Middlebury

John Wallach '64, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters

 

You Can Change the World,
by John Wallach '64

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE

May 1999

President McCardell, Provost Liebowitz, Claire Gargalli, trustees, fellow honorary degree recipients, the best faculty on the east coast of the United States, alumni, parents, friends and graduates. John, I'm glad you didn't check my grades; 35 years ago today, I sat where you are sitting now-just. I didn't fail my comprehensives, but I barely passed. Maybe it was too much trying to read 300 books in three weeks. But sometimes the greatest opportunities in life result from things that aren't planned. Coming to Middlebury was one of them.

My first memory of Middlebury is 1963 when my high school dean asked me to choose three colleges. As I was leaving his office, he said, "Wait, you need a third." Another set of nervous parents and their son was about to walk in. I saw a brochure on the bulletin board in the waiting room. There was a picture of a chapel in the snow. "What's this?" I asked from the hallway. "That's a good school. We'll put it down," Dean Gray replied. And we left.

In September, I was a freshman. My photograph appeared in the alumni magazine wearing a beanie. I wasn't very happy. Every weekend I drove home, all the way back to New York in the lime green Ford my parents gave me as a high school graduation present. But by the time I sat where you are sitting today, you couldn't pry me away from here. Cherish your memories as I do. You will for the rest of your life.

Now, I've written my whole life-comic books when I was 10, thousands of newspaper articles, magazine articles, and four books. I broke major aspects of the Iran-Contra scandal. I broke the story about the CIA's covert mining of the harbors of Nicaragua. I've traveled with six presidents, and every secretary of state from Dean Rusk to Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. I've interviewed Chou En-Lai, Mikhail Gorbachev, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope Paul. Talk about being nervous. I was in Baghdad a week before the Gulf War and flew out on a single-engine Cessna which Yasser Arafat borrowed from Muammar Qaddafi. It was flown by Libyan pilots. The only other passenger was Abu Jihad, number one on the Israeli terrorist list. Talk about a tempting target!

The most powerful story anyone has to tell is his or her own story. So I hope you'll indulge me if I tell you a little bit about my story. Someone said, "Life is a journey and not a destination." But someone else said, "It's good to have an end to journey toward...but it is the journey that matters in the end." I want to let you in on a couple of things I've learned along the way.

First of all, decide what you want out of life-what you want out of life. Not your parents or anyone else. What you want will define who you are as a person, and what you will leave behind.

I was born in 1943, two years after my parents were arrested in Nazi Germany. My mother escaped by bribing a guard. To get to Paris, she impersonated the daughter of an officer on a Nazi troop train. Then she was arrested again. The prison she was in was bombed; everyone was killed. She had escaped again. She went to Calais and was supposed to get on a ship to London, but she missed the ship. It also was bombed. No one survived.

So my journey almost didn't begin at all. My earliest memory is of lying awake at night when I was six wondering why one million children had been killed in the Holocaust, and I had survived. So, never take life for granted. It's the greatest gift of all. I can still hear my mother saying, "The only thing Hitler can't take away from you is what's up here."

What you have affirmed here in the last four years is that your mind is the most powerful tool of all. But Middlebury is not simply about being taught, it is about what you have learned about yourself. Not filling up your mind with facts, but beginning your search for meaning.

Middlebury gave me that sense of purpose, a moral compass. Because my parents were understandably concerned about giving me a more secure future than they had, there was never any doubt that I was going into "the business"-that's what it was called, "the business"-the tie business that my father built into one of the most successful neckwear companies in America.

After being at Middlebury, I realized that no matter what happened, I was not going into "the business." What Middlebury gave me was a sense of the possible. At Middlebury, I was allowed to devote the entire second semester of my senior year to developing the role of Lear. I've never forgotten the most profound lines of the play. They come after the mad scene, when Lear is drenched from the storm and only Kent and the Fool remain as loyal subjects. They try to push him into a hovel. He refuses and says to the Fool, "In boy, go first." Glancing up at the heavens, he says, "How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness defend you from seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en too little care of this." It is the first time Lear thinks of someone other than himself. It is the beginning of his redemption and, as a result, we begin to care for him. Lear's crisis of being, of asking himself, "What have I done with my life?" came late-too late-in his life.

But there were some other lines that were equally profound for me. When my father came backstage at Wright Theatre, he said, "John, if you want to be an actor, go ahead." I think these were the most difficult lines he ever had to speak. They were the most beautiful words I had ever heard. So after graduation, I went into the theatre. I was one of six students awarded a fellowship in the first class of NYU's School of the Arts. On day one, each of the 30 of us had to perform a monologue for a guest director. My name began with W, so I was last. When I finished, Elia Kazan, the director, told the whole class: "This kid has talent. He's going to go far."

I went far all right-right out of NYU. I was told they had made a terrible mistake. I wasn't a free instrument. I was the product of a liberal arts education. Had I started acting when I was 18, maybe things would be different. Now my head was too much in control of my heart. At the end of the first semester, they told me to find another career. So don't be discouraged if you have a setback. Or two or three. Don't give up. Something in that experience will prove worthwhile.

I fell back on something else that Middlebury gave me: training in radio. In the early 1960s, I started a show on WRMC called "The Voice of a Nation." I'm not sure whether anyone actually heard it. But my Middlebury experience helped me get a job in broadcasting, with Radio Press International. From there I got a job in the Washington Bureau of the Hearst Newspapers. It was February, 1968-the height of the Vietnam War. The antiwar protesters were out in the streets demanding a bomb halt, insisting it would bring the Communist North Vietnamese to the negotiating table. President Lyndon Johnson wouldn't hear of it. But I found out Johnson had in fact secretly considered a bomb pause, and I wrote the story.

Picture this: antiwar protesters-students like yourselves-were rioting in the streets. My story appeared the same week that the president announced he was sending 55,000 more American troops to Vietnam, fueling the protests. It was also the week that Bobby Kennedy declared he would run against Johnson for the presidential nomination, and, little did I know, the same day that my new boss, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., had a lunch date with the president. "Who's this whippersnapper?" Johnson demanded to know, waving a copy of the Baltimore paper with its headline, "LBJ Nixes Bomb Halt." Bill Hearst had no idea who I was. "Can't you find another job for him?" Johnson asked. Well, I had never met Hearst when he came to the bureau after lunch. He stopped at my cubicle. "You know the president was pretty upset about what you wrote," he said. "Yes, I know," I replied, counting my days. He asked me who my sources were, but before I could answer, he said, "Never mind. If he could get that upset about it, it must be right." Two weeks later I got a raise.

So, trust your instincts. Stick with what you believe.

For 25 years after that, I accompanied every president from Nixon to Clinton, and every secretary of state on most of their overseas missions. It was a trip-never having to go through customs or passport control, having your luggage hand-delivered to your hotel room, stepping off the runway into a waiting motorcade. You begin to think you're important. The president knows your name. Even when he berates you, you feel important-and you are. Your byline is in 100 papers. You're on network news shows. You're even occasionally recognized on the street.

It was incredibly ego-gratifying, but something inside me wasn't satisfied. The Middle East was my passion, and I was disturbed by the dehumanization of the Palestinians. After all, the Jews were dehumanized by the Nazis. That made it easier to kill them.

In the mid-1980s, my wife Janet and I wrote and produced a PBS documentary, and wrote three books together that depicted the Palestinians as people. For our first book, "Still Small Voices," we spent several months covering the Intifida, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule. We did it by living with Palestinian and Israeli families in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with radical Israeli settlers, and Palestinian "terrorists" and all the shades in between. We hoped "Still Small Voices" could be a bridge to help both sides listen to each other and hear what the other side was saying.

Remember this: you never know where things will lead. "Still Small Voices" was regarded as objective and fair by both sides. In 1989, our agent suggested we write a biography of Yasser Arafat. Surprisingly, Arafat gave us the access we needed to write the book. We spent hundreds of hours with him, usually being driven out of bed by a phone call at 1 a.m. to race through the streets of downtown Tunis to some PLO safe house, a different one every night. We didn't realize it at the time, but we probably knew him better than anyone in the West. We became the voice for him to speak to the American government and to the Israeli government. And we unwittingly became agents of history.

It was the summer of 1989, a few months after Arafat told the United Nations that he was renouncing terrorism and would recognize Israel. That wasn't easy for him. First, he declared, "I renounce tourism." Then he said: "I announce terrorism." Finally, he got it right: "I renounce terrorism." At one of our 3 a.m. encounters, we asked him what it would take for the PLO to begin direct talks with Israel. "Give me a full A-to-Z proposal. Tell me if Palestinian elections are A, B, C, P or S." "What is Z?" we asked. "I accept Z now as what the president of the United States has declared is his goal: Israeli withdrawal."

We couldn't believe our ears. That represented a change in PLO policy. Until then, Arafat and the PLO had demanded a Palestinian state as the precondition for talks with Israel. In other words: I won't even sit down and negotiate until I am guaranteed that the Palestinians will get a state at the end of the process. For Israel, that's not a negotiation, the Israelis replied. It was blackmail. What Arafat told us was, in effect, I will sit down and negotiate if Israel agrees to end its occupation and withdraw its troops from the West Bank and Gaza. The issue of statehood would be left open.

I wrote the story for my newspapers back home. A few days later, the American ambassador in Tunis called our hotel to say that a high-ranking official wanted to see us. Would we leave at once for Israel? We arrived in Jerusalem late the next night, and a car was waiting to take us to Tel Aviv. We were ushered into a small room in the Defense Ministry. There, seated behind his desk, was the defense minister, the late Yitzhak Rabin. For the next hour, we were quizzed intently about Yasser Arafat, everything from the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons he watched on television to his political positions.

Arafat was at the top of Israel's most wanted list. It was illegal to have any contact with him. And here was the Israeli who had vowed during the Intifida to break the Palestinians' bones, wanting to know everything about his nemesis-four years before he stood on the White House lawn and reluctantly shook his hand.

In agreeing to make peace, here were two old men, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, with plenty of blood on their hands, who had agreed to make peace. Like Lear, they had come to the realization, where is all this going? Like Lear, they were saying, "O, I have ta'en too little care of this."

At that White House ceremony in September 1993, where they shook hands for the first time, there were honored guests: 45 children in green t-shirts that said "Seeds of Peace." They were the first graduates of an organization I founded to bring children of war together to teach them how to make peace. That day, there were 45 teenagers representing two nations, Egypt and Israel, and the Palestinians. Today, more than 1,000 teenagers have graduated from Seeds of Peace; 4,000 apply each year from twelve countries for the 400 spaces that are available. We've had Arabs and Israelis, Bosnians and Serbs, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and youngsters from our own inner cities.

Why is Seeds so important? And what happens? After enjoying traditional camp sports and other activities, the kids are broken down into small groups to discuss the real issues. That allows them to get their anger, fears, and prejudices off their chests. I remember at the very first coexistence session seven years ago, the facilitator asked each of the kids to draw a picture of what an imaginary friend from the other side would look like. The drawings were scrambled and passed out. One by one, each teenager was asked to talk about the picture they were holding. An Israeli boy began describing a drawing he had picked up. It was of a stereotypical Jew, a crooked nose, scars on his face, long sideburns. In the margins were various symbols, including a peace sign and a swastika. When the Israeli boy saw the swastika, he started sobbing. He said his grandparents had died in the Holocaust. How could anyone be so cruel, so insensitive?

Then a Palestinian boy interrupted. "Those are crocodile tears. How can you cry for your grandparents when you never met them? The Holocaust is a lie," he announced. In shock, the Israeli replied, "There were six million Jews slaughtered." "No," said the Palestinian, "there were only 20,000 killed. It was the Jews' own fault anyway." Then he blurted out, "If you want to cry, cry for me; your people killed my brother. I was in an Israeli prison for six months-for throwing stones."

Both delegations now were crying and walked out. The Israeli boy was sick and went to the infirmary. The adult Palestinian chaperone wanted to know where the nearest airport was. Fortunately, we were in Maine-there was no international airport. Meanwhile my son, David, left camp and somehow found a copy of "Night" by Elie Wiesel describing his own internment in a concentration camp. He gave the book to Laith, the Palestinian.

The next afternoon, David walked by Laith's bunk and saw him sobbing. A few minutes later, Laith left his bunk and saw Elad, the Israeli, leaving the infirmary. The two boys slowly approached each other. Then Laith gave Elad a high five. We found out that the name of the Israeli boy, Elad, was Elad Wiesel, a cousin of Elie Wiesel, author of "Night."

Later that summer, after the ceremony on the White House lawn, the Palestinians and Egyptians said goodbye to the Israelis at National Airport. On the way back into D.C., Bobbi, our executive director, pointed out the new Holocaust Museum. Laith asked if he could go. This young Palestinian led the first group of Arabs to ever visit the museum. The next summer, I invited Elie Wiesel and Hani Masri, a nephew of an assassinated Palestinian mayor, to speak to our campers at the museum. Elie was so moved, seeing the Arabs and Israelis in the audience, that he offered me a job running his foundation . A few months later, I called his bluff.

Someone once said that the first half of your life is chasing success. The second half is chasing significance. I didn't want to wait until I was as old as Lear to change my life. I gave notice to my newspapers. No one could believe it. It was the biggest risk I ever took. My wife and I sold our home and our folk art collection. We moved to New York. Seeds of Peace, now, is my life, and I have never felt happier.

So take risks. There can be no peace inside yourself unless you try the things you want to do. The rewards are worth the gamble. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat understood that. Laith and Elad understood that. "Making peace is much harder than making war," Laith said. "It takes time. It takes care. It take patience."

Laith discovered that Elad had not been lying to him about the Holocaust. He began to question what he had been taught by his teachers and school books. Perhaps he understood why the Israelis crave security. More importantly, Elad changed. He felt sympathy for Laith's loss. He learned that his own people are capable of inflicting pain and suffering. He understood why Palestinians fight and die for a homeland, to have what Israel has-a passport, a flag, an anthem, a country, a national identity. Elad felt empathy for Laith. He was proud that he made a friend from the other side, a Palestinian friend.

This scene is repeated hundreds of times every summer. Instead of waiting until they're old as Lear or as Arafat and Rabin, Seeds of Peace is giving the next generation a chance-at the beginning of their lives-to realize that by working together, they can build a better world.

Your generation is going to face incredible challenges. But, in a vastly expanding global economy with ever faster communication, there is also a danger that we'll lose touch with each other, with our own humanity. People may become pixels on a screen. You can already stay home, email the office, get your paycheck via satellite, pay your bills, order what you want and get it delivered without getting up out of your chair. You'll be able to get the news updates on your phone, check stocks as you withdraw cash from the ATM machine, and get sports scores when you fill up for gas. Soon you'll be able to watch "60 Minutes" on your cell phone. You can even have sex on the internet without the trauma of being rejected. Are we entering an era when you will never really touch or feel another human being?

Don't get me wrong. You are the first post-graduate class of the new century. The new millennium is truly the dawn of a new age. The internet can help us forge human connections. Email is reviving the 19th century tradition of letter-writing. It can also help us make peace. No longer do governments have a monopoly on information, on what kids read or learn in the privacy of their own homes. Border guards won't be able to stop an Albanian or a Serb, an Arab or an Israeli, a Protestant or a Catholic from virtually visiting each other.

But will we use this new technology to become closer? Or farther apart? We've already seen how tempting it is to fight high-tech wars without any casualties-unless you're a Serbian or a Chinese civilian-not only in Kosovo, but here at home. The lesson of Columbine is, of course, that we have to have tougher gun control laws. We must reduce violence on television, in the movies, and on video games. But people want guns because they hate. They don't hate because they have guns. Television and movies give us the violence they say we want. So is it their fault or ours? At the end of his life, Carl Jung was asked what was the most important thing a man could study. He said himself. He said that until we overcome our own inner transgressions, man will never be able to obliterate violence in the world around him.

Unlike our generation when every individual's life was directly touched by war, whether in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, your generation has been relatively sheltered from the horrors of war. But you will be plagued with ethnic and other conflict in ways that are still unthinkable. We're spending $12 billion alone on the war in Kosovo. That should not come as a surprise. This has been the bloodiest century in history-150 million people have been killed in wars, genocide, and civil unrest.

People are not going to stop fighting. But we need to launch a new offensive to attack the reasons people fight. We need to deal with the sources of hatred in textbooks, in government propaganda, in the myths promulgated by each generation, and in the media. This is not some pie-in-the-sky dream. It just means we have to help rewrite some textbooks, enlarge conflict resolution programs, find new ways to use the internet to bring people together. In other words, invest in peace. One of our Israeli Seeds said, "We're spending millions of shekels every week on the possibility of war, and not a single shekel on the possibility of peace."

Remember when President Clinton said that our peacekeeping troops would be home from Bosnia in six months? That was almost four years ago. He hasn't been able to bring the American troops home because no one is doing the work required to heal the rift between the people who started the fighting. If we don't begin spending on reconciliation, we'll never be able to bring our boys home from Bosnia, Kosovo, or anywhere else. It's time to start peace-building. It's time to start peacemaking between people so that peace itself-peace in the hearts of ordinary human beings-will take root. The cycles of violence in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in Littleton, can be broken. As Laith said, it takes time, care, patience-and money. Remember the most important breakthrough of all is not in technology. It is the human breakthrough.

My journey is not over. It has become something of a race against the clock, but my life makes sense to me now. I think I understand why I lay awake as a six-your-old wondering why one million children died-and I lived. My life has meaning. This may sound religious, and I'm not, at least not in any formal sense. But maybe every decision I made, from glimpsing that photo of Mead Chapel to the books we wrote to Elie Wiesel, paved the way for the next stop in my life, and finally, for Seeds of Peace. Although I did not realize it at the time, without taking one step, I may never have been able to take the next. Here's a thought for those of us who believe in God: maybe I am doing what I was supposed to be doing-and I'm not as old as Lear, yet.

You can do whatever you want to do with your life. Now is the time to begin asking yourself, what do I want to do? What will give meaning to my life? John Parke, a farmer and a teacher I met while I was a student here, told me 35 years ago today, "Try your wings. It'll be over before you know it." That seemed inconceivable then.

Try your wings. Take some risks. Don't be afraid to fail. Use your head, but listen to your heart. Make your life count. You can change the world.

Thank you for letting me share this day with you, and good luck always.