In this highly personal tract, Elie Wiesel argues that anti-Semitism, which he has devoted his life to exposing and destroying, is still with us

At the end of his magnificent and disturbing novel The Plague, Albert Camus issues a warning. His hero, the famous humanist Dr Rieux, who survived the death of many of his friends and adversaries is now, at the very end of his story, walking in the city, remembering and listening to the cries of joy rising from the town. All of a sudden, says Camus, Rieux remembered:

“That such joy is always imperilled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good. That it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests, that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves and that perhaps the day would come when for the bane and the enlightening of man it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” And that is also true of anti-Semitism.

Who doesn’t know, if he or she has a sense of history, that anti-Semitism is a social disease and a theological aberration that all decent and intelligent societies are duty-bound to confront and eliminate?

I am convinced that we share the same concern over its possible impact on today’s generation.

What is it about anti-Semitism that it is still alive? Days come and go, cultures change – as do political systems – yet the hatred toward Jews remains almost intact. So we try to understand: why is the oldest collective hate-obsession in history still incurable and immune to change? What makes it so popular, so attractive, so seductive in so many circles?

May I confess to you that, in this respect, I was naïve? I allowed myself to believe in man’s capacity for reason and self-protection. Oh yes, in 1945, immediately after the defeat of Hitler’s Germany I became hopeful. I know: it sounds strange, even absurd. And unreal. If ever a Jew had all the motives in the world to submit to despair, it was then. Victims of hatred and indifference, 6 million men, women and children had been murdered only because they were Jewish. For them, being had become a crime punishable by death. The House of Israel was in mourning. Entire communities, some 2,000 years old, vanished in a tempest of fire. For the first time in our history, our dead were not buried in cemeteries. Our hearts were their cemeteries.

And yet.

Somehow, deep down in my wounded soul, I felt an absurd optimism. I said to myself: there are certain lessons the world has learned from what happened. Never again will big nations go to war to conquer and oppress small nations. Never again will children die of starvation and violence. Never again will racism dominate policy. Never again will political fanaticism be an accepted national philosophy. Never again will Jews have to fight anti-Semitism, for now the whole world knows its nefarious consequences.

That was my hope. Hence my question: if Auschwitz hasn’t cured mankind of anti-Semitism, what will?

Its history is old, almost ageless. It transcends both time and geography, religions and cultures, political theories and social spheres. From Egypt’s Pharaohs to Nabouchodnosor of Babylon to Torquemada in Spain to Hitler and Stalin, Jews lived in danger. In ancient Greece and Rome, Jews were accused by pagan historians, including the great Tacitus, of being implacable enemies of mankind. There wasn’t an era in which a Jewish community somewhere had not been persecuted, humiliated, expelled or driven to death.

The reasons invoked? Disregarding not only truth but also logic, they combined all possible contradictions. To some, we were too rich; to others, we were too poor. Too religious and not enough. Too Jewish and too assimilated. Too learned and too ignorant. Too nationalistic and too universalist. Both too rational and irrational, chosen by both God and Satan. To Hitler, we were all communists, and to Stalin, too anti-communist. They were mortal enemies – yet both hated Jews.

The anti-Semite is by definition ideologically fanatical and pathologically racist. In the beginning, for a while, people thought that suicide-terrorists are not so dangerous since their target is just Israel the State, or Israel the people. Now everybody realizes that suicide-terror is a threat to other people as well.

For such is the reality of hatred: it is like a cancer that goes from limb to limb, from person to person, from community to community. If not stopped, it could and would destroy villages and cities, both near and far.

That is why I believe that hatred of Jews must be denounced not only for our sake but also for the sake of others. As is the case with any organized prejudice and bigotry, it ultimately reflects on the nation in which it grows; it becomes its moral barometer. For history has taught us that he who hates, hates everybody. He who hates Jews will end up hating blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, homosexuals, Gypsies, Turks and Arabs, and ultimately himself.

The answer? Whatever it is, education is its major component. Is it sufficient? Haven’t we learned that many of the SS killers had college degrees? So I suggest we come back to the question I raised earlier: if Auschwitz did not put an end to anti-Semitism, racism and hatred – what can and what will?

Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel is a human rights activist and an author of the internationally acclaimed memoir Night as well as of more than 40 other books of fiction and non-fiction. His tireless efforts have been recognized by numerous awards including the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.