Thank you all. Shabbat shalom.
It’s an honor to be with you today. I’m glad to see many of my diplomatic colleagues here with us, and I’m also glad to be here with my friend, Rabbi Arthur Schneier. You all know your rabbi’s warmth and wisdom first-hand. But as a policymaker, I am particularly grateful to him for the work he does beyond this sacred house: as a voice for understanding, cultural dialogue, and religious liberty—as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Europe who has dedicated his life to ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are taught to our children and to our children’s children. It is also a special honor to be joined this morning by other survivors of the Shoah and their families. Thank you so much for being here.
Before I turn to my main topic today, I want to say a few words about a neighboring country that, even as we gather today, is enduring unfathomable anguish and loss.
Our neighbors in Haiti have known sorrow upon sorrow, blow upon blow—poverty, civil unrest, political instability, howling winds and shaking earth. It’s all too easy to assume that Haiti is somehow doomed to despair. But the fact of the matter is that—as I saw first-hand last year on a Security Council trip—Haiti’s government and its strong and resilient people had been making impressive progress toward greater stability and greater prosperity before this calamity struck. We are determined to work together with them to save lives now and to restore hope for the years to come. The United States has embarked on one of the largest relief efforts in recent history—to bind up the wounded, to feed and provide water to the hungry, and to ward off even greater catastrophe. This tragedy has only deepened our commitment to working closely together with the Government of Haiti, with the UN, which has itself suffered the worst loss in its history in recent days, with nations all around the world, and with other international partners to build a better, stronger Haiti.
Great tragedies should remind us all of our common humanity, and of our shared duty to keep faith with those who sleep in the dust. In our neighbors’ hour of greatest need, I hope you will all affirm that principle in your own way by giving as generously as you can to the many organizations doing lifesaving work in Haiti, including the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.
And now, let me turn from sorrows present to sorrows past—from tragedies unleashed by nature in our own hemisphere to atrocities planned by human beings an ocean away.
This is the Shabbat before January 27, the day in 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated, a day that has been set aside by the UN as an International Day of Commemoration for those murdered in the Holocaust.
I would like to speak briefly about the chords that this day strikes in us all—a day of limitless grief and lasting resolve.
Ladies and gentlemen, having just drawn down the curtain on the bloodiest century in human history, the United States is determined to ensure that the 21st century takes a far lesser toll on innocents who should be sheltered by the rule of law and the rules of war. Since becoming U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, I have personally reaffirmed my commitment to that cause at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, at the Kigali Memorial Center in Rwanda, and by lighting the flame at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The United States relentlessly seeks a world where we have finally learned the lessons of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of Darfur—a world where we put effective action behind the words “never again” by truly ending genocide.
I should add that this cause has a very personal dimension for me. In 1994, I was serving on the National Security Council staff at the White House. That December, I visited Rwanda for the first time—just six months after the Ex-FAR and the Interahamwe had finished with their machetes, pangas, and guns. As long as I live, I will never forget the horror of walking through a churchyard and schoolyard where one of the massacres had occurred. Six months later, the decomposing bodies of those who had been so cruelly murdered still lay thick and strewn around what should have been a place of peace. For me, the memory of stepping around those corpses will remain the most searing reminder imaginable of what we must all aim to prevent.
The horrors of the recent past demand that we not let the Holocaust be seen as somehow remote or unfathomable. We have witnessed Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and other genocides—each with its own grim place in the annals of human infamy—but nothing quite the same as the Holocaust’s unique reach, its systematized spite, its murderous bureaucracy, its premeditated, purposeful, and planned malice. As Primo Levi has written, “Never have so many human lives been extinguished in so short a time, and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism, and cruelty.”
Cruelty was the essence of that vast system of slaughter. We should resist any view of the perpetrators as simply banal, as mindless cogs in the engine of mass murder. Each and every life taken—by the pitiless firing squads tramping behind the Wehrmacht legions, by the deliberately created privation of the ghettoes, by the cruelly constructed factories of death—each and every life taken was taken by a long chain of breathing, thinking people. Those were people manning the guard towers. Those were people calculating the schedules of the trains. Those were people pulling the switches and the triggers. The Nazis built a vast system of institutionalized cruelty, but no system runs itself. Sometimes, as Christopher Browning and others have written, ordinary men are capable of the most extraordinary viciousness.
The perpetrators made their choices. So too did the bystanders, the people and governments who turned the other way in the hour of moral emergency. But so too did the righteous among the nations—the villagers who took in desperate neighbors—the diplomats who shoved aside bureaucracy and timidity to help fleeing Jews escape the Nazi snare—the office secretary in Amsterdam who helped hide her boss’s family for two years, including a young girl named Anne Frank—the citizens who risked their lives for others almost as a matter of course—the quiet men and women who will forever remind us that human beings are capable not just of unimaginable cruelty but also of unimaginable bravery.
We do not choose the circumstances in which we live, but we do choose the way we respond to them. We choose. We all choose. Even in the face of the most terrible tyranny, we choose. That is the basis of moral agency—choices, large and small, that add up to reveal our character.
As President Obama put it in Oslo, we must face the world as it is—a world in which human beings can rise to the most astonishing heroism or sink to the most awful depravity—a world in which we must do more than just bear witness—a world in which choices matter.
We must choose to keep faith with those targeted by killers and demagogues, with those hounded from their homes by the callous and the cruel.
We must choose to celebrate the different ways in which we have all been created.
We must choose to defend the rights that all people have but that not all people can exercise.
We must choose to work together to expand the reach of decency, to resist the preachers of division, to refuse to stand by lest innocent blood be shed.
Atrocities are not inevitable. They need not be part of the landscape of world politics—unless we let them be. We can all be proud that the United States has placed its Holocaust Memorial Museum by our National Mall, not far from the home of our founding documents. We have deliberately placed the imperatives of memory and action alongside our most cherished national values. The Constitution embodies what we stand for. Auschwitz embodies what we stand against.
This week’s Torah portion speaks of the way that Pharoah hardened his heart to justify oppression. Today, we still face those who reject our common humanity to justify uncommon callousness. We still face those who see difference as a spur for spite rather than a source of strength. We still face those who deny the plain facts of history. We still face those who seek to ride the tide of malice and mistrust—those who make a career of hatred and division.
We may never find an end to oppression. But we will never stop trying to find one. Jewish tradition, after all, offers a simple and stern teaching that has inspired countless men and women to try to part the waters of injustice. Even those who are comfortable and prosperous are obliged to identify with the powerless and the desperate—to be voices of the voiceless—to see ourselves as if we personally had once been slaves to Pharoah, and to stand up for those who still endure the bite and burden of shackles from new oppressors today.
So in the early years of a new century, we must work together to apply the lessons of the last decade’s bitter succession of genocides. We must work together to mete out justice to the perpetrators. We must work together to build up the world’s capacity to respond surely and swiftly to mass slaughter. And we must work together to prevent conflict before an ember becomes a blaze.
We all know the greatest obstacle to swift action in the face of atrocities is, ultimately, political will. The hard truth is that stopping genocide requires more than just the wisdom to see a way to save innocents from the knives and the guns. It requires above all the courage and the compassion to act.
The United States believes that countries have particularly vital duties to shield their own populations from the depraved and the murderous. And we believe that other states, in turn, have a responsibility to help if a state cannot meet its fundamental duties to its citizens—or to take collective action if a state will not meet that essential responsibility.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are determined to do far more in the future to save the innocent and the vulnerable. But we cannot bring back the six million. We cannot bring back those cut down in the killing fields of Cambodia. We cannot bring back those driven out under the twisted banner of “ethnic cleansing.” We cannot bring back those shot in cold blood in Srebrenica. We cannot bring back those who fell beneath the machetes of Rwanda. We cannot bring back those already murdered in the genocide in Darfur.
We can only rededicate ourselves to our shared commitment to human rights and human dignity—and to a few stark and powerful beliefs.
We believe that even in war, there are rules. We believe that even in the pursuit of power, there are limits. We believe that even in a violent world, there are rights. And that always, there is hope.
Thank you all.
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