Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked this year’s graduating class at Georgia Tech Institute of Technology to bring more of their own personal experiences to the relationships they will form in the years ahead.
Blinken told of how he was first inspired as a young person by hearing the experiences of his own family members as they spoke around the dinner table. Blinken shared how he first saw America as a beacon of hope as he listened to stories of how his grandfather, Meir Blinken. a Yiddish writer, had sought refuge in the United States after escaping the pogroms against the Jews of Russia over a hundred years ago.
Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was a Holocaust survivor who survived three concentration camps before being liberated by U.S. servicemen. He wrote an award-winning memoir about those experiences and has a program at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel named after him. Blinken told the graduates that the memory of those experiences still guides him.
“When I meet with refugees – whether they’re Ukrainians uprooted by Russia’s brutal invasion, or Nicaraguans who escaped their country’s repressive regime, or the Syrian and Afghan employees that I met earlier today working here in Atlanta at the Refuge Coffee Shop, I see my own family in their shoes. These meetings are also a chance to hear directly from the men, the women, the children whose fates are too often decided without their voices, in air-conditioned conference rooms, in policy memos, in spreadsheets.”
In an earlier interview with Jewish Insider, Blinken told about how Pisar had first encountered his concentration camp liberators, led by a tank with the five-pointed white star of the U.S. Army.
“And he got to the tank, the hatch opened up, and a large African American G.I. stared down at him,” Blinken related. “And he got down on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘God bless America.’ And at that point, the G.I. lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America. That’s the story that I grew up with — about what our country is and what it represents.”
Blinken admonished the graduates to connect with those around them, which the American journalist Edward R. Murrow has said takes place, most critically, in the few feet that separate us when we meet one another.
“The more layers there are between us and the people whose lives are affected by our actions – whether those layers are screens or miles or ideological bubbles – the easier it is to stop seeing the connections that we can only make in those last three feet, and the easier it is to start seeing people as numbers or statistics – the other – rather than as fellow human beings.”
Early in his career, as a recent law school graduate, he related that he worked for nearly two years for a large law firm and then joined a film production company. Still, he felt being pulled toward a job that would connect him to all the changes that he saw occurring in the world at that time. He saw apartheid coming to an end, there were peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, newly independent nations were developing, and he wanted to be involved. He signed on as a low-level assistant in the State Department and he’s been involved in foreign policy issues ever since.
“From day one, I was hooked. Diplomacy felt urgent, challenging, directly connected to improving people’s lives. It was a way to serve my country, which I badly wanted to do. I felt grateful every morning walking into work. I still do.”
Blinken’s two-day visit to Atlanta included a stop at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a brief meeting with the city’s mayor and a visit Atlanta’s Morehouse and Spelman Colleges.
In January, the Secretary of State traveled to Israel to meet with officials there and in the Palestinian territories. He has been faced with the delicate task of maintaining the important American alliance with Israel, while addressing American concerns over the expansion of settlements on the West Bank and the controversial proposals by Israel’s government to make fundamental changes in the nation’s democratic institutions.
On Sunday, May 21, the State Department slammed a visit by Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, for his visit to the Temple Mount, which is the site of the prominent Al-Aqsat Muslim mosque. A spokesperson cautioned Israel against using the site for political purposes.
Later, in June, Blinken is expected to attend a meeting in Morocco of the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They will hold the second meeting of what is called the Negev Forum, after last year’s historic gathering in Sde Boker, in southern Israel.
Reportedly, there have been attempts in recent months to expand the participation in the meetings as a way of including other nations that might have an interest in creating further diplomatic contacts with Israel.
- Bob Bahr
- Secretary of State Antony Blinken
- Georgia Tech Institute of Technology
- Meir Blinken.
- Samuel Pisar
- Holocaust Survivor
- Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center
- Refuge Coffee Shop
- Jewish Insider
- Edward R. Murrow
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Spelman College
- West Bank
- Itamar Ben-Gvir
- Temple Mount
- Al-Aqsat Muslim mosque
- United Arab Emirates