"I don’t know enough,” Wiesel said. “For me to say anything now would be irresponsible.”

June 1, 2010

In News

Freedom of speech is a vital human right, a pair of international celebrities declared during a visit to Toronto on Monday – especially if you have something to say.

As it happened, neither acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie nor famed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel had anything to say about Brian Mulroney, who was to moderate a sold-out public debate between the two men Monday night on the subject of freedom of speech.

The event was to be Mulroney’s first public engagement following renewed negative publicity about his past financial dealings with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber.

In a report released in Ottawa early Monday, capping a two-year investigation, Justice Jeffrey Oliphant was harshly critical of the former prime minister, charging him with deliberately trying to conceal a six-figure cash payment by Schreiber.

At a press conference that afternoon, Rushdie and Wiesel both said they knew little or nothing of the former prime minister’s latest tribulations and declined to offer an opinion, freedom of speech or no freedom of speech.

It was not the only point of disagreement between the two men.

Rushdie, who remains under a virtual death sentence as a result of a fatwa delivered by a Muslim cleric more than a decade ago, offered tentative criticism of the Israel Defense Forces for their deadly attack late Sunday on a flotilla of boats carrying humanitarian supplies to Gaza.

“The first knee-jerk reflex is this was an excessive use of force,” he said. “It would have been a much better idea not to shoot people.”

Asked for his assessment of the bloody confrontation, Wiesel declined to comment.

“I don’t know enough,” he said. “For me to say anything now would be irresponsible.”

Both men spoke out in favour of freedom of speech as an essential human right, but Wiesel made a forceful exception in the case of those who deny the Holocaust.

“Holocaust denial today – what it does to the children of survivors,” he said. “I believe Holocaust denial should be illegal.”

Rushdie took a different view.

“I’m not 100 per cent in agreement,” he said. “It’s better that even the worst things be expressed. Evil doesn’t disappear by being obscured.”

Although the fatwa calling for his death has yet to be lifted, Rushdie said yesterday he has been able to resume a more or less normal life.

“It doesn’t affect my daily life anymore,” he said. “It’s been well over a decade.”

Last night’s scheduled debate between the two men unfolded amid tight security, and many of the 2,400 people scheduled to attend the event began lining up two hours in advance, to allow officials at the Beth Tzedec Synagogue on Bathurst St. near Eglinton St. time to search their belongings.

The gathering was this year’s version of an annual event – the Spirit of Hope Benefit – a fundraiser for the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies.