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Government, Politics & Issues

Wiesel: Obama is no opponent of Israel

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 20, 2011 - President Barack Obama's speech on the Middle East does not show that he is an opponent of Israel, only that he is trying to get stalled peace negotiations started again, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said Friday.

Wiesel was in St. Louis to address Washington University's 150th commencement exercises, where he received an honorary degree. He said in an interview after the ceremony that a two-state solution involving Israel and the Palestinians is a goal that almost everyone in the region is working toward.

But to get past the daunting obstacles that have blocked the way to peace for so long, Wiesel said, Obama is trying to get leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to sit down and talk in a meaningful way

"He isn't anti-Israel," Wiesel said. "He wants to find a solution."

Wiesel says personal diplomacy between people like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Friday, and Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, would be the best route to a settlement. But before that can happen, fundamental changes would have to occur, such as Hamas' renunciation of its stated aim that Israel should not exist.

"Hamas' charter includes the destruction of Israel," Wiesel said. "Why sit down with someone who wants to destroy you?"

Asked about the demonstrations and protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa this spring, Wiesel said he expects them to lead to dramatic changes. What those changes will be, he added, depends on what the real character of the movement is.

"Is it a rebellion," he asked, "or is it a revolution? They are not the same thing," adding that revolutions generally have a positive goal, while rebellions are primarily negative, against the status quo but not necessarily working toward something positive to take its place.

On the question of John Demjanjuk, the 91-year-old Detroit auto worker who was deported to Germany after a long legal battle, then convicted for his role in the deaths of thousands of Holocaust victims, Wiesel said he does not favor capital punishment, but he thinks Demjanjuk's five-year prison sentence was too light.

He acknowledged that the sentence means that Demjanjuk would likely die in custody. But Wiesel called him "one of the worst" Nazi war criminals, and a sentence of life in prison would have made a strong symbolic statement after "so much murder, so much pain caused to so many people."

Wiesel, 82, was honored by Washington U. for using his personal experience in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald "as an author, teacher and storyteller to defend human rights and peace throughout the world."

His classic memoir "Night," published in 1958, has sold millions of copies and been translated into more than 30 languages -- a fact that he joked is reflected in his dreams, where all of his other books, more than 50 of them, are jealous of their more popular sibling.

He said in the interview that because Holocaust survivors are "an endangered species," it is more important than ever that he make his story known to as wide an audience as possible, to spread the experience to new generations.

"I believe firmly," Wiesel said, "that to listen to a witness is to become a witness."

That philosophy was reflected in his speech to the crowd of graduates, family and friends in the Washington U. quadrangle, an address titled "Memory and Ethics." There, he said that the most important commandment to follow isn't in the Bible; instead, he said, it is this:

"Thou shall not stand idly by."

"We are not alone in this world," Wiesel added. "We are here to be with others."

He told a story of a man lost in the forest for three days, unable to find a way out. He finally comes across someone else in the same predicament, who says he cannot point a way out, but he can say which way not to go -- a road he had just taken.

That lesson, Wiesel said, is one the students should take to heart.

"Don't go where I came from," he said "The 20th century was one of the worst centuries in the history of mankind."

Today, Wiesel said, instead of last century's horrors wrought by the Communists and the Nazis, the new plague is fanaticism, twisting religion into something that is anti-human, where suicide bombers become weapons.

"They do not want simply to die," he said. "For that, they could simply jump into the ocean. They want to kill innocent people mainly, including children."

He urged the graduates to "open the gates of your own memory and try to do something with what you have learned."

What he has learned, Wiesel said, was that "with all I have gone through in my life, I still have faith in humanity" -- a sentiment that brought sustained applause from his audience.

Noting that one of the good things about Washington U. is that it asks its commencement speakers to keep their speech to 15 minutes, Wiesel concluded by echoing the view of Albert Camus in "The Plague":

"There is more in any human being to celebrate than to denigrate. Let's celebrate."

The robed graduates who were among the 2,719 receiving degrees Friday took Wiesel to heart, though in a fairly sedate manner -- a few bubbles, a few mortarboards decorated to stand out in the crowd, more than a few caps tossed into the air when their degrees were declared official.

Though the forecast had called for cloudy skies and possible showers, by the time the ceremonies began, the sun began peeking through -- a phenomenon that Chancellor Mark Wrighton attributed to the university's department of earth and planetary sciences. Guests did not have to use the complimentary hooded rain ponchos placed on seats in the quad, just in case.

Flags displayed on the west side of the quadrangle demonstrated the university's international reach, denoting the many countries that graduates came from.

In addition to Wiesel, honorary degrees were granted to John H. Biggs, former CEO of TIAA-CREF and former vice chancellor for administration and finance at the university; Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Griffin P. Rodgers, director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; and George W. von Mallinckrodt, president of Schroders.

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