Friday, June 27, 2014

The courage to trust, the courage to lead

President Shimon Peres of Israel was in Washington DC this week, where he received the annual Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize. Past recipients have included former Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.
This week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Washington DC, where I attended the annual presentation of the Lantos Human Rights Prize,  a prestigious award given each year to someone who has helped to advance the cause of human rights in a significant way. Previous recipients have included former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright. This year's recipient was the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Lantos Foundation to attend. The ceremony itself took place in the Cannon House Officer Building on Thursday morning, in a darkened caucus room filled with supporters of human rights from around the world.

Vice President Joe Biden adresses a packed room in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington DC before presenting President Shimon Peres of Israel with the Lantos Human Rights Prize. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Vice President Biden was there to present President Peres with the human rights prize, and in his remarks he offered high praise for the Israeli President, but he also reminisced about his late friend Congressman Tom Lantos, a tireless fighter for human rights and human dignity, and the only Holocaust Survivor ever to serve in the United States Congress. One of the things that really caught my attention in Vice President Biden's remarks was when he marveled at how Congressman Lantos, whom he noted would have been more than justified in living a quiet, private life after what he went through in the Shoah, had chosen instead to build a remarkable career in public service. Later, when President Peres took the stage to accept the award he also remarked on the amazing life that Congressman Lantos had led, saying that he was someone who had somehow seen the darkest side of life, the incarnation of evil in the Nazi regime, and yet was an unerring optimist, always positive and full of energy.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has unveiled a new exhibit which looks at the complicity of of ordinary citizens in carrying out the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson.
On their own these laudatory comments from VIce President Biden and President Peres would have stood as testimony to the remarkable legacy of the late congressman and all that he and his family have achieved, but that morning they had a particular resonance for me.  The previous day I had gone to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for a meeting and then spent half an hour looking at their latest exhibit, "Some were neighbors," which focuses on the extensive betrayal that many Jews across Eastern Europe suffered at the hands of people they had previously considered friends. The exhibition chronicles, with a startling sense of nearness, the degree to which latent antisemitism was given license and legitimacy as the Nazis spread across the continent. The acts of betrayal ranged from wholesale theft to mass murder. For me, the chance to see all of this laid out in photos and to hear audio and video testimony on the ways in which this break down of civil society had actively aided and abetted the Nazi regime in its inhuman criminal enterprise, was chilling. To think that someone who had lived through not just the horror and fear of the Shoah, but the total tearing apart of the fabric of civil society would want to go on and dedicate their own life to public service, is amazing to contemplate.

In her remarks, Lantos Foundation President Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett also drew a parallel between  the breakdown of societies across Europe in the 1930's and 40's and the rise of Nazism. It's a connection that not only Holocaust museums and professionals in the Jewish community or human rights organizations should be paying attention to, but everyone from small-town mayors to presidents and prime ministers, as well as regular citizens everywhere. We should all be keenly aware that we not only have a stake in the health and well-being of civil society, but a role to play in preserving it. I was reminded of that this week by any number of people - Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice President Biden, President Peres - and of course by the faces of Holocaust survivors looking out at me from old photographs in the museum.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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