Sunday, July 03, 2016

Elie Wiesel, Forum2K and Tolerance

When I was a Junior at Brandeis, I spent my Fall Semester studying in Prague.  I had visited the city a few years prior, on a post-Year Course jaunt through Europe.  I had fallen in love with the city and could not wait to return.

That Fall was 2001, and I spent September 11 in Prague as the hinges of history swung.  Shortly after 9/11, there was a major event in Prague called Forum2K.

Forum2K was a star-studded event of the global who's-who.  There were Nobel Prize winners sitting on panels next to dissidents, activists and former and current presidents.

Playwright-turned-Dissident-turned-President Vaclav Havel was there.

I hung out with former South African President F.W. deKlerk (" ended Apartheid, eh?  Got an extra cigarette?").

I saw former President Clinton electrify the room, and show his off his remarkable political gifts; as he spoke, the room hung on his every word--every guy wanted to be him and every girl wanted to be with him as we all sat in rapt attention.

I even snuck my way to sit on a panel with Shimon Peres and the Jordanian former-Crown Prince Hassan, because a man in a three-piece suit always belongs.

At the events, as we weighed where the world was stood post-September 11, I will never forget the diminutive Nobel Prize Elie Wiesel's remarks.  Wiesel spoke softly but forcefully about "tolerance" in the wake of 9/11.  He said words I will never forget:

I don't like the term 'tolerance.'  Who am I to "tolerate" anyone?  I prefer acceptance.  Acceptance is an action with more power and meaning than to simply "tolerate" someone else.

I will never forget his sentiments in those heady days as we groped to understand where the world was heading.  Wiesel's ideas stood out at the time, amid powerful people, words and speeches, that we should not passively tolerate the "Other" but rather actively accept those different from ourselves.

PS: I have one other memory of Elie Wiesel but not one that he was present for.  Years later, when I worked at the Israeli Consulate in Houston, I was on a flight back to DC.  An African-American girl was sitting next to me on the plane.  She was reading Wiesel's Night.  Curious, I asked her if she was reading it for school.  She smiled, and said: no, she was reading it because she had seen him on Oprah, and was so moved by his words and life that she picked up his book.

PPS: A three-piece suit can sneak you into many things, but the one thing it couldn't take me into was my way into a meeting between Havel, Peres and Wiesel.  After the panel, I was in the hallway.  I watched the three of them walk down the hall past me, and into an adjacent room together to chat. The heavy ornate door was shut behind them by security.  I tried to connive my way in to be a fly on the wall of that tête-à-tête but not even my bullshitting skills are that good.

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