Elie Wiesel at a private reception before the main event celebrating 10 years of the Write On for Israel program.
When Elie Wiesel speaks, people — especially teens — listen. So it was earlier this summer when The Jewish Week held a panel conversation with the Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel Peace laureate. The event, which took place at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Write On For Israel, a high school Israel education and advocacy program.
The room was packed with Write On students, their families, Park Avenue congregants and the public; every seat was filled and people stood in the back. For the select Write On students and family members who arrived before the rest of the audience, Wiesel gave a notably strong handshake to everyone he passed. Wiesel, wearing a blue suit, did not look like someone who is 83. Rather his youthful energy made him a significant presence in the room.
The intergenerational conversation began with an introduction from Park Avenue Synagogue’s Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove who discussed the week’s very fitting parasha, Shlach (meaning “send”): the story of Moses sending out spies — history’s first example of investigative journalism. The Torah makes a connection between knowledge, power and advocacy — the values that drove The Jewish Week editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, to form the Write On program.
The program was founded during the height of the second intifada in 2001, when Rosenblatt realized that students wanted to defend Israel against verbal attacks but they did not know enough about Israel’s policies to express their beliefs to fellow students. Thus Rosenblatt started a program to educate high school juniors and seniors about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the proper way to defend Israel through writing and speaking.
The program now has chapters in New York, Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco and has educated over 400 students. Some of these students go on to lead the pro-Israel movements on prestigious campuses across the country. In his remarks, Rosenblatt expressed great pride in the accomplishments of the program and its students. He also acknowledged disappointment that a program like this is still needed today because of widespread anti-Israel sentiment among college students.
Linda Scherzer, director of Write On and a former CNN Middle East correspondent, introduced Wiesel and the students who led the discussion. The seven students were current and former Write On students: University of Pennsylvania graduate Abigail Denburg; Rutgers graduate Sam Weiner; Columbia University student Joshua Fattal; Hunter College High School graduate Jonathan Herzog; Horace Mann junior Gabrielle Lustig; Ramaz junior Emmanuel Cantor; and SKA junior Leeza Hirt.
The questions posed to Wiesel at the event, which took place on June 11, ranged from educating non-Jewish teenagers about the Holocaust to the Iranian threat to Israel. Wiesel had witty and insightful responses to each question.
“My loyalty to Israel is absolute,” he said in response to the opening question about Israel’s security. There was applause after his pro-Israel statements and always laughter after his more sarcastic comments.
Wiesel recalled an op-ed headline from his second trip to Israel in 1967 that read, “I do not want to survive Israel,” which epitomizes and summarizes his commitment to the land of Israel, a place he cannot imagine life without. Wiesel spoke softly but clearly and took pauses to put thought into each response before speaking.
During World War II Wiesel lived in a Jewish ghetto in Romania and was then deported with his family to Auschwitz, where his mother and three sisters were killed. Wiesel and his father were sent to the work camp, Buna, and then to Buchenwald in 1945. Wiesel’s father was beaten to death only a few weeks before the U.S. army liberated the camp. Wiesel chronicled his experiences in the moving series of books, “The Night Trilogy.”
A man who has seen and been a member of the Jewish people at arguably the lowest point in our history and also some of our highest said, “We are not supposed to be a people of saints… it is not normal,” we cannot always be the best.
When asked why Israel’s alleged human rights violations are focused on while others in different countries are often ignored, Wiesel answered that the important part of that question is why so many human rights violations around the world are ignored daily. “Incredibly stupid” is how Wiesel described the abnormally high standard the world applies to Israel.
A man who has dedicated his life to human rights work said, “the Jew in me wants to be universal” and as Jews we must work for the betterment of human rights for all people be they Muslims, Christians or fellow Jews.
He ended the conversation by telling a story about a man who wanted people to stop fighting. He protested, formed movements and yelled about injustices around the world. One day, a little boy asked the man why he keeps shouting when no one around him seems to be listening. The man answered that he knows that even if he keeps shouting it is unlikely he will change the people around him, but he continues anyway because he does not ever want those people to change him.
I was struck not only by Professor Wiesel’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, but also by his unyielding faith. He was filled with faith in humanity and the Jewish people, even after surviving an adolescence filled with horror and hatred. Wiesel was honest in all his answers, saying only what he truly believes.
He was also willing to admit that he did not know how to respond to every question, when asked for advice on a problem he could not solve or a situation he did not know enough about. He seemed incredibly humble in spite of being in front of an audience of people completely in awe of him.
When asked for his advice to students confronting a variety of problems, his answer was always “study.” Wiesel, a man who describes his occupation simply as a “teacher”, certainly taught the audience about being a proud and eloquent believer in Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel.