On the eve of Yom ha-Shoah v’Hagvurah during the last year of the last century, Elie Wiesel spoke to an august body of dignitaries and legislators in Washington, D.C. His subject was “The Perils of Indifference.” Many of the people who dedicate their lives to the protection of human rights around the world consider it one of the 10 best speeches on the subject of all time.
Wiesel noted that, “We are on the threshold of a new century, a new millennium,” and asked: “What will the legacy of this vanishing century be? How will it be remembered in the new millennium?”
Typically, the wise scholar provided his own answer: “Surely it will be judged, and judged severely, in both moral and metaphysical terms.… So much violence, so much indifference.”
Wiesel elaborated upon the malevolent lure of indifference: “Indifference can be tempting – more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.”
And then he pointed out its uniquely sinister harm: “For the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbours are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
“Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees – not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. Indifference, then, is not only a sin. It is a punishment.”
The first two decades of the new millennium are now nearly done. Following the recent International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, it is appropriate that we read Wiesel’s words again. They offer a clear, concise guide for how we should behave. They also offer an unsparing warning, lest we fail.
For the first time in many years, we are once again reading of the existence of large-scale concentration camps. In China, the government of Xi Jinping is attempting to wipe out the identity of the Uyghur Muslim population. There is no doubt that a wholesale, systematic effort at ethnic cultural cleansing is underway. Witnesses have spoken out and official government documents have been leaked to the West, all attesting to the barbarities being perpetrated upon the Uyghurs by the totalitarian Chinese regime.
Its use of concentration camps, grotesque mind-control techniques, forced labour factories, systematic use of threats and intimidation of family members unequivocally shows that the Chinese government’s brutalization of the Uyghurs is extreme and frightfully evocative of the horrible cruelties of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.
The Chinese maltreatment of the Uyghurs is not the only governmental oppression in 2019. The theocratic regime of Iran recently slaughtered and wounded thousands of their own people who were protesting the harsh economic conditions of their impoverished lives. Autocratic governments, dictators, tyrants and military strongmen around the globe routinely terrorize their own people in ways they no longer care to keep away from camera.
Though we – and perhaps our government, too – may be ultimately ineffective in rescuing these far-away peoples from their misery and persecution, we must not forget them. We must not look away.
We must return to Wiesel’s stern reminder: it is wrong to ignore their suffering and, by our indifference, deprive them of at least a spark of hope. We must speak out and urge our governments and civic institutions to speak out, as well.