When the History of Our Era Is Written, What Will Be Said of Us?

Will it be said that when challenged, we cowered? Or will it be said we were resolute in our insistence on the truth?

Thank you, Jonathan (Greenblatt), and thank you all. 

I want to start by expressing my gratitude to Pfizer’s 80,000 purpose-driven colleagues. They are among the most courageous people I have ever met, and it is my privilege to serve as a member of their team. 

This award is especially meaningful to me because it comes from an organization whose mission – “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” – is so critical and so close to my heart. And it calls to mind one of Pfizer’s own core values: equity.

For more than a century, the ADL has been true to Sigmund Livingston’s bold and courageous vision that there be an organization dedicated not only to combating antisemitism, but also to countering extremism and battling bigotry wherever and whenever they are found. 

Under the leadership of Ben Sax, Jonathan Greenblatt and their talented team, Livingston’s legacy has continued and has made the ADL one of the most important, influential and effective organizations in the United States and around the world. From disrupting online hate and harassment, to protecting civil rights … from securing democracy to challenging bias … you are at the forefront of  some of the greatest challenges of our time, and the work you do every day sets a course towards a better, brighter, and more just future for all. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. 

In thinking about the words of this award – Courage Against Hate – I found myself reflecting on the causes and consequences of hate. And I was struck by the central role of disinformation. Now, I’m not talking about misinformation, which is false information regardless of the intent to mislead. Misinformation is damaging, but it canbe innocent. Disinformation, on the other hand, is false information knowingly and intentionally spread. It is always malicious. It is never benign. And it is never acceptable.

I am a scientist, and I believe it is accurate to say we are in a golden age of science – filled with great promise for finding treatments and even cures for some of the world’s most devastating diseases. However, the promise of transformational improvements in global health is being threatened by dangerous rhetoric – and by the spreading of disinformation. We need only look to the battle against COVID-19 to see the impact: malevolent disinformation about the virus and vaccines, and the gross politicization of all things COVID-19, have led to unnecessary and preventable suffering and death. 

As close as I am to that situation, you need not take it from me. Highly regarded scientific and medical experts have said the same thing. No less an authority than former NIH Director Francis Collins lamented the tidal wave of disinformation we have seen during the pandemic. In a recent interview, he said: “We were basically outgunned dramatically by lies and conspiracies in social media. We should have had our own version of flooding the system with truth.”

Naturally, where there is disinformation, there is often hate and intentional harm – and those who target our community, among others, rarely miss the opportunity to make their mark. Antisemitic messages on social media, and on flyers posted in communities across the country, suggested that the coronavirus was a tool for Jews to expand a global influence; that Jews were profiting from COVID; and that Jews were the real virus. Hate-peddlers referred to the “Jew vaccine” to dissuade others from receiving it. Some messages even referred to my own Jewish heritage and used it as “evidence” that the widespread vaccine effort was part of a calculated, long-term Jewish plot to institute “A Global Jew Government.”

Of course, these hateful messages are nothing new. I was painfully reminded of this not too long ago at Yad Vashem, in Israel, where I was shown a vicious editorial cartoon in which the Nazis tried to discourage the public from taking vaccines made by Jews.

No one in this room needs to be told the details of the Holocaust. We know them all too well. I am a child of Holocaust survivors. As some of you may know, my beloved mother was literally seconds away from being executed by a Nazi firing squad before the gunman was called off.  

What is important to remember is how Hitler got started and what enabled him to do what he did. And that was the dissemination of “fake news.” Of lies. Of disinformation – propaganda that resulted in hatred and fear, which led the Nazis to follow Hitler’s call to exterminate Jews.  

The sheer magnitude of what happened, while perhaps incomprehensible to many of us – especially, unfortunately, to many in younger generations – makes it critical that we identify and speak out about the factors that enabled it. We cannot allow the passage of time to cause us or our children and grandchildren to be any less horrified or any less vigilant than we are. Because although it pains me to say so, the reality is this: It could happen again. 

It was not so long ago that we witnessed the Charlottesville riots, where racial violence and intimidation born of false narratives about people of different color, race, religions and background, led to death. Who can forget the contorted and menacing faces of those hate-filled people, carrying torches as they marched in lockstep and chanted “Jews will not replace us!”?  

According to ADL’s most recent audit, last year saw the highest incidence of assault, vandalism and harassment targeting Jewish communities and individuals in the United States ever recorded – a 34% increase from the year before. And we’re still hearing high-profile individuals and celebrities repeat and spread antisemitic slurs designed to dehumanize and harm Jewish people. 

It’s clear that disinformation is still wreaking havoc on society today and threatening the principles for which this organization stands. The hatred and ignorance that it creates prevents us from seeing one another as people, as individuals with lives that deserve to be protected. 

When people use disinformation to create fear, they become agents of evil – and not only against Jews. Whether it is the disinformation around the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when we were encouraged to fear certain people instead of a disease; or the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, when lies and conspiracy theories threatened the peaceful transfer of power and resulted in the death of five police officers, we know that intentional spreading of false information leads to fear which, in turn, leads to tragic outcomes. History is rife with illustrations of the high cost of disinformation – of the harm that can be inflicted when people in positions of power knowingly lie.

Now, there are bright spots amid this darkness. Just last month, a jury awarded close to a billion dollars to families of those who lost loved ones in the Sandy Hook massacre, because one man with a microphone spoke disgusting and disgraceful lies. The jury flat-out rejected his lies and made an unambiguous statement that such evil is not acceptable. And as a business leader, I was encouraged recently to see companies and organizations quickly sever ties with celebrities and athletes who spew hate – even though these decisions could result in lost revenues or lost games.

This is as straightforward as it gets. Something is true or it isn’t. Truth is not a shade of gray. And we have an obligation to do our part. 

  • We must continue to speak the truth and fight indifference and complacency.
  • We must rebuild trust in science, which is based on facts. On the truth. On what can be proven. Not on what we hope, think, presume or suspect.
  • And we must work toward public discourse characterized by data-driven conversations and respectful debates – not personal attacks and the spreading of lies.

That may seem like a tall order, but we have no choice. Lives depend on it.

I’m an optimist. I believe science can win, people are good, and, ultimately, human ingenuity triumphs – but I also recognize none of that happens on its own. We need good people to stand up and make their will known, just as they have throughout history.  

That’s not to say we can’t have disagreements. Democracy is stronger when we have different opinions. Still, my hope is that policymakers and political leaders of every background and ideology rely on facts, and respect those with whom they may disagree.

One of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, said:

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

These are wise words from a wise man. While the political factors at play when Adams said that may be different from what we face today, those words are as important now – perhaps even more so – than when he originally uttered them many years ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a question to answer. 

And it is not an exaggeration to say that what we decide will have a profound impact on the future of life as we know it, and on mankind itself.

The question is this: 

When the history of our era is written, what will be said of us?

Will it be said that when challenged, we cowered, gave into fear and allowed the forces of evil to spread vicious, hateful, malicious lies that advanced a dark, deadly agenda, robbed us of our freedom and, in many cases, our very lives?

Or will it be said that we were resolute in our insistence on the truth? That we stood up. That we were courageous, even at risk to our own safety. That we called out, condemned and rejected those who told lies. That we never wavered in our efforts to rely on facts to inform what we said and did? And that society flourished as a result?

This is a question we can answer only through our actions. It will take hard work, and dedication – and especially courage. But I am confident that, if we stand together – if we commit to one another, and to our shared future – we can answer that question truthfully, courageously and with pride. 

Thank you for the honor you have bestowed today. I will cherish it always.

Stay well.

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