Tribute to Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016): Critic of Neutrality and Silence

Elie Wiesel

Neutrality Supports the Oppressors, Not the Victims

In his writings and speeches, Elie Wiesel often makes an ethical distinction between active and passive evil. Active evil is the direct involvement in a crime or an injustice, either committing it or somehow participating in the act, say, as an accessory to a crime. Passive evil means being aware of a crime or an injustice and even seeing it take place, but neither doing nor saying anything about it.

Wiesel teaches that neutrality, “not taking sides,” is to take a side against taking a side. To not act against an injustice is to take the side of those who commit it. That is to say, to not make a choice, to not be opposed to evil, in word or deed or both, is to make a choice against making a choice. Thus, neutrality is a choice, a form of passive evil and, therefore, morally wrong.

Silence Supports the Oppressors, Not the Victims

Similarly, silence “speaks” for the oppressors, supporting their cause, not the victims’ rights to be treated as human beings. In other words, to not saying anything, to refuse to denounce evil, is to encourage those who commit it. As Wiesel himself says his Acceptance Speech for winning the Nobel Prize on 10 December 1986,

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Speak for Those Whose Voices are Silenced

For Wiesel, silence “speaks” loudly, perhaps even more loudly than words themselves, saying, in effect,

“I don’t want to get involved, suffering for what is right. Leave me alone. Your suffering is your problem, not mine.”

Wiesel could not accept that point of view, especially after having suffered in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Nor could he, on religious grounds, that is, as a Jew, accept such a viewpoint. In the words of the Jewish Scriptures,

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9, NIV).

To the victims of oppression, at whose suffering others often remain silent, Wiesel declares,

“What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours….”

That was precisely what Wiesel did for much of his life: He was a voice for the voiceless, defending publicly the rights of the victims of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  He would not remain silent about the millions of Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust. He criticized South Africa’s system of apartheid, calling for Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He went to Cambodia and was turned away; nevertheless, he denounced Pol Pot’s “killing fields.” Wiesel politely rebuked President Ronald Regan to his face for his planned visit to Bitburg, where Nazi officers were buried. He pleaded with President Bill Clinton, at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to do something to stop the senseless killings of Bosnia Muslims in Yugoslavia. In short, Wiesel would not “shut up,” even when he received death threats from his opponents.

Wiesel — aware of human nature’s imperfections and shortcomings, including his own — realized that human beings can always do more to help others. Nevertheless, as he himself said in his Nobel Lecture on 11 December 1986, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

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