INTERVIEW: ‘History is something you want to be on the right side of’

Elisha Wiesel discusses the Elie Wiesel Foundation’s focus on Uyghur advocacy.

By Adile Ablet for RFA Uyghur

Since its founding in 1986, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity has striven “to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.” In late January, the human rights organization ran a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing unless China ended its persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Now, the foundation has added grantmaking to its lineup of activities, focusing on funding advocacy for the Uyghurs. 

The foundation expects to award about U.S. $250,000-$500,000 early next year to two groups, each representing one of its focuses, as determined by relevant advisory committees, according to the Jewish Insider. The funding is significant in that it is coming from an influential Jewish organization at a time when majority-Muslim countries joined China in voting down a measure for the U.N. Human Rights Council to conduct debate on a U.N. report that China’s atrocities against Uyghurs may “constitute crimes against humanity.”

Adile Ablet of RFA Uyghur recently spoke with Elisha Wiesel, the foundation’s chairman of the board and son of late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, about the grantmaking activities and what the foundation hopes to accomplish with its focus on the Uyghurs. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: The Jewish Insider reported that the Elie Wiesel Foundation will support the Uyghur cause now that the organization is becoming a grantmaker. Why? 

Wiesel: One of the things we’re doing with the Elie Wiesel Foundation today is we’re pivoting from running direct programs, which is what the foundation used to do. It used to host conferences. It used to be [active] particularly in Israel, with Ethiopian Jews who had arrived. We decided we could have a bigger reach and have more partner organizations that we could help supply funding to. We can also supply some of our time and our thoughts. We can help use my father’s name to achieve good in the world.

We thought a lot about this path that we’re embarking on [in terms of] the hats my father wore during his lifetime. He was so many things to so many people. My father was a teacher, a philosopher, a refugee, a student. And we said, maybe what we can do is for every different type of role that my father played, we can eventually open up a line of grantmaking and partnership.

When we thought about where to start, my view and the board’s view were that the two most important roles father played were that of an activist and a teacher, so these are the two lanes that the foundation is starting with. Once we decided what that activism would be, the question then became which cause do we want to attach ourselves to in the beginning as we start this?

For me, there’s really no cause that is as compelling as the Uyghur cause, which has a lot of properties that fit the way my father approached the world. Look at the size and the scope of the atrocities that are occurring with the Uyghur people — the mass imprisonment of a million Muslims, family separations, the concept of going to jail just because of who you are rather than something that you did. These are terrible human rights violations, and they are being perpetrated by a major actor on the world stage.

One of the things to know about my father is that he was not afraid of speaking truth to power. It’s very hard to imagine getting the Chinese government to change course and doing something more humane, but it’s not impossible. We were inspired as we looked at the Soviet Union which was treating Soviet Jews in a certain way, but many people thought you never were going to be able to change it; the best you can hope for is that you can help a few people by reaching out to people in power, but to try to achieve something on a massive scale just wouldn’t happen.

My father disagreed. He disagreed with many important people, and he worked with students in this country to build a movement from the ground up. There were many great leaders there who ultimately had great impact with the Soviet Union. That’s why I think the Elie Wiesel Foundation is inspired by big projects that seem impossible — ones that seem really difficult, but ones that we feel are very important.

RFA: What do you expect to achieve with the organizations that the foundation will work with?

Wiesel: The goal is ultimately to have an impact, but how you measure impact is very difficult. Is anything that we fund in this first year and our activist players’ focus on the Uyghurs going to change the world and move it upside down in one year? I think we’re more humble than that.

One of the things that my father said about the Holocaust was that it was important for the people who were suffering to feel heard and know that people cared, even if the world couldn’t do anything about it. One of the things that hurt the most was that there was a sense that the world didn’t care. If we can do anything to raise the stature of the story, and if we can find a partner organization to work with that, it would make the Uyghurs’ suffering more a part of our daily consciousness so that the Uyghurs feel heard. Then they would say, “OK, maybe the world isn’t fixing everything right away for us, but at least we haven’t been forgotten. At least, we know that somebody is thinking about us.” Even that for us would be a very significant accomplishment.

Our approach is a humble approach. [Part of] the way that we think about it is that we don’t know what the right answer is. We don’t know what the strategy is, but we want to hear ideas. That’s why what we’re really hoping for is that many different organizations doing work in the Uyghur space will go to our website and send us their ideas — tell us what they’re doing, so that the more ideas we have, the better the chance of our finding the one that is right for us to partner with.

RFA: Which criteria will you use to select partner organizations?

Wiesel: I can’t say that there’s one particular criterion, but the boldness of the vision is important — the idea that it’s something that is unlikely to happen unless we get involved. We want to be involved with emerging efforts, ones that we can help grow and bring others into. The quality of the people doing the work [also matters]. Do we believe that it’s being sponsored by people who are visionary but also capable of executing, that this is a partner that can really deliver on the sorts of things that they want to achieve? These are the things that we will try to sort out. … But the truth is that the paper application process is only the beginning, and with ideas that we think look interesting, we’re going to want to have many conversations with the grantees. We have an excellent staff at the foundation that is trained and ready to have those conversations.

RFA: One of the members of the advisory board for the Uyghur grants is Gulhumar Haitiwaji, the daughter of Gulbahar Haitiwaji, who wrote a memoir about the three years she was detained in a “re-education” camp in Xinjiang. What role will the advisory board members play?

Wiesel: I’m really glad you mentioned the advisory boards because they are not going to be permanent board members of the Elie Wiesel Foundation. … We’re going to convene one-time advisory groups. We’re very glad to have [Gulhumar] join the advisory group for [Uyghur grants]. We very much wanted someone from the community with strong connections. I read her mother’s book, and I was fortunate enough to interview her and the daughter. They are unbelievable. There are very clear thinkers with such strong messages to send. We’re very fortunate, but we’re also lucky to have a number of other great stars join us. We have Mark Hatfield, who is the executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. This is the society that some 70 years ago helped my mother find somewhere to live when she came over with her family as a refugee from Europe. We also have Natan Sharansky, a close friend of my father’s, who was a refusenik. He was imprisoned by the Soviets and went on to become a major human rights activist himself. We have very notable and thoughtful people to help us. We know we need a lot of advice and a lot of opportunities to find the best [partner].

RFA: What message would you like to send to China?

Wiesel: My message is that history is something you want to be on the right side of. Future generations will look back at this time and they’ll say, “OK, who did what? Who was on which side here?”

A documentary called “The U.S. and the Holocaust” by [American filmmaker] Ken Burns recently came out, and so many people are watching it because it’s fascinating to see in the 1930s and the 1940s what different people were doing, what different countries were doing, what different groups were doing, and where they were aligning on this issue. For those people who did everything they could do to prevent a war with Germany and those who did everything they could to prevent saving the Jews, they don’t look good in retrospect in history. Now, the message is simply that [people are] doing things that are expedient because they have trade relationships or there’s a deal on the line or there’s money involved. And then there is doing things that are right for the generations and for the long term. I hope in time that the thinking will shift.

I was invited to speak to the U.N. on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, and I was given only three minutes. I gave my last minute 100% to the Uyghur cause before the Beijing Olympics. I was warned beforehand that everybody was so angry [that the foundation had issued a message]. They’re like, “You can’t do these things; how can you put out this message?” There was a lot of pressure to not give that message because I think the United Nations itself is a little conflicted on how it feels about this. But the good news is that months later, [former U.N. human rights chief] Michelle Bachelet actually went [to China] and came back with some findings that there are human rights violations. So, even the U.N., which is the slowest of these organizations, the most bureaucratic, and [one with] the most voices, is potentially capable of coming around and seeing this more clearly, which gives me confidence that the world will follow.

View Original Article on