On November 1, 2017, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity presented its inaugural Legacy Award to Oprah Winfrey at the Morgan Library in New York City. The award recognized Ms. Winfrey’s efforts to carry on the work and message of Elie Wiesel through her commitment to humanitarian service. CEO of LRN Dov Seidman was asked to speak about what Elie meant to the world and his legacy that lives on in the work of the Foundation and, in particular, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Prize in Ethics. Dov Seidman and LRN have been partners to the Foundation in its Prize in Ethics for nearly a decade.
Marion, Elisha, distinguished guests and friends: It’s an honor to be here to celebrate the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel, and the Foundation’s work.
At the outset, I’d like to invite us to pause and consider that when Elie and Marion launched the Foundation 31 years ago, they called it “The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.” They could have simply called it “The Elie Wiesel Foundation.” Or, “The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Peace.” After all, Elie did win the Nobel Peace Prize. But instead, they dedicated the Foundation to humanity.
Elie and Marion knew what was at stake.
I find it especially moving that we’re honoring Oprah, who, like Elie, has worked tirelessly to elevate humanity.
Humanity was — and remains — at stake.
In 2011, Elie chose you, Oprah, to bear witness with him on his return to Auschwitz. You stood with him at the bunk bed where he lost his youth. You walked with him through the largest unmarked grave. And, it was with Oprah that Elie recommitted to his life’s purpose.
As Elie told Oprah standing on those burial grounds: “It can be so mad to try to save humanity. Here, at this place. And I choose this madness.”
Elie – of course — chose humanity.
And yet. “And yet.” As you’ll remember, that was Elie’s favorite phrase. I recently asked Marion why this phrase meant so much to Elie. Marion, do you remember what you told me? That, for Elie, there were always deeper truths to be discovered. Elie was always beginning. He knew that his was the kind of work that would never be done.
For Elie, there was no humanity without ethics.
I remember so vividly how he put it to me: “Everything comes down to ethics,” he would say. “What else is there?”
I can’t think of a more urgent imperative today.
Unprecedented forces are dramatically reshaping our world faster than we are reshaping ourselves. Never have we had such potent power – to do good or harm — at our fingertips.
We’ve gone from being merely connected a generation ago to globally interdependent today. With one click, the dreams, frustrations, plights, and behavior of others so far away are now experienced viscerally, directly, and visually on tiny screens in our hands.
These forces of connection should afford us richer experiences, deepen our empathy, and enable more human progress.
But, instead, they are assaulting the twin pillars – truth and trust — that form the foundation of vibrant democracies, dynamic capitalism, and healthy societies, let alone a shared humanity.
We’ve had erosion of truth and trust before. But this feels like a particularly dangerous time.
Social networks are enabling more of us to spread fake news and vitriol at breathtaking speed. We are not just deeply divided. Today, we are being actively divided by ubiquitous tools that make it easy to broadcast one’s own ‘truths’, even lies, and undermine real truths.
This burgeoning anger industry is either sending us into echo chambers where we don’t see the other. Or, arousing in us such moral outrage toward the other that we can no longer see their humanity.
Technology also allows us to see deep into the culture of once opaque organizations and into the character of those in charge. This is eroding our trust in authority, because we don’t like what we see. With a single tweet, we can then amplify our sentiments, meting out blame or scorn.
Ours is a moral crisis of truth and trust. And a crisis of authority itself. Only one kind of leadership can respond to this kind of crisis. Moral leadership.
My goodness! Don’t we wish we had just one ounce of Elie’s moral voice today?
Elie’s voice did not come from any position of formal authority. Elie’s was moral authority.
As we all know, our systems can’t function without leaders with formal authority – whether our Commander in Chief, CEOs, or school principals. But, what makes our systems really work, is when leaders occupying those formal positions have moral authority. Moral authority must be earned every day by who you are and how you lead.
Elie was Elie. He uniquely did not need a positon of formal authority.
And yet, Elie knew that he had to inspire the next generation of leaders to build their moral authority.
So, Elie and Marion created the Prize in Ethics.
College students across the country are challenged to grapple with – and write about – the most profound questions facing humanity through a moral lens.
By inviting our youth to compete for a prize bearing his name, Elie was actually challenging them to a lifelong journey building their moral muscle.
Thousands of students heard Elie‘s call. In the midst of exams and tempting campus parties, they paused. They reflected on questions that gnawed at them. Students considered everything from modern day slavery, to identity politics, to reconciliation after apartheid.
Elie said he wrote not to be understood, but to understand. The genius of the Prize is that Elie inspired these young leaders to do the same. And to take their understandings into the world.
What a gift, Elie left us!
Pirkei Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, exhorts us: When we are in the grip of a noble mission, we are not obligated to complete that work in our lifetime. But, neither are we free to desist from it.
Marion, I’m so moved by how you are embodying this exhortation. When we last sat together, you said you have found the strength to continue the Foundation’s work.
Marion, remember when I offered you and Elie my sponsorship of the Prize, years ago … and Elie rejected my offer? He leaned toward me and shook my hand. In his soft voice, he said, “I do not want you to sponsor. I want you to be my partner.” It was a transformative moment. Elie inspired me, in his words, to “feel deeper and think higher” about our shared mission of nurturing our next generation of moral leaders.
As I stand here tonight, I now understand that in that moment Elie also inspired a duty in me. Marion: I will not desist in being your partner in the Prize in Ethics.
There are countless students to be inspired. There are deeper truths to be discovered. And silence and indifference to be confronted.
Elie is not here. And yet, we must – each of us and together — persist in carrying forth his work.
There is more work to begin in a world desperate for humanity.