Remarks by Carl Gershman, Recipient of the Humanities Award At the AMIT Annual Scholarship Fund Dinner


New York City

When Martha Kamerman called some months ago to ask me to receive the Humanities Award at AMIT’s Annual Scholarship Fund Dinner, I was both deeply honored and very moved. I felt honored because I have known and admired the work of the American Mizrachi Women for many years. To receive a Humanities Award from an organization which has such a distinguished record of achievement in the fields of education, ~ulture, and humanitarian assistance is an honor to be valued and cherished. I accept it in the spirit in which it is offered — as a tribute to the fundamental values we share, the values of democracy that define our own American political heritage and which provide the solid and lasting foundation for the warm relationship between our own democracy and the democratic State of Israel.

Martha’s call also moved me, because as some of you may know, the relationship between the Kamerman’s and the Gershman family goes back many years, indeed, many decades. Dave Kamerman was one of those people, like his wife Martha, on whom the Jewish community depends — for its day-to-day existence — deeply religious, untiring in his devotion to Jewish education and learning, selfless in his dedication to large communal purposes, none of which was more important than the survival and well-being of the State of Israel.

It is with special sadness, therefore, that we meet tonight, only days after Dave Kamerman’s death, and without Martha, the recipient of AMIT’s first Woman of the Year Award. So this is a more somber occasion than we would have wished, albeit a more meaningful one, owing to the special tribute we pay to Dave Kamerman as well as to Martha.

I speak tonight both as an individual and as the President of the National Endowment for Democracy, an organization that was established only during the last year. This organization — the Endowment, we call it is unique in American life, though parallels to it exist in some other countries, notably West Germany. The purpose of the Endowment is to strengthen — through private, non-governmental efforts, — the social, political, and intellectual infrastructure that is necessary to support democratic systems throughout the world. That is a very ambitious objective. It will not be an easy thing to do. But it is an urgently important thing to do. I offer a single example to underline this point.

As you know, before coming to the Endowment I spent more than three years at the United States Mission to the United Nations. Much has been said about what is wrong with the U.N. — the attacks upon the United States, the systematic effort to delegitimate Israel, the double standard on human rights, the rule of a tyrannical majority, and so forth.

At the U.S. Mission, we spent many long hours analyzing this problem. It is certainly complex, and can be accounted for by many factors. But none seems more important than the fact that the majority of the States belonging to the United Nations are not democracies.

There are more than 150 Member States in the United Nations. By virtue of their membership, all subscribe to the democratic principles contained in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But less than one-third are democratic, if by democratic we mean a system that guarantees free and competitive elections, freedom of expression, belief and association, respect for the inalienable rights of individuals and minorities, free communications media, and the rule of law.

Certainly it would be wrong to assume that all the members of this majority are alike, or that there are not among them countries that are friendly to the United States. But the number of countries at the U.N. that share our commitment to democratic values is very small, and the number willing to stand up and defend those values -and thereby risk incurring the wrath of the tyrannical majority is smaller still.

In this respect, the United Nations is simply a reflection of the world as it is. More accurately, it is a reflection of the kind of governments that exist, and most of them do not rule democratically. This is not a situation that we can or should accept with equanimity.

In a book just published in English, called How Democracies Perish, the French author Jean-Francois Revel writes that democracy may be inherently incapable of resisting the challenge of communist totalitarianism, that the forces bent on destroying democracy may be stronger than the forces bent on keeping it alive. This is an alarming message, one that is reinforced by the developments at the United Nations, where the forces working against democracy have been more active, more resolute, more organized and more successful than those working for democracy.

This situation is intolerable, and it makes sense to try to do something about it not just at the United Nations, but in the world itself.

It is for this reason, therefore, that President Reagan, speaking to members of the British Parliament on June 8, 1982, announced a new effort “to foster the infrastructure of democracy the system of free press, unions, political parties, universities which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.” A study was undertaken to explore how this program would be carried out, and legislation was introduced in the Congress_to authorize funding for a new program to strengthen the institutions of democratic pluralism in the world.

The result of all this effort was the National Endowment for Democracy, a privately incorporated, nonprofit organization funded by Congress, with a Board of Directors comprised of leading citizens from the mainstream of American political and civic life — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, representatives of business and labor, and others with long international experience. The Endowment embodies a broad, bipartisan U.S. commitment to democracy. It seeks to enlist the energies and talents of private citizens and groups in the United States to work with those abroad who wish to build for themselves a democratic future.

I think the experience of AMIT demonstrates how much energy and talent there is among private citizens and groups in the United States, and how much can be accomplished if the kinds of efforts you have undertaken for six decades can be expanded. Your efforts to help build the educational and social infrastructure that supports the democratic system in the state of Israel offer a model for similar efforts to strengthen democracy worldwide.

The Endowment supports many kinds of activities to achieve this broad purpose:

— Through the AFL-CIO’s Free Trade Union Institute, it works to strengthen free and independent unions, often in competition with Soviet-backed efforts to control Third-World unions so as to use them to further Soviet foreign policy objectives. Through the Center for International Private-Enterprise of the National Chamber Foundation, the Endowment works to strengthen the role of business leaders and associations abroad as advocates Page 6 of democracy who have a special understanding of the relationship between an open political system and an open market economy.

— Through new institutes established by our two major political parties, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the National Republican Institute for International Affairs, the Endowment seeks to strengthen the democratic political process by enhancing the organizational capabilities and democratic convictions of foreign parties committed to the values of democracy.

— In cooperation with other private u.s. institutions, the Endowment seeks to promote exchanges, training programs, and other efforts with many more groups — with writers and artists, educators and student leaders, journalists and lawyers, leaders of cooperatives, civic groups, and minority and women’s organizations, and individuals dedicated to enhancing respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people with all those, in other words, who can make a vital contribution to the system and processes of democratic pluralism.

No one is under any illusion that success will come easily or quickly. We have many long, hard years of work ahead of us, assuming that Congress continues to believe that this undertaking is of sufficient importance to the national interest to merit ongoing public funding.

Support for the National Endowment for Democracy in Congress is ultimately dependent upon the support it has in the public at large. The principles of democracy are rooted in the American tradition and pervade the whole fabric of American life, so there is no question that the goals of the Endowment enjoy broad support. But the United States is a large country, set off from the rest of the world on the East and the West by large oceans and insulated from many of the difficulties and tensions that affect other countries. It is sometimes hard, living in this successful and dynamic free society, to understand how and why the well-being of our own democracy is affected by the state of democracy worldwide.

In this respect, I think the American Jewish community has a special role to play, for it has been made acutely sensitive to the need to defend democracy by historical experience and contemporary events. It is a sobering thought to consider that in this century, as indeed before, Jews have been the chief targets of those who oppose the values of democracy, liberty, and equality before the law. This is as true today, when Israel is assailed in the United Nations and the Soviet Union has orchestrated a worldwide anti-Semitic campaign, as it was two generations ago when the Nazis attempted their own “final solution” to the Jewish question.

Contemporary anti-Semitism differs in one important respect from earlier versions — it is more political. Anti-Semitism has its roots in religious prejudice, going back to the very origins of Christianity. In the modern era it has persisted in new forms. By the nineteenth century, as the historian Bernard Lewis has pointed out, religiously-expressed anti-Judaism appeared out-moded and reactionary and was superceded by racial ideologies that seemed modern and scientific. With racial anti-Semitism having been discredited by Nazism, modern anti-Semitism parades under the guise of anti-Zionism, with politics having taken the place previously occupied by religion and race. The perfect expression of this new anti-Semitism is the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism. The insidiousness of this resolution is made clear when we consider what it attempts to do — to legitimate political anti-Semitism by equating Zionism with the discredited racial anti-Semitism.

The Soviet Union, which conceived the U.N. resolution, has gone so far in its promotion of anti-Semitism as now to justify — in modern political terms — the czarist anti-Semitism of the Black Hundreds. In current Soviet literature, the anti-Jewish pogroms are portrayed as a reaction to economic exploitation and a justifiable form of class struggle.

The political nature of modern anti-Semitism underlines the stake that Jews have in democracy. Not only are the forces that are aligned against democracy also aligned against Jews — they are aligned first of all against Jews who are righ~ly seen to be among the strongest defenders of the open society based on tolerance, pluralism, and individual rights.

Why this is so is a profound and difficult question. The answer may lie in a point that Norman Podhoretz made two years ago in his widely discussed Commentary article, “J’Accuse.” There he pointed out that Israel’s resolute resistance to terrorism and aggression was rooted in the Biblical commandment to “choose life.” In the contemporary world, choosing life means resisting totalitarianism, for Revel is correct when he writes that  “Totalitarianism endangers not democracy alone, but life itself.” It seeks to destroy not only democracy but the possibility of democracy which exists as long as individuals are able to maintain an existence independent of -the state.

Throughout the world there are millions of people who wish to maintain this independent existence, who want a society that allows diverse interests to be represented and different voices to be heard. These people want to preserve their own cultures and shape their own lives, not to surrender their conscience and fate to a totalitarian state that wants to control every aspect of their existence. Such people deserve more than our moral support. They deserve our assistance and cooperation, indeed, our solidarity.

If we can provide this cooperation in a meaningful way and thereby help to strengthen democracy in the world, we will be making our own lives more secure. This is what the National Endowment for Democracy attempts to do. We welcome your support in this effort and appreciate your own proven dedication to the goal of strengthening democracy.