1999 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize Awarded to Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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1999 Dr. Bernard Heller Prize Awarded to Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke

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Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Cincinnati Graduation June 2, 1999 / 18 Sivan 5759

The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize was awarded to Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke at Graduation at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati on June 2. Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman presented the prize to Holbrooke, whose commitment to peace and human rights was demonstrated in his efforts on behalf of the historic 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended Bosnia's genocidal war. Participating in the ceremony were Ruth O. Freedlander and Beatrice Weidman, Co-Trustees of the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation, and Dr. Paul M. Steinberg, Special Assistant to the President.

Ambassador Holbrooke's humanitarian work, as recorded in his memoir, To End A War, reflects his expert diplomatic negotiation and statecraft in brokering a peace agreement among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims engaged in the war in Bosnia.

The Dr. Bernard Heller Prize is an international award presented annually by the College- Institute to an individual or organization whose work, writings, or research reflects the values and commitment to the betterment of humanity. Initiated in 1990, previous recipients of the $10,000 award include Holocaust historians Serge Klarsfeld and Raul Hilberg, Ambassador Uri Lubrani of Israel (the architect of the airlift rescue of Ethiopian Jewry), Ambassador Dennis Ross, and Count Folke Bernadotte, posthumously.



Heller Prize Address 
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke

Thank you so much to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Rabbi Zimmerman, Ruth Freedlander, Carole Weidman, Beatrice Weidman, and to all of you here today. I am intensely grateful for this honor, in particular to share the stage today with so many distinguished degree recipients, including Jan Karski. I am particularly honored to follow in the footsteps of my friend Dennis Ross and of Count Folke Bernadotte. The connection to Bernadotte is a real one because, as many of you in the audience know, my wife Kati Marton wrote a book about Count Bernadotte -- the only one written in English -- recounting his quest in search of peace and his negotiations, which saved so many Jews in Hungary, and his tragic death in Jerusalem 51 years ago. (Kati also wrote a book about another brave Swede who saved the lives of Jews in Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg.)

It is a tremendous honor for me to stand here before you today and accept this award established in memory of Dr. Bernard Heller. I accept it not only for myself but for many other people who toil with less recognition in the service of the nation and in the quest for peace. Some of these people are no longer with us. Some of my colleagues in our mission to Bosnia died in the effort. As we all know, I accept this award in a time of unexpected drama.

Who would have thought that those of you who are receiving degrees today would be receiving them at a time when the United States is at war again? Who would have thought that as the century ends and the last class of the century receives its diplomas all over this country, that NATO pilots, including Americans, would be in the skies over Yugoslavia in pursuit of a solution to the most difficult problem Europe has faced since 1945? In fact, as I speak to you today, much effort is going on to end that conflict. One person familiar to all of you, Elie Wiesel, a dear friend of mine, is on the Albanian Yugoslav border touring the refugee camps as a personal representative of the President and to bear witness, as he has done throughout his long and distinguished career.

In the 1940's, people did not pay enough attention -- as we all know. Elie Wiesel's presence today on that border is an attempt to show that while the solutions we're seeking now are inadequate so far, they are nonetheless for a group of people. I'm talking about the Albanians of Kosovo who have not been forgotten in the way that the Jews who disappeared in the camps were forgotten by most of the world, until their liberation.

I want to talk briefly today because this is not a full scale speech and there is an important one to come from Dr. Michael Meyer. I want to talk briefly about the role in public service of moral values. Many people have argued that that role should be minimal or not at all existent. I cannot share that view.

One cannot think about America's role in the world and divorce it from values. One cannot simply sit back and say we will be an economic superpower, but not worry about the rest of the world. In fact, I can assert this position not simply on a moral basis, although I'm perfectly willing to let it rest on that rationale alone, but also on the practicalities of the situation. If problems are ignored, if they're allowed to fester, they explode on a much greater level of severity and intensity later, as was the case in Yugoslavia where the failure to act swiftly and decisively in 1991-92 led to the tragedies that subsequently unfolded.

As the century comes to an end, I think we can see that the most powerful idea of the century, the one that won -- was the idea of freedom and democracy. It triumphed over the two terrible evils, Communism and Fascism, which had more in common with each other than people recognized at the time. But the victory was expensive, in human terms, in financial terms, and in terms of dividing people. At the end of the century, the struggle is not over. A new and vicious idea has come onto the lands in Europe and parts of Asia in the wake of the Cold War. This new idea is really an old idea. It's called "extreme nationalism." It's called "ultra-nationalism." It's called "ethnic cleansing," or "ethnic warfare," or "ancient hatreds." In another form, in another place, we called it Nazism; and in this country, in another form, we can call it by its real name, "racism."

This threat, whether we're talking about Kosovo or Bosnia or Rwanda or problems yet to come in other parts of the world, is very simple. It is the idea that a majority can use allegedly democratic principals to suppress a minority and then to try to exterminate it or to expel it, as Hitler did in the 1930s and as the Yugoslav Serb leadership has tried to do in recent times.

It is an idiotic idea. It is self-destructive and certain to be a failure for the simplest of reasons: every majority in one area is a minority somewhere else. Ethnically pure countries are not possible, particularly in Europe and Africa and South Asia. Perhaps in Northeast Asia, to a certain limited extent, and in Korea and Japan, one can say that there is more homogeneity. However, in Europe or in Africa, an effort to impose ethnically pure countries is certain to fail. There are, depending on how you count it, two or three thousand different ethnic groups in the world, and about 180 countries in the United Nations. To redraw the boundaries on ethnic lines is, first, impossible and, secondly, certain to lead to endless bloodshed.

Yet, demagogues, political leaders, opportunists, and crooks constantly seek to exploit the fears of one group for another and create ethnically pure enclaves or areas. The most pernicious example is the one we're now dealing with in the former Yugoslavia, but it's true all over the world. The only possible solution is to educate people to live in harmony and respect each other. If we don't do that, the 21st century will not be the century of the Internet and cyberspace and all the brave new things which technology offers us. It will be a century in which the world will divide sharply into enclaves of privilege and large seas of chaos.

Even as we speak today, India and Pakistan have come to the brink of a new set of problems, verging on a war, indeed with military action, based on a primordial view of ethnicity. We have a stake in these struggles although we cannot solve them all. We can take military action in Kosovo but not on the Indian subcontinent. But we can do more. We can intervene earlier with diplomatic efforts; we can press for collective action. In Rwanda, we certainly could have saved far more lives -- hundreds of thousands -- had it been understood that this was a genocide and not some kind of crazy tribal bloodletting. It was a planned systematic genocide with orders issued and people assigned to kill people -- and the world stood by. Now, everyone realizes it could have been prevented.

This is very difficult for the United States. It's easy to sit here in a wonderful city like Cincinnati, in a wonderful institution like the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and say it's not our problem. But unfortunately, as we learned in the 1930's, in the end, the problems reach out.

There are probably few organizations or groups of people more sensitive to this issue than those of us who have personal, direct, or indirect experience with the Holocaust, as so many people in this room, including myself and my own family do. So the job of a great institution like this one obviously is to help educate people. Not only about the past, but about the future.

The job of those of us in public service is, of course, to do what we can. Sometimes we'll fail. I consider it a failure of diplomacy that we had to resort to bombing in Yugoslavia. But the only alternative was to allow the Serbs to proceed with an ethnic cleansing of, as Elie Wiesel said yesterday and you may have seen in today's New York Times, "to proceed with an ethnic cleansing of Biblical proportions."

As Elie Wiesel so eloquently said at the White House last month and again yesterday on the Yugoslav border, there's a moral basis for these actions. They're expensive and they're difficult, and being morally correct does not automatically ensure success. It also takes hard work, public understanding, public support, and very strong leadership.

I will end not on an up-note, except of course to congratulate the people who are receiving their degrees today and express my pleasure on being here, but on a cautionary note. The situation in Yugoslavia will not go away fast. When the bombing ends, and it will end, when troops enter Kosovo, and they will enter Kosovo as a peacekeeping force, in my view, later this year, as President Clinton and the NATO countries have already pledged, the job will not have ended. Peace will have to be restored. The communities which are at each other's throats will have to live together and, that most difficult of all things, reconciliation, will have to be attempted. It's been done before; France and Germany did it after World War II; Nelson Mandela did it in South Africa. It takes great leadership from the outside and leaders from the inside who are willing to take a chance.

In that spirit, I accept this wonderful award and pledge to you that I will continue to do what little an individual can do. I encourage all of you to join in this effort as private citizens through humanitarian organizations, through your elected members of Congress and in any other way you can. Once again, I thank you so much for this great honor.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu