Hello everyone. My thanks to Daniel Lubetzky for his kind introduction! And my thanks to ADL and Jonathan Greenblatt for this great honor. I have many awards on my shelf—well, my mother’s shelf—but this one is very special. It has the word “leadership,” which has always been an important element of my worldview. It means that people can make a difference, that we must make a difference—that we can all choose to lead in this life.
The other word also strikes me, the word “international.” It makes me think of growing up in Baku and of my father, Kim Weinstein, who passed away when I was just seven years old. Before that, he gave me the best present I have ever received, a globe. On it, my father and I traced the adventures of the great explorers, from books like those of Stefan Zweig.
We could never have imagined how international my life would become. A Jewish-Armenian boy from Baku could not have such dreams! And when I retired from professional chess in 2005, to help lead the Russian pro-democracy movement, my only desire was to make a difference. I knew it was unlikely I would ever achieve so much in human rights as I did in chess, of course, but I felt strongly that I had to make the effort.
My new path led me to become the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, to found the Renew Democracy Initiative and now here. That’s a long way on a globe, but it’s a path my father definitely would have approved of. And so, to be with you today is very special, so thank you again.
As a chess player, I learned to see the whole board, the big picture. I was often asked how I would adapt from the black and white world of chess into the gray world of politics. I was asked how my chess experience would help me in this dangerous new challenge. My answer was simple: it wouldn’t! Because in chess we have clear rules and uncertain results, and in elections in Putin’s Russia it’s exactly the opposite!
In dictatorships, the rules change constantly, but the results are always the same.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t have some political experience. I was always politically active, and, in the Soviet Union, chess was always political because everything was political. They wanted to use chess as a way of demonstrating the superiority of the Communist system over the decadent West. When I was on the rise in the early eighties, it was a serious issue that I might soon challenge Anatoly Karpov for the title. Karpov was a regime favorite, a soft-spoken and loyal Communist from the heartland, the Ural Mountains.
Meanwhile, I was a young hothead from Baku, a Jewish-Armenian, what they called “an explosive combination”! But finally, partly thanks to the slow opening of the Soviet system under Gorbachev, I reached my goal of becoming world champion in 1985, at the age of 22.
So chess was political, whether you liked it or not. Just like, throughout history, being Jewish is political, whether we like it or not.
To paraphrase an old saying, you may not be interested in antisemitism, but antisemitism is interested in you!
For generations of Jews, especially in America, where I live now, there is a temptation to ignore this responsibility, to say that antisemitism, or Zionism, or Israel itself, are not important or relevant to you personally. Or, even worse, they suggest that Jews must stop being exceptional, to stop drawing attention, basically to stop being Jews, in order for the prejudice and attacks to stop. This is a deadly fallacy and an abdication of responsibility.
I believe in peace and I believe peace is possible. But for Jews, as with all human rights and global security, I believe in peace through strength.
One reason we are seeing so much conflict today, is that the forces of the free world have grown weak. The structures of international order, the infrastructure of democracy, have become very shaky since the end of the Cold War. We celebrated then, and we deserved to celebrate, but we forgot to build anything new as the old system became obsolete. Into this vacuum came new threats, new dictatorships. Instead of holding to the old principles, the free world today prefers to negotiate with evil, which never works.
The saying is “Never again”— not “Never again, pretty please!”
The rise of these new threats is a reminder that no matter how international, how cosmopolitan, we may be, the old evils of antisemitism do not care. I later learned that my childhood favorite, Stefan Zweig, who was so sure European culture would protect him and other Jews, was forced to flee Austria for England in 1934, and then leave Europe.
Five years ago, I was invited to contribute to a symposium on what would be the state of Jewry in 2065, 50 years in the future. My contribution was based on a vision of a 2065 in which every individual who identifies as a Jew, who is identified as a Jew, is treated with respect and lives in peace. Easy! Of course, this is also my desire for everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, to have the individual freedom and rights modern society has struggled to attain for so long.
Imagine being able to say Jews have obtained that status, of freedom from violence and hatred and prejudice. That would mean that our world has come very far toward our goals as a society as a whole. Because if Jews are thriving and living without fear everywhere, it will mean that democracy and liberty are thriving everywhere.
This calculation is based on the simple and terrible fact that Jews have long been the canaries in the coalmines of human rights, dictatorship, and war. Jews and Israel are still a primary target of white supremacists and Islamist terrorists, from synagogues in Pittsburgh to communities across Europe.
We are also seeing a rise of antisemitic attacks and scapegoating by authoritarian regimes like Russia’s and democratic ones too, even in New York City.
We cannot and should not separate the success of democratic institutions from human rights and freedom from discrimination. My goal with the Renew Democracy Initiative has been to strengthen the pillars of democracy, the foundation that guarantees the other freedoms. As much as my Soviet background does not make me sympathetic to government power, we must have public structures that we can trust, and that will defend minority rights.
We cannot only depend on the private sector to do what is right. Facebook is unable or unwilling to stop antisemitic conspiracy groups, or even to suspend Steve Bannon for calling for beheadings. And when they do act, new sites spring up to provide platforms for hate. New technology always means new challenges, but they must be met.
We know from experience, old and all-too new, that hatred left to grow unchecked inevitably results in violence. November is the month of two tragic anniversaries. Of Kristallnacht in 1938, and the murder of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh two years ago, the worst antisemitic attack in US history. May their memories be a blessing.
Violence is never the beginning. Murder is never the beginning. Ignorance is. Hatred is.
Compromising with evil, tolerating intolerance, that is where it starts. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but compromises on principle are the streetlights.
We must listen to and support our early-warning systems, not wait until it is too late. This is why “Never Is Now” is such a strong and necessary message. It’s not ancient history, and it’s not a hypothetical future. The fight is now.
To stay vigilant is very difficult, and this is where leadership is so important, and where organizations like ADL and its supporters are so vital. They keep the true course, even as politicians and presidents come and go.
And yes, presidents do go eventually!
The pendulum of politics swings to and fro, not just moving in one direction toward greater liberalism as we would hope. Just like evil does not die, history does not end. Like a weed, evil can be cut back but never entirely uprooted. It waits for its chance to spread through the cracks in our vigilance. It can take root in the fertile soil of our complacency, or even the rocky rubble of the fallen Berlin Wall. Or even in the aftermath of a decisive electoral defeat.
Today, Josef Stalin is being rehabilitated in Putin’s Russia. Far right and far left groups continue to increase their influence throughout Europe. War just erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia, recalling when my family and I were forced to flee Baku in 1990 due to the ethnic pogroms there.
There are concentration camps in China today, as we speak. There are horrors that shock the conscience in Venezuela, in Syria, in North Korea. The common denominator is the contempt for the value of human life, combined with impunity. Each target is different, but when hatred succeeds anywhere, it threatens us all, everywhere. It increases the tolerance for evil acts and evil people. We cannot become numb. And, let us not forget, that while there are always new targets, antisemitism is always around, waiting. It’s like the original sin, a classic that never goes out of style for long.
And in America, although back from the brink, we must still recognize that the last four years were real, not a dream or a nightmare. You cannot build a wall against 73 million fellow citizens, not if society is to function at all. We must educate and build—not walls, but build institutions and systems that can help us recognize our shared humanity. There are new fights, new evils, today. But we fight them with the same weapons we have always had: the truth and the knowledge that we are fighting on the side of justice.
In 2012, I succeeded Vaclav Havel as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation. Through our programs and the Oslo Freedom Forum, we support the activities of dissidents around the world. These brave individuals and organizations are fighting for their lives and their freedom from Belarus to Gambia, from Hong Kong to Cuba. At the Freedom Forum, we hear so many incredible stories from these activists.
They are real-life heroes, and they deserve our support and attention. But I always remind people not to watch and think only, “Wow, look what incredible things that person did.” Say instead, “Imagine what incredible things I can do.” And when I founded the Renew Democracy Initiative in 2017, it was from the opposite direction, to reform and improve the structures of liberty and democracy. Our goal is to make our institutions, and our citizens, more resilient in the face of the challenges of the 21st century.
Let us commit to these twin fights, together. Let us support those fighting against hatred, against discrimination, against authoritarianism, and let us join them ourselves. And at the same time, let us build up the institutions that will protect these voices, and all our voices.
Havel wrote that “You do not become a 'dissident' just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility.”
That sense is what I want everyone watching to have.
We are all responsible for making Never Is Now a reality.
The negative forces of ignorance, bigotry, and violence can be replaced with the positive forces of education, community, and tradition. Let us hope for that day. Let us continue to work for that day.
Thank you, and thank you again for this honor.