When Passion Is Dangerous
by Elie Wiesel
page was compiled
and edited by
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
There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
Fanaticism is all around us, and only we ourselves can
stem it. That is because the hatred that underlies this ancient scourge is of
human origin, and only human beings can trace its contours, measure its depth
and realize its dangers before disarming it.
It flourishes today in lands near and far, and its victims
are counted by the tens of thousands. Riots in Armenia and Azerbaijan, bloodshed
in Yugoslavia, political convulsions in India, depredations against the Kurds in
Iraq—all of these must be seen in the horrible context of a rising fanaticism.
Paradoxically, the current decade—the last of this
century and this millennium—started rather well. A contagious current of
liberty ran across much of the world, bringing glasnost
and perestroika in the Soviet Union, the
victory of Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, the courageous student demonstration
in China, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the growing strength of intellectual
voices in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the fall of dictatorships in
Then came the disenchantment and the reversion to old
patterns, reflected in the bloody repression in Beijing (which was accepted too
fast by the so-called civilized world); the disturbing turnabouts in Soviet
politics; the pardons of war criminals in Lithuania; the resurgence of
anti-Semitism in Poland, Romania and Hungary; and the stirrings of racism in
Germany, in France, in England and even in Scandinavia. What has become of the
rising hope shared by so many? Was it, too, the victim of fanaticism on an
Forgive me if I expand a bit on the phenomenon of
anti-Semitism—the oldest collective prejudice in history, one I've known since
childhood. Anti-Semitic fanaticism has passed through various phases over the
centuries. The religious anti-Judaism of the Middle Ages has given way to a
political anti-Semitism aimed at the State of Israel—although those who mount
the attack may claim to be "merely" anti-Zionist. This political
anti-Semitism is followed in its turn by an historical anti-Semitism that seems
to me the most vicious and injurious of all. For historical anti-Semitism
assaults the memory Jews hold of their own past suffering, as in the Holocaust.
Its practitioners almost seem to become envious of those sufferings, first
crying out, "The Jews are not the only ones who have suffered"; then,
"Others have suffered more than the Jews"; and finally, "Others
have been made to suffer by the Jews." Thus we are advised to speak
more softly, to de-Judaize Jewish experience. If these new anti-Semites succeed
in imposing their will, a Jew will no longer be able to speak of the Jewish
Let us return to the problem of fanaticism in general by
considering the question of whether fanaticism is nothing but a conviction
pushed to excess—whether there exists a precise point at which the one is
allowed to overflow into the other.
I would say that an idea becomes fanatical the moment it
minimizes or excludes all the ideas that confront or oppose it. In religion, it
is dogmatism; in politics, totalitarianism. The fanatic deforms and pollutes
reality. He never sees things and people as they are; his hatred makes him
fabricate idols and images so ugly that he can become indignant about them. In
his eyes he, and only he, has the right to put his ideas into action, which he
will do at the first opportunity.
One can encounter fanaticism in the framework of all
monotheistic religions—Christian, Jewish, Moslem—and extremism in any form
revolts me. I turn away from persons who declare that they know better than
anyone else the only true road to God. If they try to force me to follow their
road, I fight them. Whatever the fanatic's religion, I wish to be his adversary,
Does that mean I want to debate with him? My experience is
that the fanatic hides from true debate. The concept of dialogue is alien to
him. He is afraid of pluralism and diversity; he abhors learning. He knows how
to speak in monologues only, so debate is superfluous to him.
Yes, the fanatic is passionate. But his passions can
be dangerous. In religion, love is neither the problem nor the solution. The
problem is exaggerated love, fanatical love, which turns religion into a
personal battlefield that is dangerous to others and demeaning to the very faith
it professes to cherish.
If religious fanaticism hides the face of God, so does
political fanaticism destroy human liberty. In fact, there are some who,
seeking to combat religious fanaticism, battle it with another kind of
fanaticism that is equally evil. We cannot yield to fanaticism of any type.
Fanaticism is a basic element of every dictatorship. In science, it serves
death; in literature, it twists truth; in history, it tells lies; in art, it
The fanatic never rests and never quits; the more he
conquers, the more he seeks new conquests. For him to feel free, he must put
everyone else into prison—if not physically, at least mentally. In doing
so, he never realizes that he himself is in jail, as a guard if not as a
prisoner. A fanatic has answers, not questions; certainties, not hesitations.
In dictatorial regimes, doubts were considered crimes against the state.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche expressed it this way: Madness
is the result not of uncertainty but certainty. Substitute the word
fanaticism for madness, and the equation holds.
Now, on the threshold of the 21st century, it is our
responsibility to combat the spreading cancer of fanaticism, which blocks the
future of our children and ourselves. It must be constantly fought, because
it leads to dehumanizing, degrading and contagious hatred. Nothing good, nothing
worthy, nothing creative can be born of hatred. Hatred begets hatred. That is
why we must keep it from our doors, send it away, repel it, disarm it—vanquish
it before we even see the shadow of its shadow.
How can we do this? By celebrating, cherishing,
defending the liberty of others—of all
others. At stake is our cultural, ethical and moral future.
Let me conclude with a Midrashic story (of Rabbi Shimon bar
Yohai), retold by the great Hasidic storyteller Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav:
A man is on a boat. He is not alone but acts as if he were.
One night, he begins to cut a hole under his seat. His neighbors shriek:
"Have you gone mad? do you want to sink us all?" Calmly he
answers them: "I don't understand what you want. What I'm doing is none of
your business. I paid my way. I'm only cutting under my own seat."
What the fanatic will not accept, what you and I cannot
forget, is that all of us are in the same boat.
Translated from the
French by Katherine Levin.