Monday, October 31, 2005

Lecture: Elie Wiesel

Sometime around seventh grade I read Elie Wiesel’s Night. I was fascinated by Holocaust stories and devoured everything I could find about that time. It was my first introduction to mass evil and the Jewish people.

I am the product of years—1st grade through graduate school—of Catholic education. Back in my hometown in my Catholic junior high school, I never met a Jew. I don’t think I did until college. Even as I learned about Jewish culture and Hebrew Scriptures I still lacked the personal element. When I did think about Jews, I saw them as victims. While this is sympathetic, I still also thought of them as “other.” Two recent experiences have changed my stance.

Last Friday L. and I were invited to Sabbath dinner at the house of his colleague. It was the first time I had been invited into a home that observes the Sabbath. I was a bit nervous, but not any more nervous than when I have to meet anyone for the first time. Sure enough it was a delightful family and their children and I talked about books and played War (the endless card game). We didn’t have time to get to Spoons. The hospitality they shared with us had been cultivated and nourished, and we reaped the blessings.

Tonight I went to Boston University to hear Elie Wiesel speak. His talk was one of three in a series labeled “The Fascination with Jewish Tales.” Doors opened in Metcalf Hall at 6pm for the 7pm lecture. I thought that he was going to speak at the BU bookstore at 5:30, but it turned out that that event was only a book signing. Even though I had already gotten in the soon-to-be long line to have his newest book, The Time of the Uprooted, signed, I opted to head down to the lecture. I wanted to see his face as he spoke. I got my wish.

I was in the first wave to enter the hall and made my way to stage left, second row, fourth seat from the center aisle. As it happened, Wiesel arrived early and then stayed late just feet from my seat. He is a small man with a lively face and a halo of silver hair. He was dressed comfortably in a navy blazer, light blue button down and a navy tie. His thick Hungarian accent was music—he was born in Transylvania.

Steven Katz, Director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University, introduced Wiesel. He stood at the podium and boomed his brief comments to introduce Wiesel as the final talk in a conference entitled “Reconsidering The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: 100 Years After the Forgery.” Katz cut an impressive figure at the podium and when Wiesel took the stage and sat at a wooden table provided for him, he perched on the edge of his seat, crossed his ankles and leaned into his papers ready to do the opposite of boom.

As I learned from Wiesel, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forged document, utterly false, published at the turn of the century that pretends to be a series of notes, lectures and plans written by Jewish leaders in the Diaspora whose plan is simple: world domination. As Wiesel noted, any intelligent person who reads it will be horrified at the hate and ignorance in its pages. Yet the document was used and is still used in our times to justify anti-Semitism. Henry Ford published the Protocols in his own company newspaper, with a circulation of 200,000 and had 300,000 copies published as a book. Today fanatic Muslims read it with as much fervor as they dedicate to the Koran.

Wiesel sat calmly as he recounted what is known about the origin of the document and how it has been received over the past 100 years. Occasionally he swept his right hand up and through his hair to make a point. It is not possible to track down the exact place or even language of origin. Perhaps we should be more concerned, he suggested, with how it has been received, how it has been used as a weapon of hate in our world.

It has survived and flourished precisely because it is easy for the world to entertain a conspiracy theory to explain how the Jews have survived down through centuries of hate. It has survived because the Christian myth inherited both the notion of a Jewish monotheistic God as well as the myth that the Jews destroyed their God. Christians, over time, have remembered and relived only the consequences of the second part of the myth. To paraphrase Wiesel: The Jews gave us God and God’s murderer, but now only the second part is the Jewish legacy.

The existence of the Protocols helped me to understand the great fear of Zionism I had come across in history books over the years. The fact that people’s fears, condensed in a conspiracy theory, were actually written down turned a fear into mandate for hate.

Wiesel’s speech built up to his theme: hate empowered by words. Literature, with a few exceptions, is creative and therefore can not be created from hate. Among many examples, Wiesel mentioned that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet survives as literature because it is not only about civil strife and warring families, but about innocent, desperate love. The Protocols, even though it has been published as a book, survives not because it is literature, but because it uses words as weapons. The weak, the fearful cling to these words and find those hateful words coming out of their own mouths. If you want to understand hatred, Wiesel said, study its language. The Protocols is a prime example.

Wiesel concluded his speech by clearly stating that Jews do not want to dominate the world or conquer it, they want to redeem it. When the messiah comes, Jews do not expect everyone to become Jewish. They do want more hospitality, people to be more human and open to what is noble in all of us.

He finished on that resonant note, and didn’t take questions. The audience applauded and a line immediately formed to kiss him on both cheeks, embrace him, fumble out words of praise and thanks. A young student asked him to autograph Night and said, “You are such an inspiration. You probably hear that all the time.”

He replied, “No, I don’t” and returned her book as he looked her in the eye and smiled while his brawny bodyguard hovered nearby.

I could have asked him to sign my freshly purchased The Time of the Uprooted, but I held back and just observed him and how people moved around him. Those who knew him were relaxed. His fans were respectful. One woman murmured to her companion, “This is such an honor to be here.” He is “one of the great men of our century.”

A jeans-clad student, perhaps one of the many required by their professors to attend, emphatically told her friend, “I am going straight back to the library.”

“Me too,” her friend affirmed.

Wiesel slowly greeted as many fans as he could, then took his leave. I did too.

The walk home was unseasonably warm for a Halloween night.

I don’t know what I could have said to him if I had waited in line, but I do know that his lecture has made me more aware of the way words can be powerful weapons of mass destruction, words alone.

The final lecture in the three part series centers on his new book and will be November 21, 7pm at Boston University. More information: 617-353-2238

Link to NPR recording of the lecture:
(This may not be a stable link)

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