Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel says that in his private lunch meeting with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday, the president “wanted me to understand” his commitment to Israel. And the Holocaust survivor and memoirist wanted to share with his host (also a Nobel Peace Prize winner) how important Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, is to the Jewish people.
“I had a good feeling” about the long lunch, Wiesel, 81, told The Jewish Week the next day in the first one-on-one interview he granted since the lunch. “There was no small talk; it was all substance,” he said of the meeting, with just the two men in the room. “I spoke about what Jerusalem means to me. I said the Muslims have Mecca, and we have Jerusalem.”
He said that when he pointed out that Israel cannot sustain another catastrophe, the president “reiterated his total commitment to Israel and its security.”
The meeting was widely described in the media as part of the president’s effort to alleviate the concerns of, if not woo back, the pro-Israel community here, as well as the government in Jerusalem. Israeli officials are said to be distrustful of Obama after the very public criticism it received for announcing the building of new homes in east Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit to the region in early March.
Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to discuss the upcoming proximity talks with the Palestinians, and several high-level administration officials addressed national Jewish organizations this week.
But Wiesel said the timing of his private lunch with the president was proposed several months ago, and that the two men have had a very respectful relationship for several years.
Obama invited Wiesel to accompany him to the Buchenwald concentration camp last June 5, and the Holocaust survivor recalled that he was touched when the president asked him to “have the last word” that day. He spoke extemporaneously of his father’s death when they were together at Buchenwald, and Wiesel was just a teenager.
In The Jewish Week interview, Wiesel expressed disappointment with those in the Jewish community accusing Obama of anti-Israel sentiments. But he said he tries to distance himself from partisan politics.
“I am a free man,” he said several times, adding at one point: “I don’t like to be used.”
He said he is not afraid to speak out, noting that he criticized President Reagan to his face, publicly, 25 years ago, urging him not to visit Bitburg, a German cemetery that contained Nazi graves.
Wiesel said his recent full-page ad in several major newspapers here and in Israel extolling Jerusalem was written as “a declaration of love.” In the ad, he wrote that “for me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.
“I felt the need,” he said, adding that he was not asked to compose the ad, and did not coordinate it with anyone else. (Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, published full-page ads in some of the same newspapers that week critical of Obama’s recent treatment of Israel.)
Wiesel pointed out that his Jerusalem statement was “not a letter to, or against, the president, and was not a political act” but rather a personal tribute to the history of the holy city and its deep ties to the Jewish people.
But the letter asserted that “pressure will not produce a solution” and that it would be a mistake to “tackle” the future of Jerusalem first in peace talks. “Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue,” he wrote, for a time when some trust had been established between the Israeli and Palestinian people?
Wiesel said he wrote that because he had heard, while visiting Israel during Passover, that the U.S. planned to have the two parties deal with Jerusalem first when they resumed talks.
“It worked,” he said with a smile, saying the White House reassured him that would not be the case.
While Wiesel downplayed his role as a diplomat — “Who am I to influence high-level negotiations?” — he said his advice for Obama was not to push Israel, suggesting that Israelis know how to resist pressure but may be more susceptible to “seduction.”
As for advice for the Palestinian Authority? “Change the textbooks” that demonize Israel and Jews, he said.
Wiesel said he is familiar with the criticism of his Jerusalem statement, including a full-page ad by former Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Sarid, sponsored by the J Street Education Fund, but he had no public response.
Sarid’s tone was somewhat mocking, portraying Wiesel as naïve.
He charged that Wiesel had not taken into account the negative treatment of Arabs in Jerusalem, and wrote that “nothing in our world is above politics” and that Wiesel’s description of Jerusalem “confuse(s) fundamental issues and confound(s) the reader.”
In response, Wiesel said only that Sarid “had a right to say what he said.”
Describing the state of Jewish life today, Wiesel said it was “unique in Jewish history,” with its combination of “hope, power and anguish,” a time when Israel is both flourishing economically and vulnerable existentially.
He repeated his assertion that Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who threatens to annihilate Israel, should be arrested and tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.
“Maybe there was a time like this after the Churban,” he said, referring to the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem,” but perhaps not since then.
“We carry our memories,” he said, “into every minute of our being.”