Is Society the Angel of Death? Elie Wiesel's Take
by Daniel Kieval
“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16)
In an address given last week at Wesleyan University, Elie Wiesel called this verse the motto of his adult life. It would have been clear even had he not said so, for his remarks, entitled “Building an Ethical Society,” never strayed from the verse’s themes of justice and responsibility. In his speech, Dr. Wiesel—Nobel Peace Laureate, author, teacher, and Moment co-founder—referred to his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, but he spoke mostly about his work as a humanitarian, and, for the first time in a public address, about his thoughts on the death penalty.
Despite his contemporary focus, Dr. Wiesel showed how heavily his past informs his values. Introducing the topic of capital punishment with his own story, Dr. Wiesel recalled the German officers who came to his small town of Sighet, Romania to deport its Jews to Auschwitz. Only two Germans were there, he said, one of whom was Adolf Eichmann, considered to be the “architect of the Holocaust” and responsible for the murder of millions of people. Seventeen years later, Dr. Wiesel was one of the journalists covering Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. It is known for being the only instance of civil execution in the State of Israel’s history.
One might expect that, given what he had lived through, Dr. Wiesel would support a death sentence in such an extraordinary circumstance, yet he referred to the execution as “an example not to be followed.” While he approved of harsh punishment—suggesting, for example, a life of hard labor—death seemed to be a category all its own.
“Society should not be the Angel of Death,” he said. “We should not be servants of death. The law should celebrate, glorify, sanctify life, always life.”
On the same night that Dr. Wiesel gave his address, the State of Arizona executed convicted murderer Jeffrey Landrigan after a contentious legal battle surrounding the safety and efficacy of the drugs to be used for lethal injection. Despite the state’s refusal to provide information about the drugs even after multiple court orders, a divided U.S. Supreme Court allowed the execution to proceed. A Hofstra law professor called it “an outcome which turns simple justice upside-down,” while the New York Times published an editorial entitled “No Justification for the Death Penalty” that spoke of the law’s “huge injustice” and the “particular barbarism” of lethal injection.
Others, meanwhile, saw the verdict as a victory for law and order. Proponents of the death penalty often argue that it discourages violent crime. The Mishnah reminds us that this debate is nothing new: “Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” (Mishnah Makkot 1:10)
Not all will agree with Dr. Wiesel’s thoughts on the death penalty. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel clearly did not; neither did the people who were happy to see Eichmann hanged, or fought to ensure the execution of Jeffrey Landrigan. We may see injustice in capital punishment—in which case Dr. Wiesel provides admirable footsteps in which to follow—but what if we don’t?
In that case, we are still called to let his motto become ours: “Do not stand idly by.” It is a sad truth that none of us has to look very hard to see injustice somewhere, whether that is in capital punishment, religious intolerance, or the devastation of our planet’s ability to support life. “Do not stand idly by” calls us to do something, anything, rather than stand on the sideline and watch, or worse, look away.
How can we reach such a commendable level of activism? Dr. Wiesel offers one answer: “We have so much information today, but information is not enough; it must become knowledge. Knowledge is also not enough; it must become sensitivity. Sensitivity is also not enough; it must become commitment. Now I have given you a plan for the rest of your life.”