Hello, LABDIEN (Laab-Dee-en)! My name is Hannah Rosenthal, and I am the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State. In Latvian, envoy means “Īpašā sūtne” (EE-pash-ah SOOT-neh). Thank you for inviting me here today to speak to you about the importance of diversity and respect for others. I am always eager to speak to young students because so much of my work depends on your help.
As the Special Envoy, it is my job to monitor anti-Semitic incidents and combat such intolerance. “Anti-Semitism” simply means hatred for Jewish people. I monitor anti-Semitic incidents such as vandalism of religious places, anti-Semitic speech, and even violence against Jews.
But the truth is, I am in the relationship-building business. I am here today to tell you that young people and students can have an impact and do what I do. We must all share and strive for the same mission: to combat hate and intolerance to create a more peaceful and just world.
In order to fight hatred, we must begin with respecting the dignity of every individual, regardless of his or her beliefs. In fact, our differences make us human. You may have heard about the concept of the “Other,” or in Latvian, “svešinieks” (SVESH-ee-nieks). There are individuals in this world who would like us to view some people as outside the larger human family.
The desire to stamp out or suppress or ostracize certain individuals because of who they are, how they worship, or who they love is an obstacle for all members of society. Intolerance prevents us from creating a just and peaceful society. Meanwhile, we, as society, must not stand by idly. When we stand by passively, we also pay a price.
Terrible things can happen when intolerance and racism take hold in a society, across a continent. Hitler’s Nazi ideology called for racial purity and targeted the Jews as an Other that needed to be exterminated. Some of you may know that yesterday communities around the world observed Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yom HaShoah is a day to remember the victims of the Holocaust and to commemorate the individuals – including some Latvians — who risked their lives to save the Jews. I understand Latvia has its own official Holocaust Remembrance Day on July 4. While we officially commemorate the Holocaust on these days, we must carry their lessons with us every day. We must stand against attitudes that value some individuals below others. We must expand the circle of rights and opportunities to all people – advancing their freedoms and possibilities.
Intolerance is a moral, a political, and a social problem. But it is also a solvable one. It is not unchangeable. We are not born hating. Somewhere we learn to hate. We can, in fact, make hatred and intolerance something of the past. But this demands our attention. It’s not easy work, but it is urgent work.
At the U.S. State Department (which is like the Foreign Ministry in Latvia) I work within the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The primary and overarching goal of the Bureau is to promote freedom and democracy and protect human rights around the world. We are constantly strengthening our policies and pushing ourselves and others to break down former walls of intolerance. Over the past three years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – “LGBT” in shorthand — a priority of our human rights policy. As Secretary Clinton emphatically stated, “Gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights.”
In the United States, we are inspired by the idea that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. The United States has a strong multi-ethnic heritage. Over the course of centuries, many people have immigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life with more opportunities. We embrace this diversity and continue to uphold these values in our everyday lives, actions and laws.
I am learning that Latvia too has a diverse and multicultural history. Various tribes — the Livs, the Letts, and the Cours — lived here for many centuries. People from Germany, Sweden, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and many other places have played an important part in Latvia’s history. Jews have also contributed to Latvia’s heritage since the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, a Jewish man named Abraham Kuntze invented the famous Rigas Balzam (Latvia’s signature liquor). Latvia’s Jews backed the independence movement in the early twentieth century, with hundreds volunteering for service in the Latvian Army and fighting heroically during the war for independence. Latvia’s Jews thrived during the independence period of the 1920s and 30s, serving in parliament and helping write Latvia’s constitution. Zigfrids Meierovics (MAY-ro-vich), the first Foreign Minister of Latvia, and twice Prime Minister, had a Jewish father.
Sadly, when the Soviets arrived in Latvia in 1940, they shut down Jewish institutions and seized Jews’ property. When the Soviets deported tens of thousands of Latvians to Siberia, hundreds of Latvian Jews were deported as well. And then, just over one year later, the Holocaust followed and approximately 70,000 of Latvia’s Jews – almost 90 percent – were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.
And yet, the Jewish people survived in Latvia. In the 1980s and 90s, Latvia’s Jews once again supported Latvian independence from the Soviet Union, lending their efforts to those of the Popular Front of Latvia. Jews stood on the barricades in 1991. Today, Jews – along with all other Latvians — are free to practice their faith and to celebrate their culture in a free Latvia. Latvian society is richer, and more diverse, because of the contributions of all these people.
Of course, neither Latvia, nor the United States, is perfect. There are people in both of our countries who do not believe in diversity and respect in every society. However, if we condemn their words of hate, we can spread the message of dignity and respect.
Anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred attack the very idea that every individual is born free and equal in dignity and rights. But Jews, Christians, Muslims and all religious communities are all part of the same family we call humanity. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. My father was arrested – on Kristallnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and sent with many fellow Jews to prison and then to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. And he was the lucky one – every other person in his family was murdered at Auschwitz. I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.
At the State Department, we are trying to make human rights a human reality. As the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I have recognized that this will not be possible without the help of you, our youth and future leaders.
Last year my colleague Farah Pandith, the Special Representative to Muslims Communities, and I launched a virtual campaign called “2011 Hours Against Hate,” using Facebook. Perhaps you have heard of it? We are asking you, young people around the world, to pledge a number of hours to volunteer to help or serve a population different than their own. We ask that you work with people who may look different, or pray differently or live differently. For example, a young Jew might volunteer time to read books at a Muslim pre-school, or a Russian Orthodox at a Jewish clinic, or a Muslim at a Baha’i food pantry, or a straight woman at an LGBT center. We want to encourage YOU to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. And while our goal was to get 2011 hours pledged, at the end of last year youth all over the world had pledged tens of thousands of hours.
The campaign was, in fact, so successful that we continued it into 2012. Thanks to a group of British non-governmental organizations, we are now also partnering with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games! In January, the London Olympic and Paralympics approved our application to have 2012 Hours Against Hate branded with the Olympics logo. We can now leverage the energy surrounding the 2012 Olympics to encourage athletes and fans alike to participate in combating hate and pledging their time to help or serve someone who is different from them.
Farah and I have met hundreds of young people – students and young professionals – in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. They want to DO something. And I have a feeling that YOU want to DO something too. Last summer, Farah and I met with youth and interfaith leaders in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon, and discussed reaching out to others, increasing tolerance and understanding among different religious groups, and addressed intolerance in their textbooks and lessons. Last month we traveled to Albania to encourage students from Tirana University and the local Madrasah to participate in 2012 Hours Against Hate. We held a panel discussion on the importance of religious diversity, and encouraged Albanian youth to live up to their country’s important legacy of acceptance and courage: Albania was the only country that saved all of its Jews during the Holocaust. Really, we have just begun.
So while I fight anti-Semitism, I am also aware that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability, not international events, not isolated incidents of hate.
Since the beginning of humankind, hate has been around, but since then too, good people of all faiths and backgrounds have worked to combat it. The Jewish tradition tells us that “you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Together, we must confront and combat the many forms of hatred in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas and reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can – and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.
Thank you again for inviting me here to speak to you today. I am now happy and excited to answer your questions.