Elie Wiesel died when we needed him the most

You will be reading many eulogies and tributes to Elie Wiesel — winner of the Nobel Peace prize, author, journalist, and the most passionate moral witness of our time.

But, at this particular moment in the life of the world and of the United States, his life has an overpowering lesson for all of us.

This was the essence of Elie Wiesel’s message.

Hatred might begin with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews.

That was how Wiesel differed from many writers and thinkers on the Holocaust. Many survivors turned inward, and developed a thick wall around their souls, contenting themselves to only be concerned with the agony of the Jews. The watchword of their faith was: “The whole world can go to hell.”

Support Catholic journalism. Join our new membership program for as little as $5 a month.

Not Wiesel. To paraphrase the author Julius Lester, it was as if Elie Wiesel took Jewish suffering and held it out as a long stemmed rose, as a gift to humanity.

A rose, which, by the way, contained its measure of thorns.

That is why Wiesel never concerned himself only with the Jews.

No — his voice reached out to the Cambodians, and native South American tribes, and Rwandans, and the victims of the Balkans, among others. Wiesel knew that the Jews could not maintain the lessons of the Holocaust for themselves alone.

But, now, we must turn Wiesel’s teaching on its head.

While hatred might begin with others, it always circles back to the Jews.

This is what we are seeing in America today: fear of immigrants, Mexicans, and Muslims. There is a populism born of frustration, anger, and xenophobia.

Would it surprise anyone — if this animus were to turn against Jews as well?

For, indeed, there are growing, and unsubtle, anti-Semitic themes in American political discourse.

In fact, there have rarely been hatreds that do not, eventually, turn against the Jews. As I once told my college students in Georgia — a group that was largely African-American and Latino — “Y’all should know that the same people who hate you, also hate the Jews.”

They nodded their heads. They got it. Hatred always comes as, at the very least, a twofer.

This is why I mourn Elie Wiesel. He taught Jews to say: been there, done that. Had he been stronger during this past year, perhaps he might have raised his voice, which was normally like that of a shofar (ram’s horn), against the hatred that exists in our country, and the way that hatred is being manipulated.

One of my favorite stories that I heard from Elie Wiesel was the legend about a righteous man who went to the biblical city of Sodom, which was known for its massive evil and callousness.

The righteous man sat in the middle of the town square, and he out his head in his hands, and he screamed.

Someone approached the man, and asked him: “Do you really think that your screaming will change anyone?”

“No,” he said.

“But, at the very least, I know that they won’t change me.”

We have lost Elie Wiesel, the world’s conscience.

And, yes, his voice is now stilled.

In the middle of the town square that is America, and that is the world — who, now, will scream?

May those screams rise to the heavens. And may those screams be our testimonies to the life and lessons of Elie Wiesel.

May his memory be a blessing.

Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.

We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.