Brigitte Berman sought to soothe her pain by hiding in a closet. She wrapped her arms around her 13-year-old body as if to contain millions of fractured pieces. After enduring months of bullying at school she felt utterly alone, worthless, humiliated, so overcome by pain that she believed her only choice was to end it forever.
She said the Anti-Defamation League turned her life around from “this frightened child, who not once but twice wanted to take her own life,” to a young woman feeling empowered enough, despite continued harassment throughout high school, to reach six million people through her speaking and having her novel accepted in more than 50 school curricula.
Brigitte found a reason to keep living when she attended an ADL Interfaith Youth Leadership Camp. She learned a poignant phrase: “Tolerance is not enough. We must work towards respect.”
That defines her robust lobbying for anti-bullying reform and implementing ADL’s “No Place for Hate” programing in schools.
On a personal level Brigitte said she found the strength to forgive her tormentors.
As an ADL camper, Brigitte learned about “the pyramid of hate.” At the top are genocide, hate and violence. The top is buttressed by a foundation of bigotry: name-calling, stereotypes and jokes. “We can change that,” she said, “by chipping away at the base of this pyramid.”
To me Brigitte was the highlight of the ADL centennial Oct. 31 at the Grand Hyatt in New York. Never mind that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was there to announce that he has agreed to open up even more advanced military capabilities to Israel, including the new V-22 Osprey. This is a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane.
Hagel said he directed the Marine Corps to expedite an order of six V-22s out of the next batch to go on the assembly line.
ADL national director Abraham Foxman presented the William and Naomi Gorowitz Institute Service Award to Leon Panetta, the former Secretary of State and former CIA director, whom Hagel praised as strong on security and just as strong on civil rights and equality.
Foxman said he was honoring Panetta not only for his successful attack on Osama bin Laden but also for his historic changes to civil rights at home.
In the award presentation, Foxman was joined by a rabbi, a priest and an imam. Whereupon ADL national chair Barry Curtiss-Lusher declared, “How pleasant it is to have siblings dwell together.”
Panetta noted that his family came from Italy to the Bronx to seek a better life for their children. “I washed glasses in my father’s restaurant,” he said. “My parents believed child labor was a requirement.”
Now that he’s out of national leadership, Panetta can assess his former environment fearlessly: “I’ve never seen so many people in Washington dedicated to screwing things up.”
He said it reminded him of the three missionaries—British, French, Italian—who fell into the hands of cannibals. The chief said, “You can kill yourselves or jump into this pot and be cooked. Either way we are going to use your skin to build a boat.”
The three killed themselves. The Brit slit his throat, the French plunged a knife into his heart, and the Italian started to slash and puncture his body.
“Are you crazy?” cried the cannibal chief. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to screw up your boat,” the Italian said.