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Excerpt from my keynote address at the Model United Nations meeting in Lisbon (Nov. 2014)
08-11-2014

Promotion of Human Rights and Tolerance (Richard Zimler)

I WANT TO THANK PETER ANDREWS AND THE ORGANIZERS OF THIS MODEL UNITED NATIONS MEETING FOR GIVING ME THIS OPPORTUNITY TO TALK TO YOU THIS MORNING.

I’M VERY GRATEFUL.

I ALSO WANT TO GIVE THE ORGANIZERS MY CONGRATULATIONS FOR PUTTING TOGETHER SUCH AN IMPRESSIVE GATHERING OF STUDENTS FROM ALL OVER EUROPE, AS WELL AS THE UNITED STATES AND AZERBAIJAN.
AND I WANT TO CONGRATULATE ALL OF YOU IN THE AUDENCE FOR PARTICIPATING IN THIS VALUABLE PROGRAM.

 BOM DIA, AS WE SAY IN PORTUGUESE. GOOD MORNING. AND WELCOME TO LISBON. 

I’D LIKE TO TALK TO YOU TODAY ABOUT FOUR TOPICS THAT HAVE TO DO WITH HUMAN RIGHTS AND TOLERANCE.
I’M GOING TO TALK FIRST ABOUT A RIGHT ALMOST ALL OF US FORGET. AND WHICH IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL.


AND THEN I’M GOING TO SPEAK ABOUT MY OWN EXPERIENCES WITH INTOLERANCE. AND SOME OF WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM THEM.


THIRDLY, I’M GOING TO MENTION TWO CAUSES OF BIGOTRY AND CONFLICT THAT YOUR GENERATION IS GOING TO HAVE TO TRY TO ELIMINATE.


AND LASTLY, I’LL TALK VERY BRIEFLY ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT YOUR OWN PREJUDICES!


NOW, WHAT IS THIS ESSENTIAL HUMAN RIGHT WE USUALLY FORGET?


I CALL IT THE RIGHT TO EXIST.


I REALIZE THAT MAY SOUND VERY STRANGE TO YOU, BUT HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE – ALL ACROSS THE GLOBE – ARE TREATED AS IF THEY ARE NOT LIVING IN THE WORLD WITH THE REST OF US.


AND BECAUSE OF THAT, THEY CANNOT HOPE TO GAIN THE RIGHT TO AN ADEQUATE EDUCATION…
OR FREEDOM OF SPEECH…


OR THE RIGHT TO BE TREATED EQUALLY UNDER THE LAW…


TO EXPLAIN EXACTLY WHAT I MEAN, I’D LIKE OT BEGIN WITH AN EXAMPLE:


WHO HERE IN THIS ROOM KNOWS THE NAME OF THE SPANISH NURSE WHO CONTRACTED EBÓLA IN LATE SEPTEMBER AND WHO WAS RECENTLY CURED:


(I WAIT…)


HER NAME WAS TERESA ROMERO RAMOS.


NOW YOU MIGHT RECALL THAT HER DOG WAS KILLED TO PREVENT THE POSSIBLE SPREAD OF INFECTION. DO ANY OF YOU REMEMBER HIS NAME, BY ANY CHANCE?


(I WAIT…)


EXCALIBUR


(EXCELLENT! (IF SOMEONE REPLIES))


YOU MIGHT ALSO RECALL THAT PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD TWEETED THE WORDS “LET’S SAVE EXCALIBUR” IN AN EFFORT TO PREVENT THE DOG FROM BEING EUTHANIZED. THAT MESSAGE WAS TWEETED 400,000 TIMES IN 24 HOURS.


BUT HOW MANY OF YOU KNOW THE NAME OF ANY OF THE 5.000 AFRICANS WHO HAVE DIED OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS FROM EBÓLA.


(WAIT….)


ANYBODY HAVE JUST ONE NAME?


WELL, DON’T FEEL BAD… I DON’T KNOW ANY OF THEIR NAMES EITHER. NONE OF US DOES!


NOR DO WE KNOW ANY OF THEIR PROFESSIONS…


OR WHERE THEY LIVED…


OR IF THEY WERE CHRISTIANS, MOSLEMS OR ATHEISTS…


OR IF THEY HAD A DOG…


WE DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THEM.


NOW WHY IS THAT?


BECAUSE AFRICANS – UNLESS THEY ARE GOVERNMENT LEADERS OR FAMOUS SINGERS – ARE ALMOST ALWAYS INVISIBLE TO US. THEY EXIST ONLY AS STATISTICS.


I’M SORRY TO SAY THEY ARE NOT EVEN A FRACTION AS IMPORTANT AS EXCALIBUR THE DOG.


NOW, LIKE AFRICANS WITH EBÓLA, THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE AROUND THE WORLD WHO HAVE NOT YET BEEN GRANTED THE RIGHT TO EXIST BY THOSE OF US WHO LIVE IN THE DEVELOPED WORLD.


BY OUR JOURNALISTS.


AND BY OUR BUSINESSES AND POLITICAL LEADERS.


THEY HAVE NOT YET BEEN GRANTED TO RIGHT TO BE FULLY HUMAN.
TO BE LIKE US.


ANOTHER EXAMPLE. JUST TWO DAYS AGO, I GAVE A TALK IN PORTO, WHERE I LIVE, ABOUT A WELL-KNOWN ISRAELI FILM CALLED “WALTZ WITH BASHIR”. PERHAPS YOU’VE HEARD OF IT OR SEEN IT.


HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE SEEN “WALTZ WITH BASHIR”?


IT’S AN ANIMATED MOVIE ABOUT ISRAELI SOLDIERS WHO RETURN HOME AFTER ISRAEL’S INVASION OF LEBANON IN 1982.
THESE SOLDIERS SUFFER FROM NIGHTMARES AND OTHER PSYCHOLOGICAL DIFFICULTIES, BUT THEY AREN’T SURE WHY.


THEY SUSPECT THAT THEIR PROBLEMS MIGHT BE THE RESULT OF SERVING IN BEIRUT AT THE SAME TIME AS THERE WAS MASSACRE OF PALESTINIANS.


THIS MASS-MURDER TOOK PALCE IN THE SABRA AND CHATILA REFUGEE CAMPS IN BEIRUT, IN SEPTEMBER OF 1982.
UP TO 3500 PALESTINIAN MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN WERE TORTURED AND MURDERED IN THOSE CAMPS BY A MILITIA OF LEBANESE CHRISTIANS.


THIS ATTACK WAS GIVEN THE SUPPORT OF THE ISRAELI ARMY, WHICH SURROUNDED THE CAMPS AND PREVENTED PALESTINIANS FROM FLEEING.


IN OTHER WORDS, THE SOLDIERS PORTRAYED IN THE FILM HELPED MAKE IT POSSIBLE FOR THE PALESTINIANS TO BE KILLED. OVER THE COURSE OF THE MOVIE, THEY COME TO BELIEVE THAT THEIR OWN GUILT HAS CAUSED THEIR PSYCHOLOGICAL DIFFICULTIES.


THE FILM IS VERY WELL-MADE AND IT IS THE QUALITY OF ANIMATION IS EXCELLENT. BUT GIVEN THAT “WALTZ WITH BASHIR” HAS TO DO WITH THE SABRA AND CHATILA MASSACRE, YOU WOULD THINK THAT IT WOULD FOCUS ON PALESTINIANS – AT LEAST IN PART.


YOU WOULD THINK THAT WE IN THE AUDIENCE WOULD COME TO LEARN SOME OF THEIR NAMES AND PROFESSIONS.
AND ALL THOSE OTHER DETAILS THAT TURN A STATISTIC INTO A REAL PERSON.


A PERSON WITH WHOM WE FEEL AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION.


BUT NOT ONE PALESTINIAN IS PORTRAYED IN THE MOVIE.


NOT A SINGLE PALESTINIAN IS PERMITTED TO SAY ANYTHING ABOUT THEMSELVES OR THE MURDERS OF THEIR LOVED ONES. THEY HAVE NO VOICE.


KEEP IN MIND THAT THE AUDIENCE IS MEANT TO FEEL BAD ABOUT THE SUFFERING OF THE ISRAELI SOLDIERS.
WE ARE INVITED TO IDENTIFY WITH THEM.


BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PALESTINIANS? THEIR SUFFERING WAS FAR GREATER.


SHOULDN’T THE FILM ENABLE US – THE AUDIENCE – TO IDENTIFY WITH THEM? SHOULDN’T THEY HAVE A CHANCE TO TELL THEIR STORY.


APPARENTLY NOT.


BECAUSE THE PRODUCERS OF THE FILM HAVE INCLUDED THE PALESTINIANS ONLY AS STATISTICS AND NAMELESS VICTIMS.


BUT IF YOU DO NOT EXIST AS A HUMAN BEING, HOW CAN YOU HOPE TO OBTAIN THE RIGHT TO DECIDE YOUR OWN FUTURE?


OR GET FAIR TREATMENT FROM ANY GOVERNMENT?


HOW CAN YOU HOPE TO HAVE YOUR OWN HOMELAND?


YOU CAN’T!!!


NOW, I COULD MAKE A LIST OF MANY OTHER SITUATIONS IN WHICH DIFFERNT ETHNIC GROUPS OR MINORITIES HAVE BEEN CONSDIERED INVISIBLE OR LESS THAN HUMAN.


THIS IS NOT JUST A PROBLEM FOR AFRICANS AND PALESTINIANS.


CERTAIN PEOPLE ARE INVISIBLE IN EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.


FOR INSTANCE, LET’S TALK A MOMENT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA. WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THEM AND THEIR DIFFICULTIES LIVING IN A COUNTRY WHERE THEY AREN’T GIVEN BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS?


I’D LIKE ALL THE GIRLS IN HERE TO HOLD UP THEIR HAND FOR A MOMENT.


THANK YOU.


IF YOU LIVED IN SAUDI ARABIA, YOU WOULD NOT BE PERMITTED GO TO UNIVERSITY WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF YOUR MALE GUARDIAN. THAT COULD BE YOUR FATHER, HUSBAND OR BROTHER.


IF HE SAYS NO, YOU DON’T GET AN EDUCATION!

 

YOU WOULD ALSO HAVE TO ASK HIS PERMISSION TRAVEL HERE TO PORTUGAL.


AND YOU WOULD NEED HIS PERMISSION TO GET A JOB AND TO OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT.


YOU MAY BE TOO YOUNG TO REALIZE THIS, BUT I CAN ASSURE YOU THAT A WOMAN WITHOUT HER OWN MONEY CANNOT DECIDE ANYTHING ABOUT HER OWN LIFE. THEY ARE TRAPPED.


AND YET TO THE REST OF THE WORLD, THESE SAUDI ARABIAN WOMEN DO NOT SEEM TO COUNT. WE NEVER HEAR ANYTHING ABOUT THEM. IN FACT, WOMEN ALL OVER THE MIDDLE EAST ARE LARGELY INVISIBLE TO US.


WHY?


I THINK IT’S BECAUSE GOVERNMENT AND MEDIA LEADERS IN EUROPE AND AMERICA DO NOT WANT TO RISK OFFENDING THE DICTATORS WHO RUN THOSE COUNTRIES. BECAUSE THEY MIGHT CUT OFF OUR ACCESS TO THEIR OIL!


ANOTHER EXAMPLE: GAY PEOPLE IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION.


DURING SOVIET TIMES, GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS CLAIMED THAT GAY AND LESBIAN PEOPLE DID NOT EXIST IN RUSSIA OR ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE COMMUNIST BLOC.


DO YOU KNOW WHY?


THEY SAID THAT LOVING SOMEONE OF THE SAME SEX WAS AN ABBERATION CAUSED BY CAPITILISM.
IMAGINE BEING SO BIGOTED AND IGNORANT THAT YOU BELIEVE THAT HUMAN SEXUALITY – THE BIOLOGY OF THE HUMAN BODY – DEPENDS ON HOW YOU RUN YOUR LOCAL ECONOMY!


UNFORTUNTELY, GAY PEOPLE ARE STILL OFTEN TREATED EITHER AS CRIMINALS OR INVISIBLE. IN 78 COUNTRIES, HOMOSEXUALITY IS ILLEGAL, AND IN A FEW OF THEM, SUCH AS IRAN AND NIGERIA, GAYS AND LESBIANS CAN BE EXECUTED.


NOW, BECAUSE MANY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE HAVE NOT HAD THE RIGHT TO EXIST, WE HAVE ANOTHER RELATED PROBLEM.


THEY ARE NOT GENERALLY INCLUDED IN THE OFFICIAL VERSIONS OF HISTORY.


EVEN TODAY, MANY OF OUR HISTORY BOOKS HAVE NOT BEEN RE-WRITTEN TO INCLUDE PEOPLE WHO WERE ONCE CONSIDERED INFERIOR OR SUB-HUMAN.


HERE IS ONE QUICK AND OBVIOUS EXAMPLE:


I WENT TO SCHOOL IN NEW YORK WAY BACK IN THE 1960s – WHICH FOR YOU IS THE MIDDLE AGES, OF COURSE!
MY SCHOOLMATES AND I WERE ALL TAUGHT THAT COLUMBUS DISCOVERED AMERICA.


REALLY?


WHAT ABOUT THE MILLIONS OF NATIVE AMERICANS LIVING IN NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA FOR THE PREVIOUS 10,000 TO 15,000 YEARS?

 

DON’T THEY COUNT?


APPARENTLY NOT. BECAUSE PEOPLE IN AMERICA AND BRAZIL AND MANY OTHER COUNTRIES ARE STILL TAUGHT ALMOST NOTHING ABOUT NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, RELIGION OR HISTORY.


IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME, ASK THE NEXT AMERICAN OR BRAZILIAN YOU MEET ABOUT THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OR MYTHOLOGY OR ARTWORK OF THE PEOPLE WHO LIVED IN THEIR COUNTRIES BEFORE EUROPEAN COLONIZATION.
DID YOU KNOW THAT BEFORE MEXICO CITY WAS COLONIZED BY THE SPANISH, IT WAS A SOPHISTICATED CITY OF MORE THAN 200,000 PEOPLE?


IT WAS FAR LARGER THAN LISBON, LONDON, MADRID, BAKU, BARCELONA, ROME, DUBLIN AND MILAN.
IF WE KNEW SOMETHING ABOUT THE GREAT CULTURE OF THE AZTECS OR INCAS, COULD WE EVER LISTEN TO SOMEONE SAY THAT AMERICA WAS DISCOVERED BY COLUMBUS WITHOUT TELLING HIM TO START THINKING MORE RATIONALLY? OR TO USE MORE PRECISE LANGUAGE?


NOW, HOW DID I COME TO REALIZE THAT MANY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE NOT HAD THE RIGHT TO EXIST?


BECAUSE I WAS NEVER TAUGHT THAT. NO ONE EVER TOLD ME IN SO SIMPLE AND CLEAR A WAY THAT WE BEHAVE AS IF MANY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE DON’T COUNT.


I FOUND IT OUT WHILE WRITING MY FIRST NOVEL, THE LAST KABBALIST OF LISBON.


IT IS ABOUT A FAMILY OF JEWS – THE ZARCO FAMILY.


THEY AND ALL THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL WERE FORCED BY TO CONVERT TO CHRSITIANITY IN 1497.
(SHOW BOOK)


WHILE DOING MY YEAR OF RESEARCH, I DISCOVERED THE LISBON MASSACRE OF 1506.


IN APRIL OF THAT YEAR, 2000 CONVERTED JEWS – LIKE THE ZARCO FAMILY IN MY NOVEL – WERE MURDERED BY A MOB OF ANGRY CHRISTIANS.


HOW MANY PEOPLE HERE HAVE BEEN TO THE MAIN SQUARE OF LISBON, THE ROSSIO?
(RAISE YOUR HANDS…)


THE CONVERTED JEWS OF LISBON WERE MURDERED RIGHT THERE. AND BURNT IN TWO LARGE PYRES.
AFTER I FOUND OUT ABOUT THIS MASSACRE, I ASKED MY PORTUGUESE FRIENDS WHAT THEY KNEW ABOUT IT.


THEY KNEW NOTHING. “WHAT MASSACRE?” THEY ASKED ME.


YOU SEE, THE JEWS OF PORTUGAL HAD VANISHED.


THE HISTORY BOOKS CHOSEN FOR STUDENTS DIDN’T MENTION THE MASSACRE.


NOW, IT JUST SO HAPPENS THAT I HAVE A SUBVERSIVE PERSONALITY.


I LIKE TO TALK ABOUT EVENTS THAT OTHER PEOPLE WOULD PREFER TO FORGET.


SO I DECIDED TO MAKE THE LISBON MASSACRE THE BACKGROUND FOR MY NOVEL.


IT’S A BOOK THAT HAS NOW BEEN PUBLISHED IN 23 LANGUAGES. AND, IF ALL GOES WELL, A GERMAN PRODUCER WILL MAKE THE MOVIE NEXT YEAR.


BUT I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE BOOK’S SUCCESS.


I WANT TO TALK ABOUT WHAT WRITING IT TAUGHT ME.


THAT I LOVE TO EXPLORE THE LIVES OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN SYSTEMATICALLY SILENCED OR FORGOTTEN.
LIKE THE CONVERTED JEWS MASSACRED IN LISBON IN 1506.


OR THE PALESTINIANS WHO DO NOT GET TO TELL THEIR STORIES.


I LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE HAD THEIR VOICES SILENCED OR CRUSHED.
WHO HAVE LOST THE ELECTIONS AND THE WARS.

 

WHO HAVE LOST THEIR HOMELANDS.


NOW, HOW MANY OF YOU WANT TO BE WRITERS?


(WAIT…)


OKAY, MOST OF YOU WILL BECOME SOMETHING ELSE. THAT’S GREAT.


BECAUSE MAKING SURE THAT EVERYONE HAS THE RIGHT TO EXIST – AND THAT THEY GO ON TO HAVE THE RIGHT TO AN EDUCATION AND HEALTH CARE AND JUSTICE – IS NOT JUST A PROJECT FOR ME. OR FOR OTHER WRITERS.


EVERYONE CAN HELP.


NO MATTER WHAT YOUR AGE OR PROFESSION OR COUNTRY.


STUDENTS.
TEACHERS.
PSYCHOLOGISTS.
JOURNALISTS.
ARTISTS.
DIPLOMATS.


EVERY PERSON IN THIS ROOM CAN HELP.


ALL OF US CAN HELP GIVE FORGETTON PEOPLE A VOICE OR REMIND US THAT THEIR PROBLEMS ARE IMPORTANT.
SAID IN ANOTHER WAY…


THE PRIME MINISTERS AND PRESIDENTS OF THE WORLD DON’T NEED ME. AND THEY DON’T NEED YOU.
THE POWERFUL PEOPLE OF OUR WORLD HAVE ALL THE HELP THEY COULD EVER NEED. THEY HAVE PEOPLE WHO WILL….


WRITE THEIR SPEECHES
DRIVE THEIR CARS
TEACH THEIR CHILDREN
CREATE PUBLICITY FOR THEIR BUSINESES
AND…
WRITE HISTORY FROM THEIR POINT OF VIEW, OF COURSE.


THE PEOPLE WHO NEED THE HELP OF DYNAMIC YOUNG PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE ONES WHO LOSE THE WARS AND ELECTIONS.


IF YOU BECOME A PHYSICIAN, MAYBE THAT MEANS YOU WORK FOR AN ORGANIZATION LIKE DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS, AND TREAT PEOPLE FOR THEIR ILLNESSES IN UNDERDEVELOPED NATIONS IN AFRICA AND ASIA.
IF YOU BECOME A SCIENTIST, MAYBE IT MEANS YOU DO RESEARCH ON DISEASES THAT AFFECT THE POOREST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD, LIKE DYSSENTARY AND MALARIA.


IF YOU STUDY LITERATURE, SOCIOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGY, ANTHROPLOGY OR ECONOMICS PERHAPS YOU GO TO TEACH IN A SCHOOL IN A SLUM OR POOR NEIGHORBOOD IN NAPLES, ISTANBUL, ZURICH, BUCHAREST OR GLASGOW.


NOW… I’M NOT HERE TO PREACH A SERMON.


I’M ONLY SAYING THAT YOU CAN PARTICIPATE IN THIS PROJECT IF YOU WANT TO.
OR IN SOME SIMILAR PROJECT.


HOW YOU CONTRIBUTE TO MAKING A BETTER WORLD DOESN’T DEPEND ON MY INTERESTS AND PASSIONS, OF COURSE.
IT DEPENDS ON YOURS. ON HOW YOU WANT TO LIVE YOUR LIFE.
 


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