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Wiesel Reflects on the State of World Jewry

January 23, 1987
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Elie Wiesel delivered his State of World Jewry address to a packed house at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan Wednesday night and expressed his concern about the disunity within Jewish ranks.

“I am disturbed by the inner process of polarization,” he reflected, “… by the rancor and hatred … the turning of politics into religion or religion into politics.” He observed that “Even Hillel and Shammai sat down at the same table together … and let their children intermarry … We need to know that we are brother and sister. Somehow, this isn’t so. Have we forgotten our tradition of tolerance?”

In this vein, he struck a chilling chord by linking the issue of the failure of Allied leaders to save Jews during the Holocaust — a word which he coined but which he said he doesn’t like anymore — and the problem of disunity among Jews. “So little was done to help Jews during the war,” he said, “because there was so little unity among the Jews themselves”

His address, which also dealt with Israeli-diaspora relations, Soviet Jewry and international terrorism, was delivered with his usual fervor but was also punctuated with levity and wit.

During the question period, Wiesel was asked for his definition of “Who is a Jew.” His response was: “To me, a Jew who links his destiny to the destiny of his people is a Jew. I don’t need to go further.” But he also observed that “I cannot imagine a Jewish people without a religious commitment.”


The world-famed author and lecturer and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize addressed himself at length to the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewry and the resistance of Israelis to accept as fact Jews who don’t wish to live in Israel. This rift, he said, puts diaspora Jewry “on the defensive.” “The diaspora poses problems,” Wiesel reflected. As a child growing up in the Carpathian mountains, “Had anyone told me there would be a Jewish State, I would not have believed it. But had anyone told me there would be a Jewish State and I wouldn’t live there, I’d believe it even less.”

The dual pull in the Jewish psyche is troubling, he agreed. “We have to constantly confront this. And there is no answer. I admit it,” he said. “The Israelis resent us… What does it really mean that someone should be measured by where he lives?”

“Sure,” he said, “the diaspora is unnatural to Israel,” but, he asked, “What do we do with the self-imposed obligation to help Israel?”

Matters in Israel, he said, are as important to Jews in the diaspora as events happening on the next street. But as residents of the diaspora, “Do we have the right or duty to take a position on Israel’s policies?”


Wiesel spoke also about Soviet Jews, who are united in the Soviet Union against a common oppression, “united with a solidarity that is inspiring.”

He expressed cautious optimism about the situation of Soviet Jews, but did not refrain from criticizing the Soviet regime. “True,” he said, “the Kremlin has harshened its position, but some refuseniks have been freed.” Soviet Jews now know, he said, that “they are not abandoned … They are not in danger of disappearing,” he said. We know “how to touch them, to reach them.”

He was optimistic about several aspects of the plight of Soviet Jewry, including the fact that there are now reportedly only a dozen Prisoners of Zion, and that the anti-Zionist propaganda machine has lost much of its clout. “If it’s not heartwarming,” he said, “at least it’s not so terrible.”

He spoke less of the Holocaust than expected, noting, however, that “the subject that was once taboo for so many years” is now a focal point. He mentioned “the new wave” in Germany “not to deny the tragedy but to normalize it–the philosophy of (Chancellor Helmut) Kohl and the new historians.”


Wiesel warned against the evils of war for the world and especially for Jews, because “Whenever there is conflict between two nations, the Jews are their first victims.”

In an era of terrorism, he said, Jews are singled out as hostages just because they are Jews. Citing the killings of Jews in Lebanon in the past year only because they happened to be Jewish, Wiesel read out the names of eight Jews murdered. “They should be remembered,” he said.

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