Because of Professor Wiesel…
By Karen Leslie Hernandez – Ambassador
I was incredibly sad to hear of Professor Wiesel’s death a couple of weeks ago. Many know him as Elie Wiesel, but, for me, he was my professor and my mentor. I have written about my experience of studying with Professor Wiesel before, sharing what I learned from this great man and how I carry his words with me every day in my work as a theologian. Three semesters with this prolific human being left me with a legacy to carry on, as well as a lifetime of lessons to integrate into my work.
What I loved most about studying with Professor Wiesel are the conversations I had with him, one on one, and what I took away from those.
Professor Wiesel knew I was and still am, very much opposed to Israeli policies and actions toward the Palestinians. In class, it would sometimes come up in conversation, but, it was in private that I was able to have some real conversations with him.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I learned to engage in honest conversations.
What I will always relish is that he let me say what I needed to say. To ask questions. And, I did the same with him. We had a mutual exchange and understanding. More, there was a mutual respect.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I learned to inquire more.
At one point, I traveled over to the West Bank on a peacemaking delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams and I wanted to ask him how I could really work on understanding all sides of the conflict. His words were so simple, yet I can hear them like it was yesterday. “Listen,” he said. “Just really listen. You have a tendency to talk, which isn’t a bad thing, but with this, I suggest you just listen. To everyone.” So, I did.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I learned to listen.
I listened to the stories of oppression in the West Bank, the stories of those who escaped missiles landing on their bed in the middle of the night in Sderot, the stories of children who had no idea why they hated so, and the stories of soldiers who pledged to protect Israel with whatever force they were allowed.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I learned how to see the wider picture.
But, that’s the point, right? As a peacebuilder, theologian and interfaith activist, I want to seek answers, yes, but, as Professor Wiesel once wrote to me in a letter, “It’s the questions that are important. Sometimes there are no answers.”
Because of Professor Wiesel, I learned to be comfortable with a myriad of questions and answers.
Professor Wiesel was able to read the piece I wrote a few years ago so he knew what an impact he had on me and still has on my work. Yet, what he didn’t know is how much his love for Israel, made me see the conflict differently. And more, enable me to dialogue about it in a healthy manner. What I learned from Professor Wiesel is that it is OK for me to stand my ground. And more, to stand my ground on and for all sides – even if I may not agree with all sides. But, more, it’s not about agreeing – it’s about understanding. If you truly listen, you will understand.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I stand comfortably where I feel I should stand.
You see, what I really take away from my lessons from Professor Wiesel are those that leave me with a sense of hope. Those lessons that allow me to see more clearly. Those lessons that allow me to dialogue, even with those I do not agree with. Those lessons that allow me to hear. Those lessons that give me a sense of place, when I feel I have no place.
When we traverse this wide sea of rhetoric and hatred at this time in our world, I am left with a sense of loss at Professor Wiesel’s passing. He said, time and time again, that it was up to us, his students, to carry on his story, his truth, and the truth of the holocaust. It feels daunting, yet, it’s what I am already doing.
I have crossed more uncomfortable boundaries in my work as an interfaith activist than I can remember – and that has very much to do with Professor Wiesel’s presence in my life. I get it. I see. I hear. I know. I can’t speak for all the other hundreds of students that studied with Professor Wiesel, but I can say this for myself. I will never be a bystander. I will always be on the side of justice. I will not tolerate hatred, lies, or holocaust deniers.
Because of Professor Wiesel, I am wiser. I am full of courage. I carry his voice, in my voice. How blessed I am, to have had such a brave and beautiful soul as my teacher. Rest well, Professor Wiesel. Toda raba.
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