour and the wonderful friends I made on it. One of them: Elie Wiesel.
To the public, he was the Nobel prize-winning author, human rights activist and Holocaust survivor. But to me, Prof. Wiesel was a rock — always ready with a smile despite the melancholy etched into his weathered face, always willing to make New York a little more hospitable to this naive Canadian.
In October 2008, Prof. Wiesel turned 80 years old. To help celebrate, his family asked me to serenade him with words at New York’s main showcase of Jewish thought, the 92nd Street Y. I couldn’t have imagined a greater honor. Because, unbeknownst to them, I’d felt a deep connection to Elie Wiesel since my twenties. Why? I explain in the tribute that I paid to him that evening…
“Prof. Wiesel: Some twenty years ago, a Senator from Texas told a younger Senator from Indiana that he’s no Jack Kennedy. Such an electrifying moment may be happening again as we gather. And yet, we’ve chosen to be here instead. That’s how much we love you.
Ladies and gentlemen: Let me explain why I love Elie Wiesel – why I love him as a faithful Muslim and as an advocate of moral courage. Jack Kennedy’s brother, Bobby, described moral courage as speaking truth to power, within your own community, for the sake of a greater good.
Calling out injustice within always incites backlash. That’s why Bobby Kennedy deemed moral courage to be “more rare, and therefore more valuable, than bravery in battle or even great intelligence.”
Elie Wiesel exemplifies moral courage by insisting that his tribe be reconciled to our world.
Here’s what I mean. As a journalist in 1993, I remember feeling pained by global indifference to the suffering of Muslims in Bosnia. I also remember hearing about Elie Wiesel’s chutzpah in front of President Bill Clinton. You see, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum had just opened, and as the original chair of the project, Prof. Wiesel joined Pres. Clinton on stage.
Prof. Wiesel used this platform to compel the president into action, emphasizing that “something, anything, must be done.” Not surprisingly, he was criticized for using this forum to bring up the slaughter in Bosnia.
But Elie Wiesel had moral courage as his personal compass. He told his critics that the museum itself is not a sacred site, and that “Jews do not have the right to be silent when men are dying, when innocent people are subjected to rape and torture, when cities are being transformed into cemeteries.”
Jews do not have the right to be silent: instructive words for a young Muslim woman who would, less than ten years later, have a similar message for her tribe.
Prof. Wiesel: Identity protectionists may bristle at the thought that you, a Jew, are teaching us Muslims about moral courage. Let them bristle. You’re in the finest company of border-busters. Gandhi, a Hindu, taught Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian, about the virtues of soul force and non-violent resistance.
Another teacher of Rev. King was Lillian Smith, a white, Southern woman whom fellow liberals smeared as an extremist for her outspoken opposition to segregation. She embraced that smear, arguing that in times of moral crisis, moderation is cop-out. You must be an extremist of love.
Lillian’s lesson came in handy for Martin, especially when eight liberal clergymen accused him of creating “needless tension.” To which Rev. King replied, “I must confess I’m not afraid of the word tension” because constructive, non-violent tension is always “necessary for growth.”
The fact that a white woman helped guide a black man in how to fight for his civil rights reveals our shared humanity.
And it captures why I, as a Muslim, believe that you, as a Jew, are such a mentor to my fellow Muslims. Your actions help address one of the most vexing questions of the early 21st century: Can open societies produce pluralists – people who appreciate multiple perspectives and truths — without producing relativists — people who will fall for anything because they stand for nothing.
The answer is yes. A joyous, jubilant yes. Just watch Elie Wiesel. May God bless and keep you, sir.”