Great Leaders Speak With Courage: A Tribute to Elie Wiesel
by Ambassador Ron Dermer
Elie Wiesel was a great man.
He was great not because of his indefatigable work to memorialize the Holocaust. He was great not because of his prodigious talents as a writer or his profound wisdom as a thinker. He was great not because of his sublime character, which somehow combined the dignity of nobility with the humility of a person of the deepest faith.
Elie Wiesel was certainly all of these things. He was a man of many, many virtues. But what made him truly great was that he possessed the one virtue that Winston Churchill said made all the other virtues possible – courage. And Elie Wiesel’s courage was the courage to speak truth to power.
We are admonished never to forget. But to never forget evil is not enough. We must also fight evil. And that fight requires more than memory. It requires courage.
It requires the ability to use whatever power or influence we have to confront evil.
Dr. Martin Luther King famously said that the arc of history bends towards justice. I hope that statement is true. But one thing I am certain of is that if that arc does indeed bend towards justice, it doesn’t bend on its own. It is bent by people like Dr. King and Elie Wiesel, by giants who serve in their generation as the conscience of mankind.
We live in a world where too many good people find too many ways to justify silence and inaction in the face of evil. They convince themselves that now is not the time to trade in their status, power, and influence. They delude themselves into thinking that these valuable commodities must be hoarded so that they can be marshalled to do even greater good in the future.
Elie Wiesel had been too close to evil to fall prey to such dangerous illusions. He knew that these commodities are only valuable if they are spent in time. He knew that the failure to speak and act against evil would both strengthen evil and corrode the soul.
Like the prophet Nathan who rebuked the beloved King David, like the prophet Elisha who rebuked the wicked King Jehoram, and like other prophets of the Jewish people, Elie Wiesel was the Great Rebuker of our times.
Over 25 years ago, he stood here at the opening of this very museum and pleaded with President Clinton to do something, anything, to stop the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. A decade earlier, he told President Reagan that his place was not at Bitburg. Before his passing, Elie Wiesel sat in a gallery of Congress to listen to the Prime Minister of the one and only Jewish state speak about a threat to the survival of our people – of Elie’s people.
Sometimes people listened to Elie. Sometimes they didn’t. But Elie always spoke.
For him, party never trumped principle, friendship never provided absolution and status was never an excuse for silence.What mattered to him was the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it was for him to speak or for us to hear.
As an Ambassador of Israel who had the privilege of meeting this giant among men, Elie Wiesel was both a man of the world and a man of his people – someone who realized, as precious few do, that to be a man of the world, you must first and foremost be a man of your people.
“I will always be there for Israel,” he would tell me, each time we spoke or met. And Elie Wiesel was always there. He was there for Israel. He was there for the Jewish people. He was there for all peoples.
So let us remember this great man today – A man who witnessed so much darkness and yet spread so much light. A man who saw the most twisted timber of humanity but who possessed a courage and clarity that pierced through like the straightest of arrows. A man who was a proud son of Israel and who made all of Israel proud.
May the memory of Elie Wiesel never be forgotten and always be blessed.
יהי זכרו ברוך
Ron Dermer is Israel’s Ambassador to the United States.