City College Awards Honorary Doctorate to Elie Wiesel
“We must fight hatred or it wins,” warned Elie Wiesel, the conscience of the Holocaust, after being awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Letters in the magnificent Great Hall at City College. Speaking about “Confronting Fanaticism: Building Moral Unity in a Diverse Society,” he described today’s fanaticism as “a perversion of religion” that offers the “luxury of never asking questions” because it claims to know all the answers. He recalled the hope, after World War II, of “Never Again,” and the disappointment he feels so many years later knowing that human beings are still capable of unspeakable cruelty, and that poverty, misery, violence, and disease are rampant. “We are all threatened,” he warned, as the racial fanaticism exemplified by the Nazis is replaced by religious fanaticism. “What do we do about it? What must we do?” he asked. “Are we to give up on humanity?” Recalling his harrowing experiences in the concentration camps during the war, he advised, “Even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to have hope.” We must choose between perpetual warfare between adults and the right of children to grow up without fear. We must fight hatred with education, recognizing it may take many years for lessons to bear fruit.
Born in Rumania, Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz at age fifteen, taking in his bag a shirt and a Torah (the sacred book of Jewish law and tradition). Commenting on how he went on despite his experiences, he confessed that in France after the war, “I studied and studied and studied. This passion for study saved my sanity.” He went to refugee camps “collecting tears and tales…I didn’t understand a word they were saying but I understood every word.” He believes whatever happened in the past remains in the present and we can “do something” with memories. Saying he believes in language even though it is sometimes corrupted and poisoned, Wiesel maintained, “We decide whether to turn words into arrows or peace offerings.” He repeated his oft-said observation, “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference…The opposite of life is not death but indifference to life.”
Elie Wiesel has won the Nobel Peace Prize (1986), the United States Congressional Gold Medal (1985), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1992). He has established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity to advance the cause of human rights and peace throughout the world. Currently, he is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. Wiesel taught at City College in the 1970’s and has “very good memories” of his time there. Appropriately, following his address an announcement was made of a gift of $10 million from alumnus and television writer/producer Michael Ross to establish a Center for Jewish Studies and a Chair in Hebrew and Yiddish at City College.#