Dr. Madeleine Albright's 2019 HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Address - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Dr. Madeleine Albright's 2019 HUC-JIR/New York Graduation Address

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Monday, May 6, 2019

Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State and Chair, Albright Stonebridge Group, presented the Graduation address at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's New York Graduation Ceremonies on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York: 

President Rehfeld, thank you, I love that American public sphere statement, and I’m going to steal it from you.

Rabbi Adelson and members of the HUC-JIR faculty and board of governors and friends and fellow degree recipients: good afternoon.

The last time I spoke in this auditorium, I was sharing a public stage with Dick Cheney. Hopefully today will be at least as much fun.

I want to first thank you for the honorary degree. As this audience well knows, a degree is a precious thing. It is very satisfying to work hard and earn one. It is an utter delight to receive one simply for showing up.

But on a serious note, it is humbling to be associated now, in a small way, with this institution’s storied history and sacred mission.

For nearly 150 years, Hebrew Union College has been the intellectual hub of Reform Judaism in America and around the world.

The faculty and alumni of this school comprise a kind of liberal Jewish dream team or, to be a little more up-to-date, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Your scholarship is impressive, your moral leadership invaluable, and your commitment to the common good unceasing.

So I am deeply honored to be invited to share with you this very special day.

I have given many graduation addresses before, but usually to undergraduates, and typically at secular institutions.

To these younger students, I always speak very personally and try to be inspirational.

I urge them to aim high, to go for the gold, to remember what is truly important, and above all, to avoid clichés like the plague.

This audience is much more experienced and mature, and you are also grappling, in your professional and personal lives, with a host of serious issues – including the alarming resurgence of anti-Semitism in this country, Europe, and elsewhere.

So I want to use this opportunity to speak to some of those challenges, and to share some reflections on the role of religion in world affairs – the subject of a book that I wrote more than a decade ago.

I will begin on a personal note.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that I was not yet born when this school was established in 1875. Nevertheless, I do feel a connection with its founder, Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise.

Like Rabbi Wise, I was born in what is now the Czech Republic. And like him, my family came to America in search of freedom.

Before arriving in New York harbor on a cold November day in 1948, we had been forced to leave our home in Prague not once, but twice.

First, when I was an infant, and the Nazis invaded; and then, after the war when the Communists took over.

When my parents reached the United States, they truly cherished the liberty they found.

And even many years later, my mother would call on the Fourth of July to ask whether her grandchildren were singing patriotic songs.

Meanwhile, my father – who had been a Czechoslovak diplomat – wrote books about the dangers of intolerance and the importance of defending freedom.

Given this experience, I understood early that international affairs was not just an academic subject that affected people far away.

It was a matter of life and death for real people, whose fate could be determined by the moral and policy choices that we made.

These convictions were only strengthened for me during my years as Secretary of State.

And I’ll never forget being sworn into that job and walking for the first time into my new office. 

To get there, I had to go down a long corridor lined with portraits of all my predecessors – only distinguishable as to whether they were clean shaven or had whiskers.

But as I walked by, I thought I could feel the walls shake a bit.

I felt on top of the world and excited by the challenges and eager to begin.

Then, just as I was completely focused on the future, I received some highly emotional news about the past.

A reporter had been doing research about my family and uncovered some information I had not known.

Three of my grandparents and more than two dozen of my relatives had died in the Holocaust – killed, like millions of others, not because of anything they had done, but because they were Jews.

That summer, I visited the Pinkas synagogue in Prague, which I had been to earlier, but it had never occurred to me to look at the names that were on the wall.

The synagogue was the same as it had been on my earlier visit, but I was not the same – not as I searched for and found the names of Ruzena Spieglova and Arnost and Olga Korbel among the tens of thousands inscribed on the walls.

I am very glad now to know the truth.

It has prompted me to learn more about my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and to begin to pay their memory the honor that is due.

It has allowed me to feel a closer connection to the Jewish community, whose accomplishments I have always admired.

And it has added a new and intensely personal dimension to my thinking about world affairs, especially about the importance of standing up to evil and in helping free people work together on behalf of liberty and human rights.

I am often asked whether discovering that my family was Jewish changed any of my views on foreign policy.

The answer is no. When I was Ambassador to the UN, before I learned about my family’s story, I was among those who advocated for action to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

My thinking had already been shaped by my knowledge of the Holocaust. I simply had not known that it applied to my own family.

What this experience did was to reinforce basic values that have been with me all my life.

More than half a century ago, my father wrote that whether we are “conservatives or progressives, white, black or yellow – we can all accept…that human dignity and respect for the individual” must be “the focus of everything.”

“The focus of everything” is a pretty big statement, but I think it fits.

Throughout the cold war, respect for the individual was the principle that spelled the difference between Soviet collectivism and the freedoms we cherish in the West.

Now this same principle is at the heart of a new divide.

On the one side are those, like us, who believe that we are commanded to love our neighbors as we do ourselves – not an easy task. On the other side are those who see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual is a disposable pawn.

They are the fanatics who have turned religion into a weapon and who confuse cold-blooded murder with martyrdom.

They are the advocates of extreme nationalism, whose slogans echo the siren song of Fascism – where one is either in the club or out, a member of the elect or nothing.

They are the ones who use the internet as a tool to promote prejudice, spreading lies aimed at denying dignity to immigrants and refugees.

And they are the reason why the plagues of anti-Semitism, terrorism, racism, and anti-Muslim violence not only persist, but also are getting worse.

I have just written a book looking at the history of Fascism. And what that history shows is that when societies feel surrounded by uncertainty about their identity, about their future, about their governments, they often look for someone – a scapegoat – to blame.

They develop a hunger for easy answers and quick solutions.

And they are eager to listen when a demagogue comes along who knows how to exploit their anger and who tells them exactly what they want to hear. And as the momentum behind that demagogue builds, it becomes harder and harder for good people to make their voices heard.

Some might think it possible to make too much of such things, and especially of inflammatory speech by political leaders, which is, after all, just words.

But as we mark the beginning of Yom Hashoah this evening, and as we reflect on last weekend’s events in California, we remember what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said some decades ago, “Speech has power and words do not fade. What starts as a sound ends in a deed.”

That is why we are so concerned when we see leaders today who propagate conspiracy theories designed to nurture hate and fear among average citizens, who encourage followers to lash out at people who differ from themselves, and who promise simple solutions to hard problems through the repression and degradation of others – including those from different faiths.

I am not saying that the 1930s have returned. I am saying that there are enough warning signs to merit our alarm.

It is striking that we have, just in the past six months, witnessed horrific assaults against members of all three Abrahamic religions – in Poway, Pittsburgh, Louisiana, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka.

These were attacks against people of faith, justified – in some cases – by twisted interpretations of religious texts.

In the aftermath of such horror, some might be tempted to hope, as John Lennon once did, for a world free from all forms of identity – including religion.

I disagree.

We know what a globe plagued by strife between and within religions is like. 

We do not know what it would be like to live in a world where religious faith is absent.

We have, however, had hints of that possibility courtesy of Lenin, Stalin and Adolf Hitler – whose apologists conjured up a soulless Christianity which denied and defamed its Jewish roots. 

It is easy to blame religion for the world’s troubles.

It is also easy to take for granted the heroic contributions people of faith make and have always made to justice, healing and peace.

I shudder to think what our culture might be like if not for the teachings of such people as Hillel and Jesus of Nazareth and Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise and the Reverend Martin Luther King.

Religion is not the problem.

The problem we face is our incessant failure as human beings to keep pride in “us” from curdling into hatred of “them.”

And that is when plowshares are pounded into swords and religion becomes a pretext for violence.

Not long ago after September 11, I was on an interfaith panel with Elie Wiesel. 

He asked us to name the unhappiest character in the Bible.

Some said Job, because of the trials he endured.

Some said Moses, because he was denied entry to the Promised Land.

Some said Mary, because she witnessed the Crucifixion of her son.

Wiesel said he believed the right answer was God, because of the pain he must surely feel in seeing us fight, kill and abuse each other in the Lord’s name.  

And that’s why I believe we have no greater task than to build bridges of understanding and tolerance before mutual ignorance and insecurity harden into an unbridgeable chasm of hate.

And that’s also why I believe that you, as graduates of this storied institution, have no more important duty than to ensure that religion is positive force in the affairs of the world.

Is this possible?

Of course it is.

In recent years, religious leaders – and followers – from a variety of faiths have been playing a critical role on key issues.

Examples include the campaign to curb greenhouse gas emissions; the approval of a global agenda for sustainable development between now and 2030; the fight to protect the rights of migrant families at our southern border; the effort to end the human suffering caused by the wars in Syria and Yemen; and the unceasing work to forge peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people.

Amid all the troubles of our era, the call of conscience is still being heard – leading to the question of how we can truly realize religion’s potential to bring people together.

What worries me is that our politics and media are full of figures who want to exaggerate differences and exploit fears.

But what encourages me is looking out at this audience, knowing that all of you agree that the greatest pursuit of all is neither money nor fame, but healing the world – tikkun olam.

That is the mission that generations of Jewish leaders have pursued, and it will always be your sacred task.

As you engage in that effort, I ask you to keep in mind another quotation from Rabbi Heschel: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

If we look back through history to today’s problems, we will find many demagogues who are clever, at least for a time; we will not find many who are kind.

And this says something pretty basic, because if we push aside all the debates over politics and public policy, we are left with the simple challenge of treating every person with dignity and respect.

Meeting that standard is the single most decisive answer to racism, sexism and bigotry of all kinds.

It is a standard that HUC has not only taught, but also acted on.

In my remarks today I have twice quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the twentieth century’s most revered Jewish leaders.

Born in Warsaw in the early 1900s, this wonderful man fled Poland just six weeks before the Nazi invasion, aided by a seminary president named Julian Morgenstern who had obtained a visa for him to come and teach.

The name of that seminary?

Hebrew Union College.

More than eighty years have passed since Rabbi Heschel sought refuge in the United States. The world has changed, but we are still in the presence of shadows from that time.

We cannot stand idly by and let acts of terror against Jews become the new normal in this country.

We should all reflect on the words of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who lost a beloved congregant and his own index finger in the synagogue shooting last weekend.

In an op-ed that appeared just yesterday, he wrote the following: “America is unique in world history. Never before was a country founded on the ideals that all people are created in God’s image and that all people deserve freedom and liberty. We fought a war to make that promise real. And I believe we can make it real again.”

Friends, our charge is to work to make that promise real again. And in case we should ever doubt our ability to make that happen, I would like to close today by sharing a story that may be familiar to some of you.

It is about a man who does nothing but complain about all that is wrong in the world – the cruelty, pain, repression, disease, poverty, and suffering.

Day after day, the man whines to God and bitterly accuses him of seeing all this agony and not lifting a divine finger to prevent it.

Finally, a voice is heard thundering down from above,

“Stifle yourself,” it booms. “I, too, am grieved by the hardships endured by mortals, but you are wrong to say that I have done nothing to make possible a better world.

In fact, I have done everything necessary. I created you.”

It would be wonderful to think that we had not made God the unhappiest character in the Bible. Because in the end, our religious texts include enough rhetorical ammunition to start a war and enough moral uplift to engender permanent peace, if institutions such as HUC and people such as you help to make sure that peace is the message that we all hear.

Thank you again so much, for honoring me today and for letting me be a part of your community. And thank you for everything you have done, and will do, to make real the promise of a better America and a better world. Mazel tov.


Learn more about 2019 Graduation and Ordination in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York.

Watch Madame Secretary Albright's Graduation Address.

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