I had the privilege to be invited by Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, to address their National Executive Committee on February 10, 2012. This is the transcript of my speech, and some highlights are below:
I’d like to thank the ADL for inviting me here today. It’s both an honor and a pleasure to speak to all of you.
I’m here to share my observations about my recent trip to Israel with a group of Latino journalists on a trip sponsored by the ADL. I’ve covered wars, floods, plane crashes, interviewed presidents and heads of state during my career. I was even able to go to Cuba, a trip that was, for me as an exile, so important that it stays with me to this day. So it is with my trip to Israel.
But before I share some of what I learned during that trip, I’d like to tell all of you about another trip: the long and unexpected voyage that has brought me here today. It is a very personal journey that led me to a man I now call a friend: Abe Foxman who has led me to know myself and led me to grow in unexpected ways.
Nearly a year and a half ago, in late 2010, I said some things that I shouldn’t have. When talking about my personal experience as the only weekday Hispanic anchor on a major TV network, I comparatively scoffed at the notion that Jews were an oppressed minority in media. It was wrong of me to do so. I apologized for my words, and I do so again to each of you here today.
At the time, I didn’t fully grasp what was wrong with what I said. I think that’s because we all come from different backgrounds and personal histories that sometimes prevent us from being able to fully understand the other groups’ feelings.
For example, I can tell you that as a Cuban-American, if someone said to me that Cubans aren’t an oppressed minority in Miami, I’d probably agree. In fact, when it comes to South Florida politics, l’d likely be the first to say so.
But here’s the difference–here’s the problem with the comparison: My experience, and the experience of every other ethnic or religious group, is not the same as that of the Jewish people.
Throughout history, the success of the Jewish people has caused others to target them. Think about that. Being targeted for being successful.
It’s the part of this story that so many others still don’t understand. I know because I end up arguing more often than not about this with many of my defenders, regardless of how well-meaning or conciliatory they try to be.
Subjected to persecution in nearly every country they lived in, the Jewish people have been expelled, discriminated and even decimated as entire communities—it’s happened time and time and time again. And this history is rightfully in the soul of every person who descends from Abraham, David and Solomon. And as difficult as it is for many to recognize that in today’s America, it is the reality of history.
Abe Foxman is the person responsible for making me understand how different the Jewish experience is.
Let me take you back to how this happened. I remember when I first met Abe nearly a year ago. At that first meeting, when I gave Abe my example of Cuban-Americans’ success in Miami, I felt pretty good about my argument. We were kind of arguing, and I thought I kind of trumped him.
Abe looked at me threw up his hands and spoke four words: “You don’t get it.” I was recently talking to Abe and I reminded him of how we began our relationship by arguing with each other, and he said, “that’s how real relationships are forged, with honest discussion. That’s how we grow and learn.” He was right.
That first meeting ended… not so well. And as I walked out, he gave me a copy of his book Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype. He signed it and told me to read it and to call him afterward. It was kind of like Mean Joe Green commercial moment—”here ya go, kid.”
On the plane, I read Abe’s book from cover to cover, and it led me to read more and ask more and learn more about the Jewish story of overcoming bias.
And then l started to understand. I started to get it. I got why what I said was wrong and even dangerous.
By the way, maybe part of the reason I was originally upset is because the headlines were worse than my actual words. Most were just plain wrong. They claimed I said that Jews control the media. I never said that, nor do I believe it, nor have I ever believed it. But my words nonetheless left that impression.
Why? Because they conjured up the dangerous, malicious, centuries-old anti-Semitic myths and age-old stereotypes based on ignorance and conspiracy theories that have perpetuated the deadly falsehoods of Jewish control. Astonishingly and unbelievably, over 100 years after The Protocols of the Elders of Zion first emerged, the Jewish people are still combating these same lies that refuse to fade into history.
Anything that rings of these lies is dangerous. And that is why my words—regardless of my intent or meaning—were offensive.
We all know what the ugliness of outright bigotry, hatred and racism looks like. It’s the KKK and the Aryan Nation. It’s the swastika, the Confederate flag and the n-word. It’s the more than 1,200 incidents of anti-Semitism that the ADL responds to each year.
But what we as a society don’t focus on is the “soft bigotry,” sometimes understated and usually entrenched, that we are exposed to daily. Soft bigotry takes many forms: mistaken beliefs about others rooted in fear, xenophobia or ignorance, off-color jokes, and stereotypes. They are the things that have an air of acceptability and that we like to think are harmless, but are not.
And it is that soft bigotry which is just as damaging, if not more damaging, than outright racism–damaging because it is insidious, persistent, pervasive and, in some cases, unnoticed. And it is the hardest to combat.
We see examples of this every day in my industry. Turn on cable news or talk radio and, if you Iisten closely, you’ll be shocked at what you hear.
This past year, you may have seen or heard about a cable pundit who spent two days talking about an activist whose politics he disagreed with. Two days of veiled references attempting to tie the activist to the myth of Jewish control of finance and politics. The activist was referred to as “the puppet master,” the creator of a “shadow government,” and someone who–according to this cable personality–had helped the Nazis steal Jewish property. Unlike me, he kept his job. I wish I could say he was the exception to the rule, but he’s not.
Another well-known male cable host referred to a prominent female radio host as a “right-wing slut.” He was soon afterward promoted.
In fact, many a host has gotten promotions and/or raises after making intolerant remarks about Muslims under the guise of “free speech.”
A well-known talk show host recently said, “I’m sure people in concentration camps made jokes about each other and the Nazis.”
And just last month, I heard a sports talk personality on the radio say, Screw the Mexicans, I wish we could just kick ’em all out” while discussing baseball, of all things,with his listeners. These incidents come and go, often unnoticed. And unfortunately, the list continues.
And while racism and bigotry are things that the Jewish people unfortunately know all too well, they are now things that my own people—Latinos—are increasingly facing. Today, we see how “soft bigotry” against Hispanics infects our views on immigration, becomes enmeshed in our society and culture, and poisons our political discourse.
We see popular television shows that belittle and humiliate Hispanics. We hear lawmakers using Hispanics as scapegoats or worse, advocating shooting them from helicopters just as they do feral pigs. And in Arizona, we see prejudice and racism being codified into law.
We need not, and should not, wait to see how this soft bigotry against Hispanics evolves further.
And who has taken on this cause, perhaps like no other? The ADL. Their words:
“lt’s the ugly, the stereotypes, the hateful rhetoric, and dehumanizing language about Hispanics, Latinos or immigrants we’ve seen, especially this past year, that threaten to derail meaningful reform and taint the national discussion.”
Those are the ADL’s words.
And I speak for good, hard working and decent people like my mom and dad–a seamstress and a dishwasher–who, no, don’t speak English very well, but they made damn sure my brothers and I did and that we got a proper education… I speak for them when I say to the ADL, “thank you.” It is but one area where the Hispanic and Jewish communities can come together.
I should mention at this point that throughout this recent episode in my life, Abe went from being my biggest and toughest critic to becoming my teacher and friend. The first person to take me to task was ironically the first person to lend me a hand. That speaks volumes about character.
So while some would see my leaving CNN as the end, for me it was the beginning. It was the beginning of a new journey, a journey that has allowed me to grow in so many ways, to develop new friendships, to appreciate what is truly important in life.
I share all this not to rehash a very painful incident in my life, but to help give some perspective and background behind my trip to Israel and how it came to be. Going to Israel was not just an important trip for me professionally, but personally as well.
Many people don’t realize the breadth of what the ADL does. Yes, the ADL fights against anti-Semitism by identifying it and shining a light on it for all to see. But its purpose and mission is so much more than that.
I can tell you that everyone on our trip to Israel came away with a better understanding of Israel–not because it was carried out as some type of cheerleading exercise for Israel. Far from it. It’s because it revealed truth.
We met with Palestinians, Ethiopian immigrants, politicians, journalists, those on the left and the right.
We met an older Jewish gentleman who lost his son to a terrorist attack and a young Muslim who lost his brother during the intifada. They told us their stories not in separate rooms, but sitting side by side with each other. They talked of peace and reconciliation. You talk about powerful? They cried, we cried, I cried.
As a Christian in Bethlehem, I couldn’t help but be moved by the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. That is what Jesus is… it’s what he stood for. And that is the part of his lesson I wish we, as Christians, would emphasize more: how he lived rather than how he died, even if it doesn’t fit Mel Gibson’s agenda.
I say this because it’s what I remember thinking to myself as I walked in his footsteps in places like Galilee and Nazareth. I learned and experienced and felt things about my own faith through the graciousness of people of another faith. That speaks volumes as well and underscores just how rewarding, how open and how transparent our mission to Israel really was.
I wrote several columns while in Israel. I wrote about our breakfast with Enrique Cymerman. He told me about his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, where Abbas admitted for the first time that the Arab world was wrong in rejecting the United Nations creation of Israel. Abbas actually said that Palestinians should reject all historic claims against Israel in establishing a Palestinian state.
I thought that was extremely newsworthy and expected it would lead to more stories and force the media to press further, dig deeper and hold the Palestinians to their word. So what did we get instead that week? More stories about the Michael Jackson trial, sex scandals and, as I recall, another special report on Snookie. Not that those aren’t interesting stories, but come on.
I do wish our coverage of Israel reflected more the reality I saw for myself while there. How about a complete picture of the story, rather than just 20 seconds of the latest so-called “Israeli reprisal?”
Every news outlet screamed the story of a ship being over taken by Israeli commandos, but how many know what it’s like to live in the Qassam territory—the place where Israeli security officials showed me how a rocket, filled with who knows what, strikes once every 24 hours. Imagine what it’s like to live like that.
The guy who showed me that is Micky Rosenfeld. He’s the spokesperson for the IDF. I wrote about him and we became good friends. He made me understand that there’s so much more to the story beyond the 20 second video clips we too often see taken at face value by the news media.
In one video he showed me, a Palestinian gunman is presumably shot and killed and celebrated as a martyr. But it was doctored, the guy wasn’t even shot and moments later he’s seen walking away and celebrated for his acting prowess. Unbelievable!
I don’t mean to diminish one side over the other in this exhaustive conflict — what I’m saying – and what I’ve learned is that we in the media need to go beyond superficiality and grabby headlines. No matter where one falls on the political debate about how to solve the middle east conflict, one point is certain: Israel has a right to defend itself both against lies and rocket attacks.
There are so many experiences I take away, but perhaps the most poignant for me occurred on the Sabbath. We were taken in by an orthodox family celebrating Shabbat. Nothing was blaring. No TV, no radio, no lap tops, no appliances going full tilt. Just prayer, contemplation and sharing. It brought me out in ways I never imagined. I shared my own pain — my own guilt. And Iearned that in seeking the forgiveness of others, I must also forgive myself.
As a human being, I am destined to make mistakes. The important part is in learning from those mistakes. lt’s not how we fall, but how we get up and maybe more importantly … remembering those who were there to reach out their hands to help us up.
I learned a lot in Israel. But what I learned most of all is that Israel is more than a place on a map. IsraeI is here. It is in this room. It is in the heart of each and every one of you. You have opened your heart to me. And I thank you.