Abe gives the speech at this year’s Y.U. graduation…
Commencement Address of Abraham H. Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League
New York City, May 22, 2008
First, let me say how honored I am to receive this degree from so distinguished an American Jewish institution. Yeshiva University stands alone in the United States as an academic center whose undergraduate and graduate programs richly integrate Jewish ethical values with research and scholarship of the highest order.
Now, if I were truly modest, I would resist the impulse to say that I am also frankly moved to be an honorary degree recipient who joins an amazing roster of previous such recipients. Justice Benjamin Cardozo. Eleanor Roosevelt. Abba Eben, to name just three. As you see, I have not resisted.
Dear Yeshiva graduates of the class of 2008, we live – you live – in interesting times. And you will live through ever more challenging moments as the 21st century progresses.
Of course, like many commencement speakers at graduation ceremonies around the country, I could use this occasion to speak to you about current issues that confront America. More specifically, for this great institution with its distinctly Jewish character, I could speak to you about issues of the moment important to us as American and as Jews: terrorism, Iran, the separation of Church and State, hate on the Internet, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, race and religion in politics, Islamic extremism, American anti-Semitism, global anti-Semitism.
But I would rather speak to you personally today about my own life journey and how the lessons I take from it might apply to your own upcoming adventure, for you stand on the brink of a future that is characterized by great promise, but also great perils.
I was born in the wrong time at the wrong place for a Jewish kid. Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940 was not the best place to be born, yet I managed, by the intercession of one special person’s kindness and decency, to survive.
As I grew older, I tried to understand what it meant that I had survived. The first set of questions was very serious, existential questions of “why?” Why did the Shoah happen to the Jewish people? Why did over a million and a half Jewish children perish? Why was the world silent? Why didn’t the Almighty intervene? To those universal questions of “why?” were added very personal questions. Why me? Why me and not the other little boys and girls, the Chaims and Chanas. Why not them? Why me?
My parents, who also survived, struggled every day and every night with “why?” Why did they survive and not their brothers, their sisters, their nieces or nephews, their aunts and uncles?
There are no answers. As I grew older, I realized that there are no answers, only questions.
But two facts in that struggle to understand became very, very clear. One is that the world knew. There was no CNN, there was no Fox News, there were no satellite feeds from far off places – alas, there was no Internet – yet the world knew.
Those in positions of power to make decisions to stop what was happening knew. They knew everyday how many Jews were killed, in Lodz, in Baranowicz, in Minsk, in Bialystok. They knew. And for years previous they knew what was happening to the Jews. “Kristallnacht” made the news. And they didn’t do very much about it, nor about the worst that was to follow.
So the first lesson for us is to know. To know about bigotry; to know about hatred; to know who it is who threatens us, our democracy, and our freedoms. It is extremely important that we know. But knowing is not enough!
The second thing that became clear to me is that wherever and whenever and however good people said no – whenever good people stood up and said no to hate – Jews lived, others lived.
There was Oskar Schindler who saved 1200 Jews. There was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, who saved 50,000, maybe 100,000 Jews.
There were Albania and Bulgaria. It was in the Balkans that a magnificent chapter of humanity was written – not in the capital cities that always provided us with philosophy, with music, with opera, and with art, but in the Balkans!
Bulgarian Jews were saved because from the king to the patriarch, to the peasants, to the parliamentarians – they all said no. Albania saved all its Jews and those from elsewhere who could make it to their country.
I stand here tonight because there was a lady who could barely read and write, who really didn’t sit down to weigh and measure the risks, and yet risked her life every single day for four years to protect the life of another human being. I had the good fortune to be sheltered from the Nazis by Bronislawa Kurpi, a brave and decent woman who was my Polish Catholic nanny. She baptized me and raised me as a Catholic. But for her, I would not be alive today to bear witness. I know first hand how essential it is to have the help of just one person who, at a moment of moral collapse, does not forget the essential principal of leading a moral life: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
And so I stopped asking the questions of why and began to ask questions on the order of “what if?”
What if, instead of one Raoul Wallenberg, there had been 100,000 Raoul Wallenbergs? What if, instead of one Oskar Schindler and one Bronislawa Kurpi, there had been 10,000 such men and women?
What if this wonderful country of ours had permitted the passenger ship the St. Louis to dock at these shores and unload its cargo of refugees? What if we had bombed Auschwitz? What if our neighbor to the north, Canada, had found room for 5,000 Jewish orphans? What if? What if we had traded trucks for Jews? What if? What if?
For me, the Anti-Defamation League is an institution that does everything so that our children and grandchildren will never have to ask “what if?” in the future.
What if their parents and grandparents stood up every single day to say no – no to hatred, no to bigotry, no to prejudice, no to racism, no to anti-Semitism?
You can see all kinds of films, you can read all kinds of testimonials, but that’s what ADL is all about. In the rich mosaic of diversity that is the United States, where Jews and Judaism flourish, we have to find ways to live together and grow together and learn together how to choose our words carefully and to understand the power and danger of words, and to take responsibility for the words we utter and their consequences.
The gas chambers did not begin with bricks – they began with words. Ugly, hateful words that demonized, degraded, and debased Jews. And those words became ugly, hateful deeds.
The September 11 attacks did not begin with planes transformed into missiles – it began with words – ugly, hateful words that demonized, dehumanized, debased Americans and everything that we stand for. Those words became ugly, hateful deeds.
We need, in every way, to denounce those who traffic in fear and frustration. We need to cleanse our communities of prejudice. We need to speak up and speak out and protest when anyone is maligned or treated with contempt, no matter who the victim or the perpetrator. It isn’t easy, it takes courage. It runs the risk of peer disdain or disapproval. Every time we laugh at an ethnic joke or a racial slur or religious stereotype, or let an expression of contempt pass in silence, we tacitly contribute to the atmosphere of prejudice.
In the Jewish tradition, we believe that life and death is in the power of the tongue. Three times a day, we ask the Lord to “keep my mouth from speaking evil.” On Yom Kippur, we confess and seek atonement for the sins we have committed “with utterance of the lips.”
At the Anti-Defamation League, we deal constantly with words. We believe in the power of words, in power of good people to stand up and say no.
Unfortunately, among the perils you will face in this still new century are reversions to the tribalism, xenophobia, and nihilism that so blackened the previous one. In our era of rapid change and globalization, when traditions are under threat amid social, economic, and political instability, there is the strong temptation to “circle the wagons” and seek safety only among one’s own kind. This inwardness, pushed to extremes, will inevitably result in fear of the Other – living in the desperate conviction that other people, other groups, other races and creeds, are somehow responsible for the problems within one’s own community or one’s country. This then justifies the use of crude names that single out those who are different, and after the name calling comes the assigning of blame.
And we know all too well that when fingers get pointed, the oldest and most persistent hatred, anti-Semitism, will rear its ugly head as it has in the wake of 9/11. I’m talking of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, the Big Lie believed by millions – that the Jews and the Mossad were behind the attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m talking of Holocaust denial which is gaining strength in the Islamic world, led by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and used by him to deflect attention from domestic problems and discontent. I’m talking of the conspiracy theories of Jewish power and disloyalty which are being disseminated not only in the Islamic world but in the U.S. as well.
So among the challenges you will certainly face – as Jews, as Americans, and as citizens of the world – is how you will respond when those first ugly words are spoken, those words that will belittle and demonize first one person, and then a whole group or community.
“Never Again!” is an 11th commandment etched in the aftermath of Auschwitz. It was etched by the Jewish people based on a Jewish experience. But “Never Again” – that pledge, that imperative – has a universal message and mandate. For all of us here today must honor the commandment which instructs us all to never again be silent whenever anyone lives in fear, in danger, isolated or singled out because of the color of their skin, their ethnic origin, their religion, their sexual orientation, or anything that makes them different from the rest.
Do that – respond with words backed by reasonable action, and both words and action impressed with the full weight of the ethical values imparted to you by Jewish tradition. Do that and you will answer the question “What if?” by being one of many who will give hateful words and hateful deeds no quarter. You will do tikkun olam. You will help repair the breaks and schisms of our world.