"I Am Against Fanatics": A Dialogue Between Elie Wiesel and Merle Hoffman on Abortion, Love and the Holocaust
The first time I heard it was in Detroit in 1982. The words shot out at me like bullets, creating an immediate mental image that could not be shared. I had just finished responding to Jerry Falwell on national television. He had asked me how I would feel "meeting my maker with the blood of thousands of babies on my hands" when the TV host turned to the audience for comments. The woman who rose was obviously distraught, her voice shaking. She relayed her own experience with abortion. The guilt still with her, the doctor's coldness, how "they" would not let her see her child - and then, extending her hand and pointing an accusing finger at me, she said "You - you are nothing but a Hitler to me".
Throughout the years, as the frustration, intensity and rhetoric of the antichoice movement has grown, there has been an ever-increasing tendency to liken abortion to the Holocaust. Individual women making private moral decisions are compared to the wholesale slaughter of the Jews during the Second World War. Recently, an abortion clinic in Westchester was labeled "Auschwitz on the Hudson," while antiabortion protest ors use Nazi insignias to make their points in front of clinics across the country. Pseudoscientific books have been written detailing Nazi experiments in concentration camps and their supposed similarities to procedures in abortion clinics, while Elie Wiesel the specter of Hitler's death camps abounds in terminology like "Abortoriums" and "Child Killing Centers."
These analogies are reinforced by radical, right-wing Christian ideology which preaches that "money-hungry Jews" are behind the abortion industry. Many times patients have been accosted outside Choices by the faithful screaming - "They're after blood money." If the patient happens to be African-American she is told, You are desecrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King."
The power of this rhetoric, backed by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church which gives financial and spiritual succor to participants in Operation Rescue and other radical antiabortion groups, results in clinic bombers stating that they plant bombs in clinics on Christmas to "Give a present to Jesus on His birthday."
This past June, the newly seated Archbishop of Brook lyn and Queens presented his antiabortion strategy in front of CHOICES at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Telling the press that his intention was not violence but the desire to pray for all the souls of the "murdered unborn," he and 1000 parishioners rhythmically recited the Hail Mary for two hours as surprised and distressed patients were escorted into the clinic through a gauntlet of religious supplicants!
Responding to my request for a meeting, Bishop Daily stated there was nothing ! to meet about "children were being killed." When a reporter asked about my charges that his "Vigil" was harassment and psychological abuse of women, Bishop Daily replied "I feel badly about that but think about what happened someone got killed there." (Long Island Catholic, 6/13/90).
"Someone got killed there?" Lives in struggle, economic deprivation, abuse, anxiety, despair, power, autonomy, love, survival women's lives these were the words that meant abortion to me not "Someone got killed." But when you live in difficult places, you don't close your mind; you listen and you try to understand. Try to understand all the different questions and all the conflicting answers.
It was with these and other questions that I went to meet Elie Wiesel. The day was unusually warm for November. I felt that the strangeness of the weather was somehow symbolic as if for this special encounter things should not be in their usual places.
I first met Elie Wiesel, as most of the world does, through his writing. As part of my studies in graduate school, I explored the nature of "endings." As I was sifting through hundreds of graduation speeches, one stopped me, moved me so profoundly that I was amazed. I don't remember a word of it now. I only remember that, from that moment in time, Elie Wiesel was important to me.
I learned that at the age of 14 he was wrenched from his studious Hasidic life in Sighet in the Carpathian Mountains and deported to Auschwitz for extermination simply because he was a Jew. That his first night in the camps, his mother and sister were gassed; later he watched his father bludgeoned to death, studied the Talmud from memory with another inmate and, after liberation, almost died from food poisoning, yet still managed to survive. For 10 years he lived in Paris, worked, studied, starved and kept silent. But his need for expression to tell the tale of the Camps, the horrors, the brutality, the unbelievable evil, and his burning desire to help prevent its re-occurrence while insuring that the world would not forget the victims drove him to write.
And it was to his writings that I turned while following his public and political activities. His appearance at the White House asking President Reagan to cancel his trip to Bittburg, because "his place was with the victims;" his testimony at the Klaus Barbie trial; and his lecture upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986 when he stated "The lesson, the only lesson I have learned from my experiences is twofold; first that there are no plausible answers to what we have endured. There are no theological answers, there are no psychological answers, there are no literary answers, there are no religious answers. The only conceivable answer is a moral answer. Second, that just as despair can be given to me only by another human being, hope too can be given to me only by another human being."
So I immersed myself in his writing, reading almost all of his 30 books in the past year. I was continually moved, enthralled and transported by his novels and analytic work which all spoke of his inner journey, his continual search for meaning and God in a world filled with evil and despair. His constant commitment to the moral dimension in life; to the "moral answer."
In a recent book, Journey of Faith, Wiesel and John Cardinal O'Connor engage in dialogue. O'Connor said that he agreed with Mother Theresa when she stated during her Nobel Prize ceremony that the "Greatest enemy to world peace is abortion," and that "We have created a mentality of violence massive, manipulated, propagandized movements that have brought about more than a million-and-a-half unborn deaths every year."
Reproductive freedom, women's lives, legal abortion are now not "merely killing," but a threat to world peace? Eve is not only to be blamed for the first fall, but for the likely nuclear one as well. Elie Wiesel didn't agree. The violence he was concerned about was the violence of the abortion debate itself. After reading that he had to think more about it and was "Not saying whether he was for or against," I decided that I had to meet with him and discuss it.
It seemed to me that he is a person unlike any other, and yet he shares the fate of millions and he also is a person of many more questions than answers. So it was with many conflicting, excited emotions that I got off the elevator on the 26th floor of his New York apartment building. When I turned left, the first thing I saw was an open door revealing a room with shelves and shelves of books. In front of that open door was a small, smiling, intense man. I took his hand, met his eyes and asked my first question.
You have said that you are uncomfortable with the violence of the abortion debate, but when John Cardinal O'Connor first came to New York he held a press conference in which he stated that legal abortion was the "Second Holocaust." How do you feel about abortion being likened to the genocidal slaughter of the Jews?
I am uncomfortable with the language of this debate. I resent the violence of the language the words that they use like Holocaust no it is not a Holocaust. It is blasphemy to reduce a tragedy of such monumental proportions to this human tragedy, and abortion is a human tragedy. What should be done is to give back the human proportion to the abortion issue, and when we see it as such we may be able to have much more understanding for the woman who chooses it.
Women who choose abortion are consistently labeled killers, and I personally have been compared to Hitler and called a great murderer.
A woman who feels she cannot go on, and with pain and despair she decides that she has to give up her child, is this woman a killer? Really really. But look, you cannot let these words hurt you. You have to be strong not to pay any attention because those who do that call you a Hitler and relate it to the Holocaust prove that they do not know what the Holocaust was.
You speak and write a great deal about silence. The silence of God during The Event. The silence of the Pope, of the church as they were slaughtering children. When I read what you wrote about them taking live children and throwing them in the fire that an act of "mercy" by an SS guard was to bash their heads against a rock so that they lost consciousness before this image will haunt me forever. So I wonder if it is at all possible that the church is so vehemently against abortion at this historical moment as a response to the indictment of their silence during the Holocaust. I don't like to speak for the church.
There are people who will speak for them. But that the church, the hierarchy of the church was silent yes. There were exceptions of course, there were some good courageous priests. John XXIII spoke out. Of course there were others who saved Jews and/or resisted Nazism.
But not enough.
The church in Rome at that time, the leaders, the Princes of the Church did not speak out. I am convinced if the Pope and the hierarchy had said "save the Jews," many priests in many villages would have done so.
In your conversation with Philippe deSaint-Cheron [a French journalist] in the recent book Evil & Exile you stated that in the Talmud it is written that it is better not to be born than to be born. It is more comfortable not to live. Can we relate this to abortion?
Actually, I was quoting a type of humor in the Talmud. There were two schools of thought among those who had nothing better to do for two-and-one-half years than to argue about whether or not it is better to be born or not to be born. The question is not whether to live or not to live, but whether or not to be born.
Because once you are born, you must live, and according to the Talmud, if you live you must study.
But this is not a question at all of whether or not to have children. The first law, the first commandment in the Bible is to have children.
When abortion was debated in 1977 in the Knesset in Israel, the antiabortionists articulated the feeling that abortion was annihilating the Jewish people, that there were no "unwanted" Jewish children and that how can we after the Holocaust, slaughter Jewish children in the womb?
Fanatics are all the same. These are fanatics. I am against fanatics everywhere. I don't understand these words: Abortionist, antiabortionist. Those who give women the right of choice he or she [sic] is an abortionist? What kind of articulation is that?
There is a feeling that women who choose abortions are not active moral agents. That women's reproductive capacities and women's lives are secondary to political ideology or religious morality.
I don't like generalizations. Some people feel that they need abortion. For them this is their morality. Other people say that for moral reasons they are against abortion. I don't like simplistic definitions.
But you have said that you feel abortion is a tragedy. Why?
For me the tragedy is for the mother, and there is a father involved also. I don't think that much about the child. I haven't thought about the child. I have to think it through. I cannot believe that there is a mother who does it lightheartedly. I simply cannot believe it. For the mother, it's difficult, very difficult, it must be. Therefore, once you accept that it is difficult, then it requires more thinking, more soul-searching. As for the child and the question of when is a child a child, this is a different subject which has to be dealt with but for the moment we are dealing with the mother; if she comes to the conclusion that she cannot have this child for whatever reason, then it is a tragedy.
Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies is that the majority of women make the decision of abortion for economic reasons, out of a struggle for survival, and a desire not to bring another child into the world without adequate means of support.
Exactly. We must improve the economic situation of the world, but at the same time, I tell you I understand I must understand it is my duty to understand those who are against abortion. I don't like the shouting, I don't like the cursing, I don't like the idea of saying anyone who is for abortion is a Hitler or that abortion is a Holocaust. I am very troubled by this. But their pain, too, must be taken into account.
In a sense I would be uncomfortable if people had no ethical dilemmas about abortion. It is a very profound issue.
Of course they should have. And I understand why there is a debate, but I don't want this debate to become so hostile. It is "war." I tell you I am getting letters all the time asking me to speak up against the "Holocaust of abortion." A debate doesn't bother me if it is civilized and humanizing, but just mention the word abortion and flames start to fly.
But there are possible areas of common ground. It would seem that the prevention of unwanted pregnancies would be an issue for both sides to join on, yet many antichoice people, particularly the Catholic Church, are violently against any type of "artificial" birth control.
Perhaps there should be a high level conference, but a quiet one, without publicity, without shouting.
Why don't you convene it? The leaders of the antichoice movement have refused to meet with us. Neither Cardinal O'Connor nor Bishop Daily will even respond to requests. You held an international conference on hatred recently was anything learned?
I think so because of the people I invited [Elana Bonner, Nelson Mandela]. My conferences are civilized. There is never a heated or violent word.
Unfortunately, this issue is very heated and has become very violent quite beyond words. Clinics have been firebombed and attacked and women patients are constantly accosted and harassed.
Exactly. I would really like to plead for more comprehension on both sides and stop using certain words.
Recently, to cap the "Year of the Child," there was a children's summit held at the UN where an International Bill of Rights of the Child was drafted and presented for all the countries of the world to sign. President Bush refused to sign it because it did not have an antiabortion platform and called for the abolition of the death penalty for anyone under 18 years of age. Your reaction?
I am crazy about children any children, especially Jewish children. When I see a child who is hungry I do whatever I can to help because I have seen too many Jewish children perish. As a result I feel outrage and pain when a child suffers. One of my main motivations for my work is to work for children. All children. And therefore, when I read about this children's summit, on the one hand I said to myself my God, the world has changed. When I was a child, Jewish children were handed over to the killers. There were no summits, no Presidents, no Prime Ministers to save them. There were times when we could have saved Jewish children for money. There was no money. For a few visas there were no visas. Nobody cared. Today people do care. There has been a change and I think that's good, but reading about the plight of children today I wish I could do more.
You have written that the very concept of love that the word itself may fade and disappear. What is your definition of love and what do you think is it's highest form of expression?
There is no real definition of love, for once you define it it disappears. The act of trying to define it diminishes it. It is a mystery, but it is a kind of identification with another person where that other person is as important as yourself and that person's life as important as yours. It means that I would exchange my life for hers. Does it mean sacrifice? Not at all. It means offering. Love is that. Every gesture becomes an offering.
You have also written that "The thing I learned about man in the camps is that evil, like good, is infinite and that the two are combined in man,"and also that "one man with a machine gun can kill a thousand sages." So if each one of us holds good and evil within us, aren't we all as individuals responsible for saving or destroying the world?
Absolutely. The purpose inherent in literature and education are human relations and the possibility of imparting the responsibility for one another. Evil is in all of us. No one is perfect no one is a saint. It is for each of us to fight that evil within. The choice presents itself to us every day. If I sit here with you it is my choice, whether it is the evil part within me (which I hope is small) that faces you, or the good part that faces you. It is also your responsibility to bring out the good part. It is a kind of symphony where all these relationships play their parts, the violins...the cellos...
But who is conducting?
Ah, that is the question, that is the question.
If God's divinity is expressed through humanity and ultimately through love, and, as you have said many times, "Everything died in Auschwitz," how can we expect love to save us?
My favorite words are "and yet." Everything died in Auschwitz and yet, yes there are reasons for me to despair, and yet yes there are reasons for me not to believe in God and yet, and yet...
Che Guevera has written that "The true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love." Do you believe it is possible for political systems to address social inequities? Can politics answer questions of equality and justice?
I am not a politician. I have never been involved in politics. I don't know much about it.
But you are an activist.
I try to act on politicians. I believe in the moral dimension of everything, literature, education, philosophy, whatever it is. Without it we are lost. Politics without moral dimensions are cheap, corrupt procedures. We need the moral dimension to prevent that.
There is a continual debate in this country, particularly acute in the abortion issue, about the separation of church and state. There are people who believe that you cannot bring your religion (which many people view as morality) into the political arena.
I am not speaking about religion. I am speaking about morality. I believe when religion becomes politics that is a disaster, and when politics becomes a religion it is also a disaster. We should separate both.
You have never called for hate, love or vengeance as a response to the Holocaust but faith and then you have written that the only punishment commensurate with the Holocaust is the destruction of the world. Aren't we coming close to that now with the events in the Middle East?
I am afraid of that but I believe once we realize how dangerous this is we could prevent it. But yes, there is no punishment for such a crime. The only punishment is that the whole world should be destroyed. I don't want it to be destroyed. I don't want any human being to be destroyed; that is why we must always remember the crime.
You have always said that we can never truly understand the Holocaust and then there are those who say that if we can truly understand it we must forgive it. But if we can never understand it how can we ever hope to prevent it from happening again?
We must always tell the story.
In your novel Twilight, Adam asks God to reconsider His creation. To take it back. He says that if the world were not created, being born only to die...trees will not be felled by men...animals will not be slaughtered". ..etc., etc. What do you think is the real purpose for us being on this planet?
I wish I knew. There are all kinds of answers. But I have been thinking about this question seriously. In the beginning, why did God create the world? What did He need it for? Philosophy, theology offer their own reasons, but there are no answers and once you don't have an answer you must ask the question what is the meaning of my life why am / here. You had better have an answer for that. You are here because you have to fight certain battles and I have mine. I want to enlarge the understanding of humanity. But we better know why we are here we have no right to say we don't know.
You have often said that "He or she who did not live through The Event will never know it and that he or she who did live through The Event can never reveal it". Do you think this paradox was in any way operative in the suicides of Primo Levi and Bruno Bettelheim?
I like paradoxes.
I know. You are a person who likes questions more than answers.
Bruno Bettelheim, I don't know. I never met him. Primo Levi yes, perhaps. Many writers who have written about the Holocaust have committed suicide. More than musicians and painters.
Why do you think this is?
Perhaps it is this paradox. A writer must reveal that is what he [sic] does communicate, and he or she can't communicate their experience. It is beyond their ability. I knew Primo Levi. We were together in the camps and later I felt that indeed he might commit suicide one day.
What is your attitude about the current struggle to feminize Judaism the recent actions at the Kotel the attempt to bring women into positions of spiritual authority?
I don't want to give apologia. I dislike easy answers. I would like to see a conclave of great Halachic and Rabbinic scholars and authorities to think about it. It may take two years so what? We are dealing with centuries. I would like to see that because it could be a way to show what is wrong and there are things that are wrong. According to Rabbinic law in Talmudic times (centuries ago) women could not serve as witnesses. What kind of injustice is this? A woman is a human being, isn't she?
And they also are not allowed to be heard singing.
Ah, but this is something else. We give them too much power. That means that if I hear a woman's voice I am supposed to be sexually aroused. So what so what?
You give us power on the one hand and then try to take it away on the other.
(laughing) We don't take it away, we try to convince you not to use it. But so what, if a woman is beautiful. I like women to be beautiful. Still, I think something has to be done about the role of women, but I would like it to come from the Orthodox community. Let them take up the subject and decide how much we should do. How far we should go.
What is your position on the reunification of Germany?
I am against it and was one of the few to say so publicly. It was done in haste and with a total insensitivity to those who survived the war. And the money involved. They bought Russia, they bought Eastern Germany. I don't trust Kohl. After all, he is the man of Bittburg, and what was Bittburg? Bittburg had only one purpose to whitewash the SS. But he wanted to rationalize it and show that many of these SS were just good soldiers good soldiers? They were termed a criminal group in the Nuremberg Trials; Kohl wanted to whitewash them and "normalize," sanitize their actions. A unified Germany in the hands of Kohl bothers me.
You have been severely criticized for not condemning Israel about the intifada. What is your current position on the Palestinian situation?
I have been criticized for many things...Yes, I refuse to systematically condemn Israel.
There are certain red lines that I will not cross. If I had known at the time that Israel was involved in torturing I would have spoken out, but it was too late. When I found out, a commission had already been formed and justice prevailed, but I don't feel I have the right to apply public pressure on Israel.
But you have the moral authority.
But what if I am wrong?
Can't you afford to be wrong?
Yes, but only if I pay the price. What if I am wrong and they pay the price? What if I apply such pressure on a decision and that decision may bring disaster or at least tragedy to Israel? Do I have the right to do this? It is their children who will pay the price, not mine. I do go to Israel and speak to the leaders there I can say what I feel. But here, especially here, I have no right to speak out publicly. As for the intifada, I have said on television and in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that I understand the young Palestinians. How did it start? It started in December 1987 when there was a high level meeting, a kind of summit meeting in Amman. The last item on the agenda was the Palestinian issue. The Palestinians were non-persons. There is nothing worse than that and that is why I said I understood the young Palestinians. They refused to be non-persons; then the violence started and they began throwing stones. Violence is a language. When there is no other language you use violence. But then I turned to them and pleaded, why don't you use words. Before, no one was listening now the whole world will listen to you. I did speak to Palestinians but I am offended when I see Jewish intellectuals who all of a sudden remember their Jewishness only to use that Jewishness to attack Israel. These are men and women who have never done anything for Israel all of a sudden they remember they are Jews.
What is your reaction to the assassination of Meir Kahane?
I didn't like Kahane. He was a man of hate and a racist. I was embarrassed by a man of such a reputation and I refused to engage him in debate. He is a Jew. I am a Jew. Something is wrong.
Do you mean to say a Jew cannot hate? Who should a Jew be in the world today?
A Jew should not hate. A Jew should be a human being. No Jew should be a racist. At the same time I am outraged by the violence that killed him. Those who assassinated him and those who hired the assassin. I am harsher on them than on Kahane, because they were the criminals, the murderers.
To what do you attribute the increasing rise of anti-Semitism in both Europe and the U.S.?
There will always be anti-Semitism always.
There are all kinds of answers. We are the world's conscience envy, jealousy all of them are true but still...there is something else. It is a complicated issue. It would take hours, days to analyze it here.
You said your teacher of mysticism taught you to love madmen. Explain.
I love madmen - mystical madmen - not those who destroy but those who create.
You say that "In the beginning I thought I could change man. Now I know that I cannot. If I still shout and scream it is to prevent man from changing me." Has man changed you?
People ask me so often if receiving the Noble Prize has changed me. Ten Noble Prizes would not change me but it has changed my schedule.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women's Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.
All Photos are taken from A Vanished World, copyright 1983 by Roman Vishniac published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. All rights reserved.
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