Jewish Journal


February 14, 2002

Madeleine’s War


The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic got underway at the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague this week. Milosevic reportedly plans to call 35 witnesses in his defense, including former President Bill Clinton; British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.

Chances are it won't happen, but an Albright-Milosevic smackdown on C-SPAN would give Pay-Per-View some stiff competition.

Albright was in town Monday evening addressing an audience of 6,000 at the Universal Amphitheater as part of the University of Judaism's (UJ) Department of Continuing Education lecture series. She appears to be very grandmotherly, and I'm sure she is just that to her five grandchildren. But in her remarks and her answers afterwards to questions from UJ President Robert Wexler, Albright demonstrated her much-remarked-upon bluntness, intellect and humor.

It was Albright who pushed for American military involvement to stop the genocide in Bosnia. Over the objections of Colin Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Albright persuaded a reluctant Clinton administration into leading NATOs air assault against the Milosevic regime. Other prominent Americans and Europeans had voiced concern over Milosevic for years -- former Sen. Bob Dole sounded strident and unheeded warnings.

But Albright ran the ball into the goal posts, and withstood the boos of the crowd. As she recounted, the bombing campaign, initially hampered by bad weather and tragic foul-ups, led to public calls for an end to what pundits took to calling "Madeleine's War." Witness Camille Paglia, writing in the spring of 1999: "Albright's conceit and deceit have damaged the cause of women everywhere who aspire to high office and public responsibility."

The U.S. involvement worked. Milosevic fell from power. Instead of saying "I told you so," Albright expressed regret at letting the genocide in Bosnia (and Rwanda) go unpunished for so long. But, she said, "On my watch we were not going to have ethnic cleansing."

Of course, coming from Albright, that remark resonates. Born in Czechoslovakia, her father was Josef Korbel, a high-ranking Czech diplomat serving in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, when World War II began. Albright, then age 11, and her parents escaped to England, but numerous relatives (including three grandparents) were murdered by the Nazis. Raised a Catholic in England, Albright was never told her about her Jewish heritage or her family's Holocaust tragedy. Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs revealed the facts as Albright became secretary of state, and raised questions over whether she knowingly suppressed her Jewish heritage. (As one skeptic in the audience put it, "Didn't she ever look into a mirror? Didn't she ever wonder why all her friends were tall and blond and she looked like Golda Meir?")

In the evening's most moving moments, she addressed her critics head on. "There are lots of people who don't believe me and I can't do anything about that," Albright said. "I have to say I resented the people who did not experience what my parents experienced and criticized them. The most hurtful part to me were the attacks on my father."

Albright said she is still coming to terms with her background. She returned to her grandparents' synagogue and found their names inscribed on the wall.

She went to Terezin (Theresienstadt), the camp where they were murdered. "It was a very moving trip," she said. Though eventually Albright herself became an Episcopalian, she reflected on her Jewishness in words that -- let's be honest -- most lifelong Jews would themselves use. "I feel it makes my background richer. I'm proud of the values inculcated in me. It puts me into a stream of very remarkable people that care for one another and for others."

Albright herself is part of that stream. It is her life as a refugee, as a child sleeping in a London bomb shelter, as a child of parents whom, she said, "subliminally" conveyed to her the enormous horror of the Holocaust, that compelled her to push her government to stand up to Milosevic.

His trial will be long and complicated. "It will not be simple," she told the audience. But think about it: a woman whose family was killed by the criminals brought to justice at Nuremberg helped bring their heir to trial at The Hague. Very remarkable, indeed.

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