An optimist even in the worst of times, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel is very pessimistic these days. "The world has never been in such danger," he said last week during a visit to Los Angeles. "We are on a train, running toward the abyss. All we can do is pull the alarm to stop it."
A peace activist, graduate of the Sorbonne and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, Wiesel was in town last week for a dinner to honor Rabbi Allen Freehling, who is changing roles from senior rabbi to emeritus at the University Synagogue on the Westside.
Moments after Wiesel arrived here from New York, where he lives with his wife, Marion, he had already spread his notebooks and pens across a desk in his hotel suite. With 30 books promoting peace and tolerance to his credit, including "Night," his 1960 autobiographical novel about life inside Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and with a lecture schedule that could wear down a man half his 73 years, Wiesel is often described as the most important Jew in America.
He is a slight figure, hardly more than 5 feet 5, with delicate features and the gracious manners of the Old World. Born in Romania, he lived in France for many years and still writes his books in French. Even when he is criticizing governments or predicting the eve of destruction, he seems bemused or resigned more often than hardened.
His constant efforts to promote peace and tolerance have not made him a pacifist, a fact that has been especially evident lately. Wiesel supports the current Israeli military campaign, including the recent incursion into the West Bank Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin in response to a rash of suicide bombings by Palestinians.
"I don't know if [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's actions were too much or not enough, I'm not a military person," he said. "If he asked me what to do, I would not know what to advise him. I'd have to say, 'Go ahead. Do what you are doing.'" And, he added. "I think what he is doing has made a difference. Since the invasion, there have been fewer suicide killings."
Palestinians who turn themselves into human bombs have gone beyond the rules of war or terrorism, Wiesel said. "Even terrorism has limits. One cannot do certain things and still remain a human being."
Focused, as always, on the larger issues, he worries about the global impact of escalating violence in the Middle East.
"Suicide killings in Israel could start a chain reaction around the world," he said. "There is nothing easier than to strap on a belt of explosives, walk into a crowd and pull the detonating cord. The first step toward peace talks is to stop the suicide killings."
Government leaders haven't been able to stop these attacks. And the international peacekeeping force that some experts have proposed might keep the army from attacking, Wiesel said, but not the terrorists.
"The end of terrorism must come from the spiritual leaders of Islam," he said. "A fatwa from Muslim spiritual leaders saying that suicide killings can no longer take place would make a difference. When the killing stops, negotiations for peace can begin."
Wiesel calls his own proposal for the Middle East a utopian vision worth taking seriously. He would create an exchange program for students from kindergarten through professional school age. "Israeli and Palestinian children should visit each other's schools once every month, go back and forth," he said. "Start from the bottom up, the youngest children first. It would be the beginning of human relationships. They would get to know each other as human beings."
Instead of politicians, he would ask a team of Nobel peace laureates to host the next round of negotiations. The results would be unlike anything that exists now. "There should be a new, Palestinian state created," he said. "I think there will be one."
Even after the current outbreak of violence, Wiesel believes Arabs and Israelis are capable of living as neighbors. "If Israel could make peace with Germany after World War II," he says, "it can make peace with Palestine." Human limitations might help where high ideals have failed. "People get tired," Wiesel said. "The Middle East will get tired of fighting and killing. There will be peace."
His outspoken support for Israel and mistrust of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom he refers to as a terrorist, has filled his mailbox with hate letters. Destruction of Jewish grave sites in a cemetery in France this month, he said, confirm what the letters tell him. Anti-Semitism is on the rise.
The etiquette of hate has changed. "Today, people sign their names and include their return address," he said. "They feel it is perfectly all right to hate me because I am a Jew and I say what I think about Israel."
Wiesel was invited to speak at Freehling's retirement dinner, in part because both have worked hard to promote dialogue and tolerance between Arabs and Jews. Freehling has been the moderator of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group in Los Angeles that has persevered despite several near-collapses since it was formed in 1998.
Freehling agrees with Wiesel on some points. "I'm convinced that both sides will conclude there's been enough bloodshed and death," he said. But Freehling does not support either side's current tactics. "The difficulty now is in finding negotiating partners who trust one another. It may require new leadership on both sides. And that will take time."
As Wiesel stepped up to the podium at Freehling's tribute dinner, an audience of close to 600 people rose to greet him. He seemed to represent their highest ideals for the future.
"Hope is not something we can discard," he assured them. "The soul cannot live without it. We don't see the way out in Israel right now. But there will be peace. Simply because we cannot live without it. And neither can they."