I had the honor to hear Elie Wiesel speak at Lehigh University. It was commencement and my son was graduating. It was a proud moment to be able to share this experience with him. On the other hand, I am embarrassed to say I did not know much about Mr. Wiesel. He is a holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner. He spoke for only 16 minutes, but when he was done I knew I had heard one of the great speeches of our time. He spoke of the greatest issues facing us, he spoke of integrity and trust. If there is one person left in the world I could interview on the Trust Tour it would be him and you can bet I am working on it. Below is the audio from his speech. I am going to assume permission to share this with you as I am confident this is not a proprietary message rather one the whole world needs to hear. I know you will find it interesting.
For those of you who would rather read, click here for the text of his speech.
I say that I think of you and I feel that you realize the importance of the event. Life is not made of years but of moments. And this moment will remain with you all your life. It is a watershed that is a before and after, four years, and then this, and then many, many more years of creative work. But of course what you have learned here will have an impact on all of your activities in the future. What will they be? What can you do for the improvement of the human condition?
I think of ten years ago, you were in high school. Maybe you remember what you did on the – on December 1999, December 31. I’m sure that you drank champagne. I’m sure you were rejoicing. I’m sure you spent the entire night just celebrating. You were celebrating hope, thinking, “Ah, the new century is beginning. Thank god that the 20th century is behind us.” I’m sure you were thinking of that because the 20th century is one among the cruelest in recorded history. After all we had two experiments in human cruelty, two events that left marked the shame of what human beings can do to one another.
And you were thinking it’s finished now. No more wars. It’s going to be a great century. And it’s true, that it was good to say goodbye to the 20th century because after all there was some good things too. First of all, colonialism was gone. Imperialism vanished. Communism collapsed. Nazism defeated. And you felt, “Well, racism is gone.”
When I came to American in 1956, I went through the South with friends. When I saw the entire community was humiliated by law simply because of the color of his skin, for the first time in my life I felt shame. I never felt shame as a Jew, but then I felt shame for being white. Then I began actually writing about that, and I went to South Africa to witness Apartheid and I would go around from town to town telling people you cannot do that anymore. It was wrong before, and it’s wrong now.
Look, but racism vanished. There are racists still in America, unfortunately, but racism as a movement, racism being the law is gone. It took the murder of the President Kennedy, the assassination of his brother, the killing of a great hero, Martin Luther King. It’s true. They paid the price. But it is no longer the law.
The 20th century is gone and now to begin another one. What is the situation of the world today? We have, on one hand, no wars. Who would have thought, in 1999, that America will be involved at least in one long war, longer than the – it lasts longer than the Second World War in Iraq. And your war in Afghanistan. Which one was absolutely unavoidable? Which one was politically or strategically necessary? Which one is and is a just war?
I just came back from Jerusalem a few hours ago, and I think, “My god, what will happen there?” That war has lasted more than 60 years already. When will it end? Oh, I know all the conditions, all the elements, all the factors that produce that war and prevent a peaceful solution, but I am for a peaceful solution. Although there was never a Palestinian state in history, but now I believe there will be one because that is a Palestinian nation, and they want to have their state, and they deserve it.
As for Israel, if Israel could make peace with Germany, don’t you think that Israel will be able to psychologically, morally, even politically to make peace with her neighbors in the Palestinian state? And both of them should live in security and in peace with a certain sense of dignity for the other, always the other. Because after all, that is part of the enigma, sometimes tragic, dramatic, but always possibly uplifting.
It is the otherness of the other. Who is the other? Is the other my enemy? Is the other my adversary? Is the other condemned to be my opponent? Or shouldn’t the other be simply what I see in life as the embodiment of intrigue, but in the nobler sense of the world, and also of all the possibilities of redemption.
I cannot define myself alone. I can define myself only with regard to the otherness of the other. When will people understand that? Now, I have read maybe some of my writings. I come from a different tradition, from a different past, which is always our past after all. If anyone had told me in 1945, May 1945, as I was liberated with the American Army, that I will have in my lifetime to fight racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, to fight misery, to fight the death of children.
There isn’t a day that children don’t die. Every – actually, every minute a child dies somewhere on this planet of hunger, of starvation, of disease, of violence, of indifference. Will it ever stop?
If anyone had told me that I would witness that, I wouldn’t have believed it. If anyone had told me that once again we will have to fight for the rights of every human being to live freely, I wouldn’t have believed it. If anyone had told me then that I would live in a time of a man who was the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who openly, repeatedly says that he wants nuclear weapons to destroy a Jewish nation. And he says that with impunity. I wouldn’t have believed it.
Today we learned that North Korea simply said, having torpedoed a South Korean ship, which cost 46 lives, and North Korea says if anyone should think that North Korea will not retaliate if South Korea responds is wrong because there will be war – war – I wouldn’t have believed all that possible. I thought the 21st century would be a great century.
So, therefore, I believe for the last four years you were almost protected. You were shielded by the knowledge of your teachers, by the administration, with your president. Maybe you don’t know, but I go around in America and the world. There is today an atmosphere of distrust among young people especially. Distrust of authority. Distrust in the field of economy, in the field of politics, in the field of anything that is and has been essential to the flourishing of civilization in the world.
How can one live if nothing but distrust exists? How can you trust – how can you not trust people who lived and died before you, just leaving you a legacy of learning? You must believe in trust. I almost said you must trust in trust.
And, therefore, by your teacher teaching you Socrates or Descartes or Goethe, of course you must know that the teacher knows more than you, and you must accept that authority and that acceptance may guide you in the future.
What will happen now to the world, I don’t know. I am not a prophet, nor do I want to be a prophet. I belong to a tradition, which is our common tradition. The tradition is that prophets never fare too well. Not a single prophet died a natural death, so who wants to be a prophet today?
But one thing I do know, the text of the prophet is filled with passion. The text of any creative work is worthy of your attention only if the work itself is filled with passion. I try to teach my students as I spent over 40 years in classrooms – I tried to teach them fervor, passion. There is a great building in France, in Paris. It has become a kind of center for human rights. And on the front of these words by a great poet, Paul Valery, and it says, “It depends upon you, passerby, whether I be mute or whether I should talk, whether I become a treasure or a tomb,” and it continues and says, “do not enter this place without fervor, without desire, without passion.”
So maybe you will forget many things. I’ve forgotten many things that I learned when I was your age. But one thing you cannot forget is passion. And when we say passion, it’s not individual passion. It’s passion that brings you together with those of you who were your friends, for those of you who were your teachers, that other life.
I have a passion for Socrates. After all, this man was the teacher of all teachers. Don’t you remember, Socrates had actually – he had a choice. He could have chosen exile rather than death. Why didn’t he? Is it to teach us today the tragedy of the exiled person, of the refuge. What a beautiful dialogue, and his work, of course, is a kind of works of all works.
But also do you remember that he condoned slavery, that he didn’t like women, that he disliked birds? What do we learn? That no one is perfect, even Plato. Study Shakespeare, what do you learn from Romeo and Juliet? Do you learn it was actually a great, great story of love? No. It was a story of hatred; two families hated one another, and the children died.
So what do you do then against hatred? Oh, there are so many things you must learn, you have learned not to do. But to become indifferent for the victims of hatred, I’ve spent my life teaching how to combat indifference. I invented a formula which has now been repeated. I said the opposite of life is not death because the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. The opposite of education is not ignorance. It’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness but indifference. The opposite of humanity is indifference to humanity’s destiny. So, therefore, you remember that.
Now, in conclusion, a story, the whole story. We are told that the man was lost in a forest. Didn’t find his way. A day passed. He had no more food. He was desperate. A second day passed. He was worse and worse, in a state of total despair.
The third day, all of the sudden he lifted his head and he saw someone coming from that other side. He ran to him, and he said, “Thank god, I found you. Tell me, how do I get out of here?” And the guy said, “My dear friend, I don’t know. I’m like you: I am lost. But one thing I can tell you, don’t go this way. I just came from there.”
This is something that I can tell you, certain ways, certain paths you cannot follow. That is not an option because I came from there. Thank you.