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Fortify Rights Receives HUC-JIR's Joseph Prize at New York Ordination 2018

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Matthew Smith presenting remarks at New York Ordination 2018

Matthew Smith, Founder and CEO of Fortify Rights, sharing remarks upon receipt of the 2018 Roger E. Joseph Prize at HUC-JIR/New York Ordination

The 2018 Roger E. Joseph Prize was presented to Fortify Rights at the Ordination Ceremonies of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Sunday, May 6, 2018 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. The Joseph Prize was accepted by Matthew Smith, Founder and CEO. His remarks are below.

Fortify Rights, based in Southeast Asia, works to ensure and defend human rights for all. This nonprofit organization investigates human rights violations, engages stakeholders, and strengthens initiatives led by human rights defenders, affected communities, and civil society. It believes in the influence of evidence-based research, the power of strategic truth-telling, and the importance of working closely with individuals, communities, and movements pushing for change. 

Fortify Rights has documented how the Myanmar Army, Air Force, Police Force, and armed civilians have carried out unprecedented, widespread, systematic, and brutally efficient mass killings and atrocities committed against the civilian men, women and children of the Rohingya population, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority living primarily in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country. This horrific persecution has resulted in the forced displacement of nearly 700,000 Rohingya since October 2016 – more than half of the entire population in northern Rakhine State.  Thousands of Rohingya survivors of the attacks continue to cross into Bangladesh, contributing to the fastest-growing outflow of refugees from a country since the Rwandan genocide.  Fortify Rights’ mounting evidence points to the threat of a new genocide in our own time.  

By independently documenting and exposing human rights violations while teaming with activists to advocate for change at local, national, and international levels, Fortify Rights aims to fortify the human rights movement.

Read Matthew Smith's remarks:

On January 10 of this year, we received a letter from Rabbi Panken notifying us that Fortify Rights had been selected to receive the 2018 Roger E. Joseph Prize. We very much looked forward to meeting President Panken here today, and it is with great sadness that we learned of his sudden passing yesterday. It is clear that this community lost a precious leader. We share in mourning his death and celebrating his life. 

Our work is not unfamiliar with loss and mourning. For several years, we’ve been working with the Rohingya Muslim community in Myanmar— a community long under attack by the Myanmar authorities.  In the last year, the Myanmar Army and their operatives forced more than 700,000 people from their homes. They burned down hundreds of villages and destroyed food stocks and religious structures. Soldiers committed dozens of massacres, throwing infant children into fires, systematically raping women and girls, slitting the throats of men and boys. 

In spending time with the family of Robert Joseph last night, together we pondered the question: Why does this happen? Why anyone ever commit genocide? The targets in this case are Rohingya Muslims. In Buddhist-majority Myanmar—also known as Burma—Rohingya Muslims are viewed as the wrong ethnicity and the wrong religion. They’re denied citizenship. They’re denied the right to vote. They’re subjected to reprehensible, daily indignities. Military and civilian leaders in the country frame them as terrorists, as interlopers, as outsiders who don’t belong. They use the Rohingya to drum up nationalistic fervor, casting the group as a common enemy who pose an existential threat. The government is using tactics right out of the genocide playbook. And they’re doing it in front of the world.

My colleagues and I at Fortify Rights have been working with communities in Southeast Asia to stop this madness. A few months ago I met a Rohingya woman who, for security reasons, we’ll call “Rashida Begum.” We met on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border not long after the Myanmar military began its latest attack. We could see smoke billowing on the horizon across the Naf River as the Myanmar Army torched villages.   Rashida is 50 years old. Before the violence, she had seven children. Now she has five. In her village, a placed called Kha Maung Seik, she watched in horror as Myanmar Army soldiers dragged two of her sons from their family home. The soldiers made the young men lay facedown on the ground. “Would you convert to Buddhism?” the soldiers shouted at the young men. And then the soldiers slit their throats. “There was so much blood,” Rashida told me, crying, willing her own survival moment to moment. “I'll never see my children again,” she told me, again and again. Rashida stared at me; her eyes welled with tears. She demanded to tell her story. She pleaded for us to tell the world what happened. She asked us to share her photo. She shared harrowing minute-by-minute details of what she witnessed and survived—the very type of detail that's necessary to hold perpetrators accountable. She participated in the truth-telling process, and she did so, she told us, in the interest of justice. 

With Rashida and hundreds of others just like her, my colleagues and I at Fortify Rights are documenting these atrocities in detail. We’re working with survivors to demand accountability. We’re working to prevent the next round of mass killings. And ultimately, we’re working to promote peace and justice.

I’m here today with our co-founder Amy Smith. We’ve lived in Southeast Asia since 2005, and we founded Fortify Rights in 2013 to document the truth, but also to provide support to communities under attack. Our team believes that if we're going to end and remedy human rights violations—whether in Southeast Asia or here in the U.S.—survivors themselves hold critical keys to progress. Together our voices are stronger. So we provide tools for those living on the frontlines of abuse so they can create a more rights-respecting world.

In today’s political moment, despots globally denounce inconvenient truths as “Fake News.” As jarring as the latest trends in that regard are, it’s nothing new. Human rights abusers always reject the truth—it’s what they do. And it’s unacceptable. Now more than ever it's critical to establish the facts. It’s critical to educate. It’s critical to act. And we all have a role to plat in that. We’re also here with Fortify Rights Partnerships Manager Jillian Tuck and Thailand Human Rights Specialist Puttanee Kangkun, our trusted advisor, the Honorable Tom Andrews; and members of our family. On behalf of our entire team at Fortify Rights, thank you. Thank you for standing with us so that these atrocities don’t go unnoticed. Thank you to Hebrew Union College and to the family of Roger Joseph.

In Myanmar, the authorities are not only attempting to destroy the Rohingya. They’re also attempting to destroy the truth. They’re attempting to destroy what you stand for. What we stand for. And what the Joseph Prize stands for. Ladies and gentlemen, “never again” is happening again. And for that reason, we’re especially grateful for your support. What we say and do today, and onward, can send a strong message to those responsible for genocide and to the survivors who are charting a new future. There is always something we can do to make the world a better place. 

We’re grateful to know that Roger Joseph and Rabbi Panken shared and practiced this ethos. Rashida Begum will not get her two sons back. She may not be able to return to her village. Her community is forever changed. This is their truth. We work so that their truth will not be similarly suffered, whether by other Rohingya or any other community facing persecution. Thank you for standing with us. And thank you for welcoming us into your community.

Watch the recording of New York Ordination >

Read more about 2018 Graduation and Ordination in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York >


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 men and women for service to 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