Holocaust activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, 83, in his office in New York, Sept. 2012.
At an intimate gathering held after an annual lecture by Elie Wiesel at Boston University Monday night, students sought the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor’s insight on the violence that erupted last week in the Gaza Strip, the latest development in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wiesel presents a trio of lectures every fall semester at Boston University, where he holds the title of Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. While the first two lectures explore ancient religious texts, the third lecture is reserved for a discussion of modern-day topics and Wiesel’s latest literary works. This year, the third lecture featured excerpts from Wiesel’s novel Hostage, which touches upon the topics of terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his upcoming memoir, Open Heart, written following his quintuple bypass surgery last year.
While Wiesel did not address the recently erupted violence in Gaza in his lecture, held at a ballroom set up for 2,000 people and filled almost to capacity, the issue was repeatedly brought up at an intimate gathering in a small conference room at Hillel House, the university’s center for Jewish life on campus.
“It’s the beginning. We must be very careful with beginnings,” Wiesel said when asked by a student for a suggestion on how to bring about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Wiesel stressed that peace negotiations begin at an individual level and can then be applied to whole communities.
“We must believe that we are not here to make anyone else suffer. Even if I have problems with myself, that should not be your fault and not your responsibility. I must respect the humanity of the human being, whoever that is,” he said. “They should begin with that and say, ‘Although we believe differently and have different objectives or ideas, I have to respect your freedom. I have to respect what you are and who you are. I am not God’s policeman on Earth. I must work on myself, but I have no right to do that to you. It’s your life and I must respect it.’”
Although he encouraged peace negotiations, Wiesel also expressed a view that Israel’s attacks on Palestinian-controlled Gaza are justified.
“I’m against this kind of terrorism. Whatever is happening now is not because of the Palestinians in general. It’s because of Hamas,” Wiesel said. “Israel has no choice in that case. What can they do? If Hamas is sending rockets to destroy Jewish homes, Israel must respond to stop it.”
Like Wiesel, President Obama has expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas-fired rockets — a move that has been widely criticized by officials in Turkey and Egypt.
Wiesel himself has previously been criticized for favoring Israel’s claim to the holy city of Jerusalem over Palestine’s. Last night, however, he expressed a hope for the resolution of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It cannot go on,” he said emphatically. “It’s good for everybody – both Palestinians and Israelis — to have some peace at last and not be worried about rockets being fired at them and destroying their homes. It has to stop and because it has to stop, it will.”
When pressed again by a student for a suggestion for peace negotiations, Wiesel advised the audience, and humanity as a whole, to heighten their sensitivity to others.
“I think that is the greatest danger, ignorance, which leads to indifference and therefore to detachment. On a personal level again, if somebody suffers and I don’t do anything to diminish his or her suffering, something is wrong with me. Nothing is worse than insensitivity,” he said. “People always ask me what I want my students or readers to take away from me. It’s to think higher and feel deeper. That is the motto always, in whatever you do. Think higher and feel deeper.”
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