Wiesel, Rushdie Debate at Wiesenthal Fundraiser

Published: June 1st 2010
in Culture » Society

Wiesel & Rushdie
Pic: Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center
Audience at Spirit of Hope Benefit
Pic: Friends on Simon Wiesenthal Center

On a day when the State of Israel has been criticized from all corners, it was a peaceful change of pace to hear two of the world’s most well-respected intellectual authors speak highly of Israel and the Jewish people.


Last night, the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center held its annual Spirit of Hope benefit dinner at Beth Tzedec Synagogue in Toronto. The evening was moderated by former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, with controversial novelist Sir Salman Rushdie and Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Sir Elie Wiesel as the guest speakers.


Following a dinner for 648 guests, who raised over $2 million for the SWC, Wiesel and Rushdie spoke in front of 2,400 people in the main auditorium about freedom of speech, intolerance and the situation with Iran. Previous to the panel discussions, there was a feeling in the room that those in attendance were about to experience a once-in-a-lifetime evening, and they weren’t disappointed.


On the same day as a report by Justice Oliphant found that Mulroney’s dealings with lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber were “inappropriate,” Mulroney received boisterous laughs when he asked at the start of the discussion panel “And how was your day?” Mulroney proceed to take control of the room with a passionate speech about Canada’s Jewish history, its human rights records and a powerful story about former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and his acceptance and respect for Hitler and the Nazi regime.


Following Mulroney’s introduction speech was a panel discussion where the former PM asked questions of Wiesel and Rushdie. Their answers to all questions were insightful, thought-provoking and in some cases, disheartening. When speaking of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his threat to Israel, Wiesel recalled a story of a European diplomat who met with Ahmadinejad and asked him if and when he receives nuclear weapons, does he plan to use them? And surprising to some, his answer was blunt and truthful. He told the diplomat that when he has nuclear weapons he plans on using them on Tel Aviv. The diplomat told him that Israel would retaliate with their full force, and Ahmadinejad replied that he expects them to and that he realizes that they will lose anywhere between 1 million to 10 million Iranian civilians, but he’s willing to sacrifice them since the Islamic population numbers over 1.2 billion people.


It was insights like these that held the audience captive. Speaking of freedom of expression, a topic Rushdie is well-versed in as he famously had a fatwa placed on him in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses, the author said, “It’s going to be completely wrong to attack people because of their beliefs but the beliefs themselves seems to be like any intellectual system, open up to debate, criticism, satire…In an open society, that’s how it goes.”


When asked about the fatwa and why it was placed on him, Rushdie held that the novel was a piece of fiction, and there are at least eight to ten layers of fiction which disassociate the novel from any non-fictional religion. “In some ways, you could call it a category mistake. People treating fiction as if it were non-fiction and drawing conclusions from that,” said Rushdie.


Wiesel, author of 57 books including the novel Night, said that the world is seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism, has not learned from the Holocaust and has repeated the same mistakes in Rwanda, Darfur and Cambodia. “Evil has more imagination than goodness, but it is up to us to change that aspect of history,” said Wiesel.

Related articles: (Wiesel, Rushdie, Simon Wiesenthal, Spirit of Hope, Mulroney)
Share with friends Print this page Read later Recommend 2 times