I look for my father’s wisdom as we approach this next chapter of the American story.
I find him quoted in media feeds and on handheld signs protesting injustice in all its forms. My father’s legacy seems to have never been more alive.
“We must always take sides,” he pleaded. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”
Last week, we all took sides, culminating in the largest election turnout ever in our history.
“Silence encourages the tormentor,” he warned. “Never the tormented.”
Today’s political dialogue suffers terribly, but not from silence.
“The opposite of love is not hate,” he wrote. “It is indifference.” Political arguments tear apart families and friendships, showing anything but indifference.
I am grateful for the political activists who still invoke my father. They honor him with the best of intentions. So why do I feel we have never been further from his legacy?
Suspicion and hostility surround us. One can quote my father yet belittle anyone who dares ask a question, explore a nuance, or refuse to align on every issue within a party platform.
“The Iran Deal is a concern for you?” one Democratic campaign staffer interrupted me in the middle of a conversation. “Then Joe is not your candidate.”
“American Jews who support Democrats are the worst,” asserted one commenter when I challenged readers to condemn Trump’s xenophobic comments. To question the President’s actions was to betray the Jewish people.
I watched pressure mount on Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, firmly on the left’s side of social issues for decades. His offense? He dared praise Trump’s Abraham Accords and, like my father, stand by the sanctity and privacy of his vote.
The message: If you’re not fully with me, then you’re against me — or at least, I’m against you.
We have banished people to the other side when they need not be there.
We are shouting away the silence but we have stopped listening.
Our hatred feeds the glow of self-righteousness.
Our fear, grief, and anger get the best of us. I am not immune.
What do you fear? What do you grieve? What angers you?
I fear runaway pollution, school shootings, a biased media, authoritarianism, and anarchy.
I grieve for families forcibly separated at the border and for the overwhelming majority of policemen and women falsely accused of racism simply for wearing their uniforms. I grieve for the victims of racial injustice and for the violence done to the person and property of others in their name.
I am angry that our ally Israel, the port of safety for every Jew in this world, was ignored by the Obama administration in favor of an enemy pledged to destroy her. I am angry that President Trump failed to repudiate racism or promote Covid safety. I am angry that antisemitism thrives, spread by the followers of David Duke and Louis Farrakhan.
It is right for us to speak up about the things we care most deeply about. And none of us are one-dimensional. My father understood that, which is why he revered questions more than answers. He wanted to understand the person he was dealing with, he wanted to hear their story, whether they were a taxi driver or a head of state.
We must learn to deal with people whose existence provokes us, whose choices offend us, whose actions make us turn away.
Hear my father’s restraint in this time of generational grievances:
“I do not believe in collective guilt,” he told the German Parliament, the children of our family’s murderers, twenty years ago. “Only the guilty and their accomplices are guilty, but surely not those who were not yet born, surely not their children. The children of killers are not killers, but children.”
“May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all,” he urged rather than excoriated President Reagan on the eve of the Presidential visit to an SS cemetery, “implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site?”
Together, my father and King Hussain opened the door for Ehud Olmert to discuss peace with Mahmoud Abbas, a Holocaust denier whose government pays terrorists for the Jewish blood on their hands. My father held his tongue.
We may have good reasons for being angry. When President-Elect Joe Biden reminded us on Thursday that our opponent is not our enemy but our fellow American, he channeled the legacy of my father more than many of either party’s fiercest advocates have in four years. I pray that everyone will set aside their scorn and listen to what this good and decent man is saying.
If you wish to truly honor my father’s legacy, I ask you: Do more than quote his words as you fight the injustice you choose to fight. Emulate him by extending the benefit of the doubt to your fellow American. Remember him by asking a question, by listening to the answer, and by letting some silence in.
Elisha Wiesel is the son of Marion and Elie Wiesel.