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Have You Learned The Most Important Lesson Of All?
by Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureate Elie WieselThis page was compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry. You can click here to read his essay: "What I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving World Peace."

First I would like to congratulate you. For you and your parents, the day of your graduation should be marked by joy and celebration. Your years of study and work have brought triumph, which rewards you, honors your teachers and brings pride to your families.

And now you are ready to say farewell to your classmates and face both the privileges and obligations society will feel entitled to place upon you.

How will you cope with them?

May I share with you one of the principles that governs my life? It is the realization that what I receive I must pass on to others. The knowledge that I have acquired must not remain imprisoned in my brain. I owe it to many men and women to do something with it. I feel the need to pay back what was given to me. Call it gratitude.

Isn't this what education is all about?

There is divine beauty in learning, just as there is human beauty in tolerance. To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.

You and I believe that knowledge belongs to everybody, irrespective of race, color or creed. Plato does not address himself to one ethnic group alone, nor does Shakespeare appeal to one religion only. The teachings of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. do not apply just to Indians or African-Americans. Like cognitive science, theoretical physics or algebra, the creations and philosophical ideas of the ages are part of our collective heritage and human memory. We all learn from the same masters.

In other words, education must, almost by definition, bring people together, bring generations together.

Education has another consequence.

My young friends, I feel it is my moral duty to warn you against an evil that could jeopardize this generation's extraordinary possibilities. That evil is fanaticism.

True education negates fanaticism.

Literature and fanaticism do not go together. Culture and fanaticism are forever irreconcilable. The fanatic is always against culture, because culture means freedom of spirit and imagination, and the fanatic fears someone else's imagination. In fact, the fanatic who wishes to inspire is ultimately doomed to live in fear, always. Fear of the stranger, fear of the other, fear of the other inside him or her.

Fanaticism has many faces: racism, religious bigotry, ethnic hatred. What those faces have in common is an urge to replace words with violence, facts with propaganda, reason with blind impulses, hope with terror.

For a while we might have believed that fanaticism was on its decline. It is not. Quite the contrary, it is on the rise in our cities, in our country and in our world.

In Western Europe—in Germany and France, Belgium and Austria—we are seeing a resurgence of yesterday's demons of fascism and intolerance. In Eastern Europe, ethnic factions are rekindling old conflicts. In the Middle East, deeply held hatreds seem ever on the verge of sparking more raging conflagrations. "It's us against them" has been taken as an essential truth. Strangers are being greeted with animosity almost everywhere.

Let us look at our own country. As this last decade of a century, which is also the last decade of a millennium, runs to its dazzling dénouement, we seem ever more divided. Can't all our citizens—white Americans and African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians, Jews and Christians, Jews and Moslems, young and old—live together, work together and face together their common challenges? Must they—must we—constantly subject ourselves to useless social tensions and dangerous ideological conflicts that could turn joy into dust and creation into ashes?

We face many difficulties and must find answers to thorny questions if our nation is to flourish: What has happened to our economy? What went wrong with elementary and secondary education? Why are so many youngsters seduced by crime? By drugs? By hate? Why is there so much bloodshed in so many quarters?

The answers to these questions do not lie with the clichés, senseless stereotypes and absurd accusations that are being used to justify religious or ethnic hatred. Evil forces are at work—some, to my embarrassment, unleashed by my fellow teachers—and something must be done to heal the effect of their poisonous theories.

In the New York City neighborhood of Crown Heights last year, a black child was killed when a car driven by a Hasidic Jew went out of control and jumped the curb. Already strained tensions between the black and Hasidic communities exploded. A young Hasidic man was killed, and a black man was arrested for the murder. For days and weeks, the streets were filled with scenes of violence and hatred. The incidents left deep scars.

We must ask ourselves if we, as a nation, want to be reduced to addressing our problems with violent actions. Will we allow street wars at home to succeed armed conflicts abroad?

As a Jew, I have witnessed the consequences of anti-Semitism, which is one of the oldest group-prejudices in history. We Jews have been accused of many sins. Now we are perceived as the group that wields more power than any other. I have heard good people say this—decent people, intelligent people. Don't they know that not all Jews have power? That not all those who have power are Jewish? Haven't they heard of poor Jews who are unable to make ends meet? Who live on welfare?

African-Americans have been subjected to centuries of racism. Today, some blame the victims for the problems of our country. Don't they know that most African-Americans are hardworking, good citizens? That the tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles, born of injustice, is just that, a tragedy? That important parts of American culture—from music to language to literature to fashion—have been created by African-Americans?

I insist: All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. And racism is stupid, just as it is ugly. Its aim is to destroy, to pervert, to distort innocence in human beings and their quest for human equality.

Racism is misleading. There are good people and bad people in every community. No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. We all come from somewhere, and we all wonder where we are going.

I know: You have been tested during your years in school, more than once. But the real tests are still ahead of you. How will you deal with your own or other people's hunger, homelessness, sexual or gender discrimination, and community antagonisms?

The world outside is not waiting to welcome you with open arms. The economic climate is bad; the psychological one is worse. You wonder, will you find jobs? Allies? Friends? I pray to our Father in heaven to answer "yes" to all these questions.

But should you encounter temporary disappointments, I also pray: Do not make someone else pay the price for your pain. Do not see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties. Only a fanatic does that—not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism. You know that fanaticism leads to hatred, and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.

I speak to you as a teacher and a student—one is both, always. I also speak to you as a witness.

I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become your future.

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