The HyperTexts

When Passion Is Dangerous
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."

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 Latin America.

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 international scale?

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 tragedy.

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, his opponent.

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 creates ugliness.

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.

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