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Interview With Elie Weisel

Aired April 14, 2002 - 08:27   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: A huge rally called We Stand With Israel will be held in Washington tomorrow to show support with the Jewish state.

Elie Weisel will speak at tomorrow's rally, and this morning the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner joins us from New York.

Sir, it's a pleasure and an honor to have you with us this morning.


PHILLIPS: Well, looking back at history, considering your background, what concerns you the most about what is happening in the Middle East right now?

WEISEL: Well, the main problem is suicide bombings. I call suicide bombers suicide killers. They kill. They kill and therefore they commit suicide as well.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: There have been statements made on both sides, and often times the equation is made or the parallel is made to Nazi Germany. I'm just curious what your thoughts are when that term is invoked, particularly from your perspective.

WEISEL: I think it's scandalous, absurd. That means they don't know what really happened. They haven't probably read the first book on the subject.

You cannot compare. It is impossible to compare.

O'BRIEN: I mean, it is, in many ways, an injustice to people such as yourself, who endured the Holocaust, to invoke that term, almost casually.

WEISEL: I think, simply, they insult all of us, all of those who were there, all those who know anything about it, and our children, the witnesses, the grandchildren, the historians and the witnesses.

That means simply that those who use that language with regards to the situation today, it means that they don't know. They are ignorant and also mean. It is mean to say what they are saying.

I am not against ideas. If they have ideas, then they may voice them. If they have beliefs, of course they may speak about them. But this comparison is so out of place, I wouldn't even dignify it in a debate.

PHILLIPS: Well, sir, looking at both sides here, do you think that neither side recognizes the humanity of each other any more?

WEISEL: I think there is, first of all, on every side, a certain amount, a certain element of people that do recognize the humanity, and they feel very bad about it. I know only the side of the Israelis.

I know that whatever they do now, they do it with pain, with very great pain and anguish. They have no choice.

If I knew what to do to disarm the suicide bombers, I would surely say it to Prime Minister Sharon. But I don't know. I know one thing, that even war has limits. Terrorism should be outlawed. But even in terrorism, suicide bombing is the worst part of terrorism, and that should be outlawed and discarded.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Weisel, I'm just curious, if you hold much optimism right now. There seems to be a slim glimmer of hope emerging from this meeting we've been talking about all this morning, but set that against the context of what we've seen over the past 18 months, and it's probably very difficult to walk away with much optimism.

I'm curious what you are thinking right now.

WEISEL: Well, oftentimes, close to despair, but beyond despair there must be hope. You know, the Pandora's box, on the bottom of the box, of all the curses, there is hope. So there must be hope.

And for the moment, whatever we must give our children, our young students, and your viewers, is that hope is not only possible, it's a commandment. We must continue to hope.

PHILLIPS: Do you think that Yasser Arafat can move forward as a leader who can gain control of these factions, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and move forward in a peaceful way?

WEISEL: Let him try. He hasn't tried yet. Until now, he was on the side of the suicide bombers. And there is evidence of course in the hands of the Israelis.

Let him try. Let him really try. And say, OK, they're asking that the Palestinians must do to try to regain confidence in themselves and obtain sovereignty. They will one day. But he must try, and say suicide bombing is out of place. It's only in his hands.

O'BRIEN: Well, Mr. Weisel, I'm curious, because many people in Israel, particularly on the conservative side of things, would like to completely bypass Yasser Arafat now and search for some other leadership to represent the Palestinians.

The statement consistently is that Arafat can no longer be an honest partner for peace. Do you feel that he is entitled to another opportunity to come to the table?

WEISEL: Well, if I had to negotiate, I would not negotiate with him. I've never met him. I don't want to meet him. Because he disappointed me too much.

You know, I was for the Oslo agreement, and I believed in him then. But now I don't.

However, there are, I know, there are younger people, I know about a man in Jerusalem, Mr. Masabai (ph), a man who is the head of al-Kutz (ph). I hear his words, and I think he deserves our faith, our trust.

But for the moment I think he is the elected official, as I hear from the others. And if he is the elected president, what can one do? I think he is the only one that Israel or the United States can deal with, so let them. I wouldn't.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this, from your perspective, the other thing you hear consistently is that from Arafat's perspective and from Sharon's perspective, if you look at their resumes, they're both warriors. They have made careers on being warriors, and to some extent perhaps may not be equipped or capable or even desirous of becoming peacemakers. Do you see it that way?

WEISEL: No. I do not like -- I wouldn't like to see this huge tragedy reduced to personalities. This is a clash of ideologies, of beliefs, of histories, not at all.

Also, I met Prime Minister Sharon, actually last week. I was in Jerusalem, I met him. I think he would like to be remembered now as a man of peace. And therefore, he repeated many times that for peace, he would make painful sacrifices. And he repeated those words, painful sacrifices.

So I don't think that that's the problem. The problem is, how does one bring these two communities together, and see to it that one could not become the aggressor, the victimizer, of the other? I know the Israelis would surely accept a good peace plan, and give them what they deserve, the dignity and the sovereignty, that they deserve. But I don't see with whom, for the moment.

PHILLIPS: Mr. Weisel, I definitely want to talk about the Days of Remembrance. You're talking about bringing communities together. You are chairman of this. The Days of Remembrances started last week. We've been talking about it throughout the week.

WEISEL: I'm not the chairman. I used to be chairman of the President's Initiative on the Holocaust, but I am no longer chairman. But I spoke there.

PHILLIPS: You spoke, that's right, last week. Forgive me.

Let's talk about this, and what you hope, as the last day enters today, of these Days of Remembrance, what people will remember and reflect on. And do you feel that you did accomplish your goal in the past week, with this special tribute?

WEISEL: That week, actually, was the result of my negotiations, so to speak, with President Carter, when he established the President's Commission on the Holocaust. I wanted to have an annual civic remembrance ceremony in the Rotunda.

It happens almost every single year, we have that ceremony. And it brings, of course, people together, from all walks of life, from all segments of society. But the main object, the main goal of Holocaust education, or even writing of testimonies, is to sensitize the reader, to sensitize the student, to sensitize anyone who wants to know anything, not only about the past, but about the present and the future.

Anyone who knows what happened to one people, and to other people, but in a different level, will not be seduced by certain theories, by certain ideologies, or certain instincts of singling out a community, and hate, and continue with hate, to try to attain political goals or racial goals. So that is really the objective of our work.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Weisel, one final thought from you. Mr. Sharon told you that Israel is prepared to make great sacrifices for peace. I'm not sure if he was specific, but even if he wasn't, what do you suppose those sacrifices might be?

WEISEL: I don't know, but I feel for the moment -- I really don't know. He didn't tell me, and I don't know.

But one thing I can tell you, that tomorrow they're going to have a huge demonstration in Washington. I'll speak there, too. More than 100,000 people will come. It's not against the president. On the contrary, we are coming there to support the president's fight against terrorism, and I am for that fight.

In general, I am against war, I have seen what war is. It's grotesque, it's ugly, it's corpses and orphans and widows. I'm against it. But I am for this fight against terrorism.

Therefore, we are coming to Washington to say to the president, please go on. And terrorism is terrorism. And we must stop it.

O'BRIEN: Author, professor, Holocaust survivor ...

PHILLIPS: Humanitarian.

O'BRIEN: And Nobel Laureate. That's an impressive resume. I just touched upon it.

Elie Weisel, thank you so much for being with us.

WEISEL: Thank you so much.

PHILLIPS: A pleasure.




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