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For the week of April 24 - 30, 2002


Wiesel speaks to 
reverent crowd
at Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

"How does the human dream stay alive in the face of the recent fanaticism?" asked Elie Wiesel, rhetorically, of the large capacity crowd in the Sun Valley Inn’s Limelight Room Sunday evening.

Elie Wiesel

Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate, author, professor, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor, charmed, prodded and moved the audience as he spoke on "Confronting Fanaticism: Building Moral Unity in a Diverse Society."

Susan Blair and Wood River Jewish Community President Adam Koffler were the event chairs of this lecture. Koffler asked him to speak here as well when he learned Wiesel was scheduled to speak Monday night in Boise.

At the free event, 830 people filled the Limelight Room. Scott Glenn, the actor, introduced Wiesel and called him, a "hero of mine."

Wiesel, a Hungarian Jew by birth, has endured and even thrived in the world beyond his experiences during the Holocaust. Both of his parents and a younger sister perished in the camps. After Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945, Wiesel spent the remainder of his abbreviated youth in a French orphanage. He studied in Paris and became a journalist. He said he was a "very uncommon young man," who ultimately came to "study philosophy because of the questions, and left because of the answers."

His first book, "La Nuit," was published in 1958. An American citizen since 1963, Wiesel is one of the world’s most renowned humanitarians.

"I see my role as a witness," he said. "To see the suffering these days it makes me wonder, are we worthy of our humanity, if we can allow suffering?"

In this role, he has traveled the world listening to survivors and victims tell their stories—including Bosnia, Cambodia, Sudan and Rwanda, where racial cleansing and the massacre of ethnic people still occurs.

"It is the role of the witness to finish the story." One way Wiesel seeks to finish the stories is to wrestle theologically with the Holocaust and other horrors perpetrated by one people against another.

Also in his capacity as witness, Wiesel has studied the history of terrorism, he said. In fact, his book "Dawn" is about freedom fighters in Palestine, who made a point of never attacking civilians, he said. Instead, they would tell the newspapers and the military headquarters to evacuate a threatened site. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, he said, nihilists, and anarchists were a romantic part of the revolutionary movement.

But the fanaticism that burst into our consciousness last fall on Sept. 11 showed for the first time in history innocent people being killed blindly. "They didn’t leave a word," Wiesel said. "As if they meant to tell us you don’t deserve our words—death is our language."

He called fanaticism the enemy of "culture, science and the enemy of whatever makes us human."

Wiesel can be at once grim and witty. He is, after all, a storyteller who is used to weaving his words into palatable phrases despite the content.

"Woe unto us we’ve lost any way of communicating with these people. It could happen anywhere. They want to die and they want to kill. I’m among those who go around with a very heavy heart."

Partially due to the efforts of valley high schoolers Logan and Quade Koffler, who contributed to the Wood River Jewish Community Educational Fund, and the Idaho Human Rights Education Center for the Wood River Valley, Wiesel also spoke on Monday to 650 high school students at the Wood River High School in Hailey.

Education is the major component to stopping fanaticism and intolerance, Wiesel said. "We’re all educators. A good teacher remains a student. We are each students, we are each teachers."

He suggested that children from different cultures get together once a month. He was speaking specifically of the issues in Israel but the idea is pertinent for any trouble spot.

"Teachers, rabbis, priests, students—they should all start building human relations," he said. "Try to prevent letting anger turn into hate. Until then everything is possible."

Wiesel took questions from the audience, several of which referred to the tensions in the Middle East. He said that the two sides would eventually get tired of fighting. "I am an optimist."

But, he added, the Israelis have a right to defend themselves against suicide bombers. And spiritual leaders of Islam should be prevailed upon to say, "this you shouldn’t do." "For the suicide bombers it’s a spiritual endeavor." But he maintained, "The Palestinians should have their own state." Many heads in the audience nodded in agreement.

Wiesel concluded with a signature message of hope.

"We are waiting together, for better times. We are waiting for more humanity. We are waiting for better compassion. No one has a monopoly on truth or goodness. Each of us has a spark of divinity."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.