Rabbi David Saperstein: To introduce two people for whom my admiration is unbounded – “kosi’ re-vaya” – “my cup runneth over.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is widely regarded as one of the great congregational rabbis in this past generation, whose synagogue modeled, inspired some of the most creative responses to the challenges of contemporary Jewish life, in worship, in education, in absorbing environmental ethics into their work and, above all, in social justice work. And now he is here speaking for the first time as the president of the Union for Reformed Judaism. As President of the URJ, he quickly emerged as one of the most creative, visionary, and forceful leaders of denominational life of any religion on the American religious scene, and his presence is an honor to all of us.
It is my great delight to welcome our keynote speaker—discussant—the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. It would of course be unusual for a president to chose a key adviser and cabinet member who doesn’t have some prior experience in Washington, but Ambassador Rice has more than most. She is that rare breed, shared by many from the Washington Hebrew congregational community—a born and bred Washingtonian. In fact, she graduated as valedictorian from National Cathedral School—just two blocks from here—where she was also a star basketball player. That is impressive in and of itself, but even more so when you consider that she is five foot three. Although, I do recollect that she was six foot two before her current job.
Cynicism too often creates a filter through which people view the UN, yet the world is such a better place because of it—its extraordinary history, peacekeeping, of human rights expansion, of relief and development across the globe. Today, it cares for millions of refugees and deprived children, feeds millions more starving people in war zones and natural disaster situations and health emergencies through the World Food Program. Rick and I saw first-hand the work of the World Food Program, which was providing food to every one of the Darfur refugee camps that we visited together. It helps run elections in burgeoning democracies; is at the heart of the global battle against HIV and other infectious diseases. In other words, the United Nations represents the Jewish agenda that we have embraced as a moral message to the world. The World Food Program, UNICEF, High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Development Program, International Court of Justice, World Health Organization, and the list goes on and on and on and on. And these agencies represent some of the great moral achievements of humanity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
My friends, I am particularly proud of our movement’s own support for the UN from before its inception until today. We may be critical of discrete but important aspects of its institutional life, most particularly the anti-Israel bias in the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. And we have had serious concerns with specific policies, of agencies like UNRWA and the International Criminal Court. But it is a badge of honor for us that our legendary Jane Evans, founder—founding director of the Women for Reformed Judaism served on a committee in San Francisco in 1945 charged to draft pieces of the UN charter, with Rabbi Eisendrath helped found Religions for Peace, one of the most influential religious NGOs at the UN. Al Vorspan and Gene Lipman—where are you, Essie? Esssie Lipman? Raise your hand. There she is. Where Gene Lipman and Al Vorspan housed Rafael Lemkin at our URJ headquarters for several years as he worked valiantly to see the implementation of the UN Genocide Treaty he wrote. And later he donated his papers to the Religious Action Center. That we have had NGO representation at the UN from the beginning, carried on for the last couple of decades by the indefatigable Judy Hertz. And that we have been and will be champions of efforts to maintain robust US support for the United Nations.
U.S. engagement with the UN is critical to our affirming our role and responsibility as a global leader. And no one knows that better, takes that responsibility more seriously, or has been more effective than Ambassador Susan Rice. Throughout the past four years, she has been amongst the strongest and most compelling voices shaping American foreign policy and changing our world for the better. She is a champion of human rights and human dignity—dazzlingly brilliant for any who have worked with her. She is a fun colleague and a good friend. And the reach of her expertise, where I have had the honor of interacting with her over the last twenty years on U.S. foreign concerns, is enormous, allowing her to do extraordinary work on specific areas.
She served as one of the most effective Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs our nation has ever had and then shifted back to responsibilities involving the shaping of the broadest contours of U.S. foreign policy. And, under her leadership, the U.S. Mission at the UN has won several rounds of the stiffest UN sanctions ever against Iran and North Korea, unprecedented action to prevent nuclear proliferation, support the life-saving interventions in Libya and Côte d'Ivoire, the creation of the new nation of South Sudan—an issue on which she has literally been a hero—and I remind you with pride that the Sudan Peace Act was partly drafted in the Religious Action Center conference room thanks to our RAC senior adviser Michael Horowitz—vital UN assistance to Afghanistan and Iraq, and progress in reforming the flawed Human Rights Council. Ambassador Rice’s fierce defense of Israel at the UN has been a blessing for our community, our nation, including quarterbacking the U.S. response to the biased Goldstone report, the flotilla incident, the Palestinian bid last year for a change in status at the UN, where the US yet again stood so strongly by Israel, as this Administration has done in so many ways. Susan Rice is among President Obama’s closest and most trusted advisers, a champion of U.S. interests on the global stage. She is a great friend of Israel, of our community, of our movement, and she has made extraordinary efforts to be with us tonight because she shares the values that we cherish. It is our great honor to have her with us to begin this Consultation on Conscience. Ladies and Gentlemen, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
Ambassador Rice: Wow, remind me to never to follow Rabbi Saperstein at the podium. David, thank you so much for that incredibly warm and generous introduction. I’m deeply moved, and I want to thank Rabbi David Saperstein and everyone who worked so hard to bring this year’s Consultation on Conscience together. David’s courage, his leadership and wisdom have truly been a guiding light to me and to so many colleagues in this Administration. He is a true friend and a true mensch. I’m also very glad to be here with the warm and wise Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the tremendous new head of this great movement. He came to my residence last September for a meeting with community leaders right before the UN General Assembly opened, and I was very moved because at the end he delivered a powerful blessing for all of us—and believe me, we needed it.
I’m deeply grateful as well to all of you and for everything that the RAC and the Reform Movement do to help perfect our union. You helped draft the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and as David just reminded, the Sudan Peace Act. You helped bring us closer to the prophetic traditions of social and economic justice. The Reform movement and the RAC are agents of change, and I am very delighted to be with you here tonight—and very proud that my 15-year-old son is able to join us and to see what this is all about.
I wanted to be with you as well to reiterate this important message, and that is that the Obama Administration will continue to walk arm-in-arm with this community to promote tzedek—social justice for all—at home and abroad, from the campaign for common-sense gun control to the drive to prevent genocide anywhere.
President Obama has deepened America’s commitment to Israel’s security, peace, and well-being, and as he made clear yet again a few weeks ago in Jerusalem, we will not rest in the crucial work of defending Israel’s security and legitimacy every day at the United Nations.
And finally, as we all know, our great nation is not yet perfect. Our world still cries out for repair. When President Obama spoke at the URJ two years ago, he framed his remarks around one word you know well from the Bible: Hineini—here I am. Here I am to answer the call.
And here we are, gathered together to do our part in the holy work of tikkun olam. Gathered together, in the words of the Prophet Micah, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Gathered together because we know we can do so much more when we act as one than when we allow ourselves to be torn apart.
So thank you all. Thank you, David and Rick. And I look forward to our conversation. Thank you for welcoming me.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Madam Ambassador, it’s a privilege and a great honor to have you here to have this conversation. I have to say I’m greatly relieved that we’re sitting talking as opposed to meeting each other on the basketball court. I may be very tall, but I hear you go left and right.
Ambassador Rice: More left. (laughter)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: In this crowd—this is probably where you want to come. So we’d love to talk with you about some of the most important issues obviously facing the UN but also our country. And I’d like to begin with Israel. We think about the reality that some parts of the UN have long been incredibly hostile to the State of Israel, and our community is deeply grateful for all that you do every single day to fight the good fight and to defend Israel. But I want to know just in general and in specifics, how is that fight going? It’s an uphill climb to be sure, and do you see any means of curtailing the obsessive focus on Israel at the UN, especially in the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council? And it’s unbelievably painful to see unfair attacks on Israel, often by some of the worst abusers of human rights. So can you help us get a sense of where this work is and where you think it’s headed, and is it a moment for optimism or for more caution?
Ambassador Rice: Thank you, (inaudible) a huge part of the work—
Audience: We can’t hear.
Ambassador Rice: How’s that? There we go. Ok.
It’s a huge part of the work of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations—what I do and what my colleagues do, up and down from the most senior to the working level desk officer—to work on behalf of Israel’s security and legitimacy. It’s just as much a part of the job description as negotiating on Syria or Sudan in the Security Council.
And we work hand-in-hand with the Israeli mission. And their mission is quite a bit smaller than ours, but it punches above its weight. And we are really in lockstep on so many issues. And the challenges come up every day in ways large and small. It could be, you know, where a placard is placed in a meeting, or it could be something as consequential as the Palestinian bid in 2011 to become a full member state of the United Nations.
Whatever the issue, whether it’s a resolution that is unfairly critical of Israel—and tragically there are many of those—or whether it is an effort to keep Israel out of a leadership role in important bodies, we are fighting to prevent that, and actually, we have not a bad record, despite the numbers in the General Assembly. We were able, for example, back in 2011, without having to exercise our veto—although we were ready to do so—to muster the numbers so that the Palestinian bid for member state status could not even pass out of the Security Council into the General Assembly.
Now, in the Security Council, where the United States has a veto and where many of the products need to be agreed by consensus—we don’t even have to use the veto, we can just say no—we’re able to do a great deal to prevent unbalanced texts or unbalanced products from emerging. And that’s what we did with respect to the flotilla. That’s what we did last November in the context of the conflict in Gaza. That’s what we did on the board of inquiry report for Operation Cast Lead. That’s the daily work that we’re able to do, and we’re able to do quite effectively.
The harder part, as you mentioned, is in the General Assembly, where more than two-thirds of the membership have recognized Palestine as a state on a bilateral basis, and, of course, voted last fall to give them non-member state observer status. And there are scores of resolutions that pass through the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council yearly that we vigorously oppose. We whip others to oppose, but the numbers are exceedingly lop-sided.
But sometimes we can change the language on the margins to make it better. There are many resolutions that we’re able to vote in favor of that we have modified so that the language is fair or more balanced—so that the United States and Israel can join in resolutions that may address sensitive topics related to Israel or the conflict but do so in a way that we have been able to accept.
So it is a daily challenge, and, you know, frustrations are enormous. I mean, it’s absolutely outrageous. It’s unfair. It’s, you know, hypocritical. It’s all kinds of things that you can imagine, and yet, despite all of that, Israel is making real progress at the United Nations. The flip-side of the story is often not known or appreciated. Israel was selected as a vice president of the General Assembly and is serving in that capacity. Israel is serving with distinction on the boards of the United Nations Development Program and UNICEF and the UN Environmental Program. It’s been elected to the important committee on NGOs that selects the NGO’s that get accredited to the United Nations. It led the Kimberly Process very recently—the process that oversees the conflict minerals global regime. And Israel every year has been sponsoring very important and groundbreaking resolutions in the Security Council—excuse me, the General Assembly. This past year, one on entrepreneurship and development. The year before that, one on agriculture and technology and development. And they are passing by overwhelming margins. So, on substantive issues, Israel is leading. It is being granted more leadership opportunities and the benefits of Israel’s leadership are being felt by the entirety of the body. So it’s a mixed bag, quite honestly, but it is a huge piece of business for the United States to stand and defend and walk side by side with Israel in the hostile territory of the General Assembly.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Thank you. We think about obviously the State of Israel as just a part of our very heart and soul of who we are, but we also have a mission that tells us to be not just defending and standing up for own rights. But as we look around Israel and see the Middle East and all the different challenges of the Arab Spring, particularly painful, I think, for many of us, has been the two-year war—the brutal and horrific war—in Syria. How can we think about the UN and the U.S.’s role and somehow—I mean, obviously, it’s a fairly complex issue to be sure. Fairly complex is an understatement. Israel is confounded by so many dimensions to what’s going on in Syria, but it is on the border. And for any person of conscience—and we’re here to talk about conscience—to just witness the bloodshed, the unending slaughter of innocent people, it’s overwhelming. So can you just share with us what—what are some possible ways in which the UN and the U.S. can potentially play a constructive role? We’re already two years into it, but it feels like—it’s demanding people of conscience stand up, at least now.
Ambassador Rice: Absolutely. This is personally for me—and I think for many of us as policymakers—the most frustrating and demoralizing and horrifying issue that we’re wrestling with because it is so complex in so many dimensions, and there are no good answers at this point. So let’s start with the United Nations.
In a case like this, one would hope that the United Nations would be in the position not only to condemn what is going on and offer support for the many who are suffering, and the role of the United Nations in the humanitarian capacity is very important. They are delivering assistance. They are caring for the refugees, now millions—over a million who have fled across the borders. They are providing life-saving food and relief. And yet the Security Council—the body that ought to be in a position to sanction the Assad regime or to contemplate collective action to protect civilians—has been stymied three times by Russian and Chinese double vetoes. And these are vetoes of resolutions that didn’t do any of those things that I just suggested. They didn’t impose sanctions. They didn’t operate under Chapter VII of the Charter. They weren’t contemplating any military intervention. In fact, they explicitly excluded the use of military force, and yet we couldn’t even get the basic degree of unity of action on Syria. And it is profoundly frustrating. And to be very candid, it’s hard to argue that a year after—almost a year, not quite a year after—the last veto, that we’re any closer to a shared approach with the Russians and the Chinese.
So the United States has been acting not only in support of the UN and its humanitarian agenda. We’ve turned in fact to the General Assembly, where the General Assembly for a change—in contrast to what I was describing a few minutes ago with respect to Israel—the General Assembly has come together multiple times—and will do so again in the coming weeks—on resolutions that have been quite important and progressive and brought together over 130 of the UN member states to do and say in the General Assembly what we’re unable to do and say in the Security Council. Now, it has a different weight in terms of international law, but it is an important statement that the majority of member states, including many of the states in the region, share our concerns about what is going on and share a desire to see this resolved in a fashion that realizes the aspirations of the Syrian people.
From the U.S. point of view, we have acted in many ways beyond the realm of the United Nations. We lent substantive and significant support to the Syrian opposition, and Secretary Kerry announced just a couple of days ago yet again a dramatic increase in our non-lethal support to the opposition—support of the kind—it includes medical supplies and food, but it goes beyond that now to the kinds of support that they think will be crucial to give the opposition—the moderate opposition—the ability to deliver on the ground to people.
And now, quite frankly, there is a contest going on within the opposition that remains somewhat divided between those with extremist agendas and those who are basically carrying on the mantle of the civilian uprising that began this conflict. And one of the tricky things about our engagement is to try to bolster the moderates and support unity among the opposition without in any way empowering or enabling extremists whose agenda now and down the road would be antithetical to our own.
We’re also pushing sanctions, and while the United Nations Security Council has been unable to sanction Syria, the United States, the European Union, and a number of countries have put pretty powerful sanctions on Syria. And that economic pressure is gradually degrading the Assad regime’s access to hard currency and eroding the economic foundations. The humanitarian assistance—we’re the largest donor of humanitarian assistance for Syria and the neighboring countries that are hosting refugees. We’ve committed over $385 million to that. And we are also working very closely with those that are trying to ensure future accountability for the crimes that the Assad regime is committing. And the Human Rights Council in Geneva has established, actually, a very effective commission of inquiry that’s been documenting atrocities and building, what will be—we hope—one day an incredible bill of indictment that can be used to hold Assad and other criminals responsible and accountable.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: Thank you. So we talk and our president talks about tikkun olam, which isn’t just repairing. But there’s an olam—there is a world. And that world is not just in North America. It’s not just in the Middle East. It’s literally the whole world. So can we spend a few minutes talking about human rights priorities literally around the globe? So the United Nations Human Rights Council recently called for a mechanism to address human rights abuses based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The protection of fundamental rights of the LGBT community has been a proud and a major part of our movement’s civil and human rights agenda, including early steps to welcome the LGBT community into our congregations, embracing gay marriage, and fighting against employment discrimination. And I know you just returned recently from Brazil, where this was a major item on your agenda. Can you speak about the challenges that LGBT individuals face around the world and what the UN is doing to protect their basic human rights?
Ambassador Rice: Thank you. That’s a great question. We—when the Obama administration came into office and took up the seat at the United Nations, we have been focused on having the United States lead in protecting the rights of LGBT persons around the world. We’ve tried to mirror that agenda at home with critical steps, but we’re doing much the same internationally and leading efforts to protect LGBT people from violence on the basis of their sexual orientation, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And we’ve done that at the United Nations in a variety of ways. In fighting for language in resolutions to ensure that LGBT persons are explicitly protected, and when we talk about violence against people and extrajudicial killings and all that sort of thing—there are many countries, frankly, in the United Nations who would like to explicitly exclude LGBT persons from that, and we have stood up and fought and won many battles to prevent that and ensure that people of all backgrounds, of all orientations, are in fact protected. We have joined the LGBT Core Group, and with Brazil and South Africa—which is a big leader on this issue—and a number of other countries, we have been every year looking to push the envelope further and further and expand protections and awareness and access.
One of the important things we’ve done also is to enable NGOs that are representing LGBT groups to participate in the United Nations. That in itself is, believe it or not, a battle. But around the world—I mean, it’s horrible. In some nine countries, it is permissible to execute somebody simply on the basis of their sexual orientation. In some 86 countries, there are laws that discriminate actively against LGBT persons. And so when we do the math in the General Assembly—and there are 193 countries that have a vote—it’s an uphill battle, but we’re gradually winning. And the regressive forces are losing ground, and the progressive forces are gaining ground. So, in many countries, it’s a matter of survival, of basic human security. In other countries, it’s a matter of equal rights and those rights being fully protected and recognized, and that is obviously a struggle that continues here in this country. But even as we fight here at home, we are fighting abroad.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: I know you traveled to Israel several times. Of course, you learned as a young woman and of course as part of your work, you visited Yad Vashem and know what the Jewish community experienced during the Holocaust. And for us, “never again” doesn’t mean only “never again” for the Jewish people. It means never again for any of God’s children. And to think of your great leadership, particularly in Sudan and South Sudan and Darfur, can you help us just understand where we are? I mean, for some of us, that’s been a fight for literally years and years. And now with South Sudan, it seems that literally that’s almost an unending source of grief and despair in trying to see the resolution of what is an incredibly deadly and unending conflict in Sudan. So, given your incredible background and your understanding of Africa—I mean, you’ve written a doctoral dissertation, it’s what you know so unbelievably well—can you shed some light on—is this literally going to be—are our children and grandchildren literally going to be talking about Darfur and Sudan and South Sudan?
Ambassador Rice: I sure hope not. I sure hope not.
Let me say this. First of all, the leadership that your community has provided on issues of genocide, genocide prevention, response to genocide, and particularly on Darfur, is extraordinary. And I want to say thank you so much for all you do and have done and all you will continue to do. It’s crucial.
Now with respect to Darfur, the violence continues. It’s much diminished from the levels that we characterized as genocide some years ago. But the underlying conflict remains, and it’s now more complex in a way. It’s not only the government in Khartoum and its Janjaweed militia against innocents in Darfur and in refugee camps but now also the rebel forces are splintering and committing abuses against one another as well as against the population. So the violence endures.
What has changed over the last several years is that there is now a large United Nations peacekeeping force in there, which has a robust mandate to protect civilians. And while it is not perfect and it has its shortcomings, there is no question that its presence in Darfur and particularly in the IDP camps has lent a greater degree of security to the most vulnerable. The efforts to resolve the underlying conflict through negotiations have really not yielded much progress. There have been sort of partial agreements that have included some rebel groups but not others. And Khartoum remains committed to using deadly force, whether aerial bombardments or horseback militia to confront its own citizens and kill its own citizens. But I—let me just touch on the other things and come back to why I hope—and maybe I’ll go so far as to say I believe—that we will not be witnessing this 20, 30 years from now.
Sudan and South Sudan also represent a very precarious situation. South Sudan became independent two years ago. Jake, my son, and I were at the inauguration and witnessed the birth of South Sudan, and it was an incredibly moving moment. And yet it was born all but a failed state. Very, very fragile. Very few miles of paved road. No—maybe one or two hospitals in the whole country. Very little in the way of education. And so it has had to start from scratch, but it is has also suffered from corruption, from weak leadership, and from unresolved tensions with the government in Sudan, with Khartoum. Khartoum has supported the rebels inside the South. The South has supported rebels in the North. And the tensions along the border remain very volatile. And so now there’s also a peacekeeping force that is beginning to fan out along the border to try to preserve the potential for peace between North and South. And then within South Sudan, frankly, we have reason to be worried about the human rights situation as well. There are increasingly grave reports of abuses being committed by Sudanese rebels but also by South Sudanese security forces against the population. So there is work to be done there as well. And in Sudan proper, in the North, it is a very fragile situation because the fundamental problem there is that you have a government in the capital that it is run by an elite that has never represented or reached out to the people of the periphery. And what we see in Darfur and in South Sudan and indeed in the East is a manifestation of one fundamental problem, which is the center has never served the periphery. And that has to change. Democracy has to come to Khartoum and Sudan for these underlying problems ultimately to be resolved. But I think it will come, and there will be change. And I’m relatively hopeful that, before too long, what is an anomalous situation will be overturned, either peacefully through a proper transition or through other means.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So you’ve helped push through some incredibly vital reforms at the UN. So I’d like to focus for a moment on the broader issue of U.S. engagement at the UN. Why do you think the UN is such an important place for the U.S.? And what should our key priorities be at the UN? What challenges do you think the UN is most likely to make the most progress at? And what do you think could be changed to make the UN more effective in achieving its boundless potential?
Ambassador Rice: There’s a lot in that. (laughter). First of all, let me say a couple of words about why we need the United Nations. Why—when I say we, why the United States needs the United Nations. Rabbi Saperstein outlined all of the great life-saving humanitarian work the United Nations does, and that’s very valuable. And we contribute a share to that, usually it’s about 25 percent, but the rest of the world also contributes and the UN humanitarians are out there delivering that assistance. That’s in our interest. But more importantly, it is a degree of burden sharing also on global peace and security issues.
The United States can’t be everywhere, protecting every civilian or serving as the policeman in every corner of the globe, whether we are talking about Darfur or Haiti or Côte d'Ivoire or Cyprus or Lebanon. These are places where we have an interest in peace and stability, in the protection of civilians, and yet the UN has deployed some 100-plus thousand peacekeepers in the field every day doing this work, which, if it weren’t being done, we’d be dealing with the consequences of ongoing conflict or we would have to make choice of whether it is important enough for us to do it ourselves. And so this is a form of collective action in which we pay 27, 28 percent of the cost, but it’s far more economical and efficient then if we were to have to make the choice of do nothing or do it all ourselves.
But another reason why we need the United Nations is the legitimacy and the weight of international law that the Security Council’s decisions bring to bear. So let’s talk about, say, Iran or North Korea, where we have gotten through exceedingly tough sanctions. With respect to Iran, when we were able to get the resolution in June of 2010 that layered on the hardest sanctions to date against Iran, what did that do? Well, first of all, it obliged every member state legally to enforce them, so when Iranian weapons show up in Nigeria as they did a year and a half later, the Nigerian Government and those in the neighborhood were obliged to report that, to intercept those weapons, and we were then able to put on additional sanctions against those who had trafficked those weapons from Iran and tighten the noose. So everybody is obliged by law to implement them, which is different than the situation, for example, that we have now in Syria, where some of us have put on sanctions voluntarily, but the world is not obliged to implement them. And then, the legitimacy of the UN regime enabled the European Union and Canada and the United States and Japan and many others to add on their own sanctions on top of what we had passed in the Security Council. And in Europe particularly, the fact that there was a Security Council resolution gave greater impetus to the effort of some member states to broaden the sanctions on an EU level. So there is that value.
I could go on and on, but we benefit every day from not only the life saving work of the United Nations but the peace and security work of the United Nations. But there are times when we run into a brick wall, and Syria is the classic example. The structure of the veto is one that serves us well. Going back to your first question, the United States has been able to defend our interests and protect our ally Israel. The veto has been—and the threat of a veto—a critical tool. But it comes back at us on things like Syria when the other veto-wielding members take radically different positions. But for the most part, on most issues, most of the issues of Africa, most of the issues on the agenda of the Security Council, we are able, often with pain, to reach agreement and get some stuff done. So I think it’s broadly, definitely in our interests.
Let me just say one last thing—I know we’re wrapping up. We are frustrated at the United Nations not only by the ridiculously unfair treatment that Israel regularly receives but also frustrated where we find inefficiencies, management lapses, cost over-runs, and that sort of thing. So we have worked very hard to actually shrink the budget—and we’ve succeeded in recent years—to put in place oversight mechanisms and accountability mechanisms and public audits and public investigations so that there is more daylight and transparency. And that is a crucial part of the work we do as well. President Obama is one of these very strong supporters of the United Nations but who says, look, it is imperfect and needs to be improved or the American people are not going to continue to support it. And so a huge part of what we do is trying to bring daylight, bring efficiency, bring transparency, and reform the United Nations from a management point of view, and thankfully, we’re making some progress. But that is a long battle that we’ll be fighting for many years to come.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So, I remember you came to the AIPAC conference two years ago, and you spoke to a luncheon of rabbis from across the spectrum. And there were probably 500 rabbis, and I can tell you at my table there were a whole group of rabbis who weren’t particularly warm when you walked in because they weren’t sure there would be a message that they could applaud. But what was absolutely clear, and you felt it within moments—you didn’t just have some of the rabbis, you had all the rabbis, literally in the palm of your hand. And I have to say one of things that just kind of won everybody over—and set the bar pretty high for bar and bat mitzvah—
students is the way you spoke Hebrew in front of all those rabbis. Had to be very intimidating. But I went back that afternoon and met with a bar mitzvah for that weekend, and he was stumbling through that and I said, “Excuse me. The U.S. Ambassador speaks Hebrew beautifully. Would you try to raise yourself to her level please?” I just have one last question, and you can do it in English or Hebrew. If you want to do it in Hebrew, you can.
But you’ve been at this foreign policy, diplomacy for a long time. And I want to just ask you kind of the two fundamental questions, just to get inside what it’s like for you to do this day in and day out and carry the weight of the issues that are before the UN and before our foreign policy. So can you tell us—what are those really tough nights when you literally are plagued by the weight of it all? What keeps you up at night? And most importantly, I think for us, what gets you up in the morning with a sense of possibility and even optimism as you face all these intractable problems? And a reasonable person could just simply throw up their hands and say, “I don’t know.” Can you give us—just take us inside Ambassador Susan Rice and just tell us about those kind of desperate moments of worry and pain and fear, and those moments when you think we’re actually going forward?
Ambassador Rice: Wow, I’ll try. First, the fundamental thing, Rick, is I really love what I do. And it’s a huge privilege to get to work on the most important problems that we as a nation face and the world faces and to do so sitting in the chair representing the United States of America. And there is no greater honor than knowing what we do and what we say is on behalf of all of our great people, and so that in and of itself gets me up in the morning. Plus, I get to work on every issue under the sun. You can say a lot of things about the United Nations. I think of it often as akin to a multiple ring circus. And, you know, there’s the development circus and the human rights circus and the peace and security circus and the management reform circus, and they’re all going at once. And it’s almost 365 days a year. I mean, there’s no recess like here in Washington up at the United Nations. (inaudible) I kind of wish we had a recess every once in a while (laughter). But the point is, it’s non-stop. And it’s every issue under the sun. And it’s every country under the sun. And it’s never boring therefore. You can say a lot of things about it, but it’s never boring. The other thing is that it helps to have a sense of humor because if you can’t laugh at some of the stuff I see every day, you just jump out of your skin. And some of it is actually quite funny, like the International Day of Quinoa. How do you say it? Kin-no, quee-no—you know the food, the grain—how do you say it? Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s not harming anybody. It’s nothing to get upset about, but we actually had a day of international quinoa or whatever you call it.
So, there’s always something to laugh about. There’s also a lot to cry about. Truly. But most nights, thankfully—and I’m—knock on wood—most nights I’m able to sleep pretty well. And I think I do a lot thinking while I’m asleep, and I turn over problems in my head. But the ones that, you know, keep me up are as we discussed. I mean, Syria keeps me up. Figuring out how to do the right thing when it may not be obvious how to do it right is another challenge. And I’m wrestling with one of those this week. It’s energizing. It’s exciting. I work with great people, I have tremendous colleagues. It’s a small operation. The United States Mission to the United Nations is about the size of our embassy in Benin. Seriously. It’s ridiculous because in Benin they don’t cover issues around the world. But I have got some of the smartest, most energetic, hardworking, dedicated colleagues ever, and they get me up in the morning. And finally and most importantly, I’ve got this wonderful family. And I’ve got a wonderful husband who I can’t thank enough for the wisdom and support and love he gives me. And I’ve got these two great kids, one of whom I let come tonight. The other one just got back—my little girl, who’s 10, just got back from a soccer game as I was getting out the door and she’s like “Can I come?” And I said, “No, you’re not ready. You’re all smelly and stinky and sweaty, and we’re gone. So, next time.” But she scored a goal. So it’s the family as well.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: So, you have a great staff. You have a great family. Let me also make sure that you know that you have a great movement of Reform Judaism that is so unbelievably grateful to you for your leadership, and I know there are a lot of rumors coursing around about what next. Let me just say—I don’t want you to comment on—
Ambassador Rice: I won’t. (laughter)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs: But we know and are confident that you will continue to lead our country, that you’ll lead our world, and you’ll be a person who will live conscience and stand up for conscience in all the ways that you have. And we pray that you will spend a life in public service continuing to do this holy work. For us, it’s as sacred as work can be. It’s the work that our tradition teaches us to do. We’ve got a lot of repairing to do, a lot of speaking out to do. But we’re in awe of your leadership and your unbelievable commitment to the values that we hold most dear.
Ambassador Rice: Thank you. I want to say one last thing, if I may, besides thank you so much for this and thank you, David. But I really want to say thank you to you all because the work that I get to do at the United Nations—that I love to do—and the work that we as a U.S. government and the Obama Administration are trying to do on behalf of the United States is hugely supported and hugely energized by you and your community and your movement because you are the conscience. You represent the values that we all share. You insist that we live up to our creed and our values. And as an African American woman who feels passionately about the principle of equality and the need for us to all, as a nation, value each and every one of us, the leadership, the vision, the passion that your movement has provided for so many years is crucial to making us the great nation that we are and will be keeping us honest and making us strong throughout our wonderful future. So thank you for all you do.
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