Opinion

OPINION | ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ

A tribute to humanity’s teacher

Elie Wiesel attends a symposium of Jewish-Hungarian solidarity in Budapest's parliament in 2009.
LASZLO BALOGH PHOTO/REUTERS
Elie Wiesel attends a symposium of Jewish-Hungarian solidarity in Budapest's parliament in 2009.

ELIE WIESEL was my teacher, my “rabbi,” my mentor, my colleague, and my dear friend. Over the past 50 years, we worked together on numerous human rights projects. Elie did more to bring the word “human” into human rights than any person in modern history. For him, it did not matter whether the victims of genocide were Jews, Christians, Muslims, black, white, from the left, or from the right. Human rights were equally applicable to all.

Elie was deeply involved in campaigns on behalf of the victims of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and the Middle East. My last substantive conversation with him was about the genocide currently taking place in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being slaughtered by both sides of an intractable conflict. He bemoaned the unwillingness of the international community to stop the slaughter. “Have we learned nothing?” he asked rhetorically. For Elie Wiesel, the worst sin was silence in the face of evil. The worst crime was indifference to genocide, and the worst people were those who stand idly by the blood of their neighbors. Though he and his family were victims of the Holocaust, he never dwelled on his personal pain, but rather on the pain of those currently being victimized.

I first met Elie after the publication of his book “The Jews of Silence,” which dealt with the plight of Soviet Jews who were being persecuted in the Soviet Union. He inspired me to go to the Soviet Union with a legal team in order to defend those who were being criminally prosecuted for doing nothing more than practicing their religion. We continued to work together on matters involving non-Jewish victims of persecution around the world. I began as his student, and then became his colleague, and finally his friend. We shared a world view and a commitment to repairing a badly damaged planet. He would call me on the phone frequently to complain that we were not doing enough. He always wanted to do more.

Advertisement

Elie Wiesel was one of the most important people in the post-World War II period. He spoke truth to power, regardless of who was in power. He loved and respected President Ronald Reagan, and yet he lectured him and urged him not to go to Bitburg, Germany, to commemorate the Nazi killers who were in the SS. He spoke up when others were silent. He spoke up for those for whom no one else championed. For that he justly received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

I was honored to be among those who nominated him for that prize, which he used as a platform to rail against injustice. He spoke softly — so softly that one had to lean forward to hear his hushed tones. But what he said inspired, stimulated, and produced results. He saved many lives by his quiet advocacy. He called world leaders on the phone and persuaded them to act, taking no credit for their life-saving actions.

Among his most enduring contributions will be his great memoir “Night,’’ which has become required reading in many schools around the world and has influenced many young people to join the enduring battle against injustice.

Elie did so many things in his life. He wrote books, he advocated for justice, he ran a foundation for humanity with his wonderful wife, Marion. But whenever he was asked what his job was, he would reply, “I am a teacher.” He loved to teach more than anything else. He loved his students and his students love him. He saw the world as a large classroom, with his role as one of its teachers. Shortly before his final illness, Elie and I agreed to teach a course together at Boston University. We had scheduled the first preliminary joint lecture, but his illness required a postponement. It was never to be. But even in death, professor Elie Wiesel will continue to teach generations of students through his passionate writing and by his uncompromising example.

I will miss my friend Elie every day of my life. The world will miss Elie Wiesel for as long as the quest for justice continues.

Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus of law at Harvard University and author of “Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.’’