Gesher Award - AJC Washington Hebrew Congregation 20.IX.12
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honor to be here tonight to receive this Award. I am particularly thrilled by this distinction. It speaks not only to what I profoundly believe in as a public servant but more importantly to whom I am as an individual. You see, I am testament to the first genocide of the 20th Century, a failed revolution and the totalitarianism it spawned, and to the first failed test to confront fascism in Europe: my paternal grandfather, a Russian-Armenian Menshevik, fleeing for his life after Kerensky’s defeat; my paternal grandmother, an Armenian fleeing genocide in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire; and my maternal grandparents, Republican Catalonians of Jewish secular roots, fleeing the victory of fascism and Franco after the fall of the Spanish Republic.
As you can see, my heritage and family history are not only living proof of the relevance of plurality, freedom, tolerance and inclusiveness that are so dear to the American Jewish Committee, but are also keystone values for Mexico and the US. The promotion of freedom, tolerance, the respect for diversity and plurality are as important as public policy goals as they are personal convictions.
These values have underpinned policy decisions and initiatives that I have supported and encouraged over the course of my career in Mexico’s foreign policy. For starters, I am convinced that in order to build a world in which people can live and coexist without fearing for their lives because of the color of their skin, their religion, ethnicity or sexual preference, we must establish effective policies to ensure tolerance and pluralism. I have therefore been a strong advocate of a post-Westphalian, rules-based, international system, and I firmly believe that Mexico can and should play a leading role in the establishment and consolidation of such a system in the international arena. Under a framework of this kind it is clear in my mind that transnational cooperation, be it for security purposes or to promote economic integration does not weaken national sovereignty, it actually enhances it.
But it also means that borders and sovereignty should not be used as excuses by the State or governments to act as if they had a carte blanche to violate basic international human rights standards. For this reason, I have been a staunch promoter of the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which is, without a doubt, a principle that should be observed first and foremost by individual States. But when States fail to comply with situations that clearly demand R2P-driven actions, then the international community has the unalienable right to act and it should not shy away from doing so. Human Security, the protection of the individual recognized as subject to international law, stands at the heart of this discussion. Preventive diplomacy, mediation and persuasion are key instruments that our nations rely upon to protect people elsewhere, but there will be times when the international community needs to step-in more decisively, and the cowering behind the stale argument of State sovereignty must yield to preventive diplomacy and action.
We are at a point in human history at which any hint of resurgence of discrimination against specific social groups and minorities is simply unacceptable, and we cannot allow it to flourish. Abba Eban once said that “History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives". However, what we must now strive to do is to ensure that both men and nations actually behave wisely from the very beginning. This is the true meaning of “Never Again”. History and past experiences have certainly taught us how to identify moments or situations in which intolerance and discrimination are brewing, and we must nip them in the bud.
Few groups and communities can relate to and understand this as painfully and unequivocally as the Jewish community, which has historically faced existential threats and discrimination and has, as a result, learnt to remain vigilant in identifying and rooting out xenophobia. And because sadly discrimination persists today against immigrant communities, we ought to establish stronger connections among like-minded groups and sectors of civil society, promoting synergies among those who stand and fight for the same principles and that share the conviction that discrimination and intolerance must be prevented.
In fact, I believe that media headlines and soundbytes hardly capture the underlying similarities between the experience of the Latino community today, as a minority community in this country, and some aspects of the experience of the Jewish community as a Diaspora and religious minority. The American Jewish Committee, years before the shameful anti-immigrant sentiment that has surfaced today and spurred Arizona’s SB 1070 and its clones, presciently recognized that alliances such as the one between Jewish and Latino and Mexican-American Diasporas, which are born out of the diversity which this nation embraces, provide strength to protect and promote freedom and tolerance. America is built on a proposition, not on a given race, color of skin or ethnic origin.
One of the pillars of this broad alliance between Latinos and Jews began during my tenure as Consul General of Mexico in New York. I had the honor of launching the first AJC Workshop for Mexican and Mexican American Leaders in 2005, with the unwavering support of AJC’s NY Chapter and my dear friend Dina Siegel. These workshops are nowadays a staple of our collaboration and take place across the country, in places like Austin, San Francisco and Houston, to name a few. Their goal is to foster empowerment of our communities and provide them with the tools of advocacy and grass-roots organization. Being fully engaged citizens can only be achieved if individuals are well-informed, organized and take an active part in the public life of their country. We thus need to actively encourage the responsible and intelligent civic engagement and empowerment of our communities, to make sure that their voices are heard and their culture celebrated; and to ensure that they prosper economically and socially as a people. We, Jews and Latinos alike, share this goal.
Furthermore, our need to stand united in this task is urgent in light of the disheartening circumstances that have surfaced in places like Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, where children are being singled out in public schools to self-identify as “foreigners”, basic public services such as water being denied on the basis of immigration status, and where the ominous sounding phrase of “papers please” is being heard on the streets of some towns and cities.
It has been over half a century since the world defeated the scourge of fascism and the hatred unleashed during World War II; since the United States rightly put an end to Jim Crow laws and discrimination; and since it decisively confronted repression on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. The draconian provisions of laws like SB 1070 in Arizona are not troubling in light of their constitutional shortcomings; they are bringing back disturbing images that should stir the national conscience of this great country. “Show me your papers” should not stand as a policy in this or any society. We must raise our voices and join the scores of men and women from all walks of American life —and from both sides of the aisle— who have denounced laws like SB 1070 and the alarming return of unconscionable practices that should remain in the dustbin of history.
Although I am certain that the large majority in the United States will continue to reject turning back the clock of history to practices that we all thought had been overcome, we need to continue to feed that hope with stronger work and closer alliances. Those of us who believe in plural, tolerant, and just societies must respond: we must make use of the bully pulpit, we must occupy the vacuum, and we must push back. Successful empowerment and integration practices such as those championed by AJC should continue to take on the xenophobia that is poisoning the well-spring of our common values. That call of action should also reignite our common endeavor to get immigration reform right.
What is particularly propitious is that this is all happening at a time when, in fact, the dynamics of migration flows between our two countries are changing dramatically. For the first time in decades of intense outgoing flows across our border, Mexican net migration to the United States is close to zero, if not negative, and undocumented migration from Mexico has fallen to an all-time low. This major transformation is bound to have profound consequences on public policy in the years to come, and it creates an opportunity to firstly reset the national conversations on migration, both in Mexico and the United States, and to then, secondly, transform the way we jointly deal with immigration, finding common holistic and strategic solutions to labor mobility in North America. The evidence is so overwhelming, that if you decide to ignore the reality, you don't have the data. But when you don't want to see what's happening on the ground to Latino women, children and men, then you don't have a pulse.
There has not been a better time to change the public dynamics of this debate than today. For this reason, as Louis Brandeis put it “if we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold.”
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Politics is the science of who gets what, when and why, and this is a science that the American Jewish Committee has clearly mastered. According to Sam Rayburn, Washington is a town with two types of people: those who count, and those who don’t. It is clear in which camp the AJC falls. For over a hundred years now, the AJC has worked tirelessly for the advancement of the Jewish community in the United States and abroad, in every dimension and aspect of their lives: economic, political, educational, cultural and social. In its long and highly successful history, it has had to fight against the sort of ignorance and prejudice that the Latino community in this country sadly faces today in certain areas of the US. It also has had to confront more hidden, though no less real, obstacles that also resonate among Latinos in this nation.
In the face of these many obstacles, the AJC has developed tools to ensure that the Jewish community gain full access to the political process and the educational system. We are therefore very fortunate that AJC has recognized the value of building and leaving ladders behind so that Latinos and all other minorities can climb as they integrate into the fabric of this great nation.
Bernard Baruch once put it very simply “we didn’t all come on the same ship, but we’re all in the same boat”. At the dawn of the 21st century, Jews and Latinos are on the same boat. Together, we can and must build bridges between our communities. This Award, which I humbly accept tonight, is a testament to all of those who believe in this endeavor.
Thank you very much!