«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: It is. We had meetings in Geneva, mostly, and I would open every meeting and go around the table and ask everybody to say something before we started the meeting, about what was on their mind, what was going on in their world. That had never happened before, in a meeting. It brought us closer together. I asked Jayantha Dhanapala from Sri Lanka, who had been the head of the Disarmament Office of the U.N., and then went on to become the head of Pugwash, to be our honorary president, and he accepted. That had never happened before. When we had a meeting in Florence, Italy—when I say we have a meeting, it means the representatives to IPB from their organizations come together, I think, two or three times a year. I probably— Q: It could be a fairly large meeting.
Weiss: Yes, but a lot of people can't afford the travel, and we couldn't afford to pay their travel. I must have done sometimes two international trips a month for six years.
Weiss: Speaking and meeting. But, I was in Florence before I interrupted myself. I invited Hans Dahlgren, who was one of Olof—we talked about Olof Palme—who was one of
and speak. So, I kept trying to bring not just personalities, but informed—experts in related fields to our meetings. I guess I've always tried to keep the education going.
Weiss: You never stop learning. The more we can learn from each other, maybe the better off we'll be.
Q: You talked about how you're currently involved in an effort to put the peace movement and the ecology movement together. How are you going to do that? Tell me what your strategy is.
Weiss: The first thing is, that everyone says to me, "Good luck."
Q: [laughs] Weiss: Many years ago, there was a James Taylor concert on the Hudson River, on some landfill, to raise money for the NRDC, Natural Resources Defense Council. It was on nuclear energy, largely. They invited me to speak, and it was going to be broadcast wall to wall, from the beginning of the conference to the end on, who knows, probably WBAI at the time. When I got up to speak, they cut the radio connection, because I was talking about bringing nuclear energy movement together with the anti-nuclear weapons movement.
Weiss: They were afraid that if they started to talk about weapons and the issue of security, they would lose their donors. So, instead of asking me not to speak, they simply turned off the possibility for other people to hear, as well as everybody who came to hear James Taylor. It's a little bit like that today, with climate change and the peace movement. I think that climate change is a threat to peace, because the problems that it causes, droughts, floods and so forth, all will have an impact on people's behavior; they will try to get to higher ground, try and cross borders, they're going to be rejected from crossing borders, and they'll get violent. That's just one example.
There's going to be a huge food security issue, because the land won't be arable for planting. So there will be starvation. All things that lead to violence. So, I think we have a natural connection.
We have more in common than in conflict, and both climate change and nuclear weapons are the two things that are going to do us all in. One will do it quickly, one nuclear weapon, and it'll be goodbye all over, this thing called life on earth, and the other will take time. But eventually, in time, it'll be goodbye. So, why don't we get together? Well, a similar situation exists. They don't want to be seen as a peace organization for whatever baggage that would bring.
Q: You mean the climate— Weiss: The climate people. But a lot of them say, "Of course." The peace people will say, "Of course," louder than the climate people. We'll see what happens. They want a million people in
organizations and movements join them and relate their issue to climate; human rights and climate change, peace and climate change. Then we can build a big movement.
Q: Well, that's the lesson from the 1960s, in many ways.
Weiss: You got it. It's the lesson from my life. If we're not together, we're not going to win.
Weiss: It's going to take more than just the peace movement to make peace, and more than just the climate change movement to stop the drift to— Q: How have you gone about making contacts with the climate-concerned people?
Weiss: This wonderful meeting on September 19 is going to be the beginning of a week-long of, I think, dynamic gatherings, for a change. It's a very welcome week. We have Bill McKibben coming to speak, with me, with Helen Clark, who is the head of the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], and others. That's the beginning of togetherness!
Weiss: It's nice! They came here to ask me for advice on how we did it for the peace movement.
So, I think we have more in common than in conflict, and we have more to talk about, and we will.
Q: Tell me about the Nobel Peace nomination.
Weiss: Oh, that was very—I don't use the word "humbling" often, but it was very humbling.
Because of the press and the significance of The Hague Appeal for Peace conference in 1999, a former Nobel Peace laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta from East Timor, nominated me in 2000 for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Q: Ah! Now, how do you find out that?
Weiss: Well, he told me.
Q: Oh! [laughs] Because I was trying to find out if the nominees are published— Weiss: It's supposed to be a secret.
Q: Yes, and I couldn't—
Q: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes. So he told you.
Weiss: Then it came out, it was on the front page of the Vineyard Gazette. Then I was nominated again in 2001. In 2000, Kim Dae-jung from South Korea won, and I sent him my congratulations. He had spent many years in jail, and he was a fine person. And 2001, it was the centennial of the Nobel Prize, because it started then. You know, it was Bertha von Suttner who persuaded Alfred Nobel to put the profits from his dynamite into a Nobel Peace Prize. She then got one in 1905. In 2001 I was nominated again, that was very nice.
In 2005, I think, I was one of the one thousand women for the Nobel Peace Prize because a group of women in Switzerland, who included members of Parliament, realized that from the beginning, out of whatever the total number of men was, there were only twelve women who got the Nobel Peace Prize. I think up to today, it's not much more than fifteen, at the most. I stopped keeping track. But it's a terrible, terrible percentage. So, they put together a book of one thousand women for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was brilliant, because—not because I'm in it—but because they identified women who were farmers, women who were factory workers. Women who were local teachers. Women of all kinds of vocations and professions, who are peacemakers, and who you need to carry out peace, to implement a peace agreement, to implement peace strategies in the community, to prevent violent conflict.
They found a thousand women from all over the world, and we had a wonderful time! We cut
fishing tackle, from the ceilings. You had to literally walk through these cards that were hanging from the roof—ceiling, so you were literally rubbing elbows— Q: Where was this?
Weiss: Well, this was in our office in the Church Center.
Weiss: Nice to have a building that you can use!
Weiss: Then Nane Annan came, the Secretary-General's wife, and lots of other people came, and we had a big ceremony. Just wonderful, ordinary human beings. Mere mortal women, I call us, were nominated. That didn't go very far. Then, in 2011 or '12, I can't remember which, a nice Swedish guy from the International Peace Bureau, which has the ability to make nominations because it was—is—a Nobel peace laureate, nominated both Peter and me together as a couple, and that would have been interesting, because that hasn't happened before.
Weiss: We've also been nominated for the Right Livelihood award. I mean, I've gotten enough awards in my life, there's no room for them. But the Nobel Peace Prize is important. People think that it lost its luster when it named Henry Kissinger, and of course, Le Duc Tho, who was named with him, refused to accept the prize with him, from Vietnam. A lot of other people now have all of a sudden become Nobel Peace nominees. It's sort of become better-known in the last ten or fifteen years than it was in the last century.
Q: Well, they gave it to [Barack] Obama. They gave one to Theodore Roosevelt, too.
Weiss: I think they wanted to encourage him.
Weiss: But you know that the committee that doles out the awards is made up of members of Parliament, of the Norwegian Parliament.
Weiss: When the Norwegian Parliament goes right, who are they going to name? Or, when it goes left? I mean, it doesn't go far right or far left, but it reflects the politics of the members of Parliament.
Weiss: I think it's an important award. It's a lot of money, a million dollars. Wangari Maathai, who came on the airlift in 1960, sponsored by the African American Students Foundation, was the first African woman to get a Nobel Peace Prize. It's controversial, but I think it's terrific. She believed in planting trees to make peace, to prevent erosion. To protect land, which, if not protected and if not cared for, would promote violence because there would be no arable land to grow food. So, she was a very visionary, wonderful woman, and I'm so, so sad that she died of cancer a few years ago. There's a tree planted to her in the U.N. garden. But she was an airlift student!
Q: What are you going to do tomorrow? I mean that in a broad sense, "tomorrow."
Weiss: I'm plowing through boxes of papers that, for some reason, I don't know why, I've kept all my life, starting with my report cards in primary school.
Q: [laughs] Weiss: They are all in an attic, and every day, a few of them get cataloged. Not professionally cataloged, and not digitized; they're not scanned. But I'm keeping track. I was going to give you a list of every year, and what's in the boxes. It's been quite an adventure to do that. It's taken me a year so far, and I'm not finished. It's an amazing way to review your life. So, that's a very big
get tossed. But some of them are quite interesting experiences; I have one of me speaking in the General Assembly of the United Nations, where civil society never speaks to governments.
Weiss: That was a few years ago. Two years ago. That's a little heady. A significant little day in my life. I have one with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in South Africa, before he became president of South Africa. Anyway, I have a lot of photographs, so they need to be organized. I don't know how to do that, so I'll ask someone to help, or learn how to do it, to preserve them. I have to prepare a speech for the September meeting of the U.N. We're going to Sicily in September to a meeting on corporate abuse of human rights, another different gathering where we'll speak and listen, and look at Sicily for two days.
Q: You're approaching your eightieth birthday.
Weiss: With a little trepidation! But you're my role model.
Q: [laughs] Weiss: It hasn't affected you in the least!
Weiss: It's not over.
Q: No! Of course not. I mean, it's not over, but you must have those moments where you look back and say, "By God, that was an interesting journey!" Weiss: It has been. It's not over. It's been an incredible run of fantastic adventure. Life is an adventure. It's been mostly terrific!
Weiss: With its difficulties and its pleasures, and if it weren't for the family, I wouldn't get up in the morning. I mean, that's why we keep going, is the whole reason for trying to leave this world a little bit better, in human rights, peace, justice. It's so that our children and grandchildren, I have five delicious grandchildren, and I want everybody's grandchildren to have a better chance!
Q: Good! Thank you very much!
Weiss: Well, thank you!
Q: Just tell me your name.
Weiss: This is Cora Weiss. Session seven.
Q: And this is Ron Grele and I’m the interviewer. Your thoughts on the process, now, of having gone through the interview. Your thoughts about it and looking at the transcript, et cetera.
Weiss: An oral history is an adventure. I had no preparation, no idea that every word counts because it’s going to be in print as well as on tape. Rereading this for the second and sometimes third time, I get the impression that the reader (I don’t know about the listener) will think I have dementia, which nobody else has cited me for, until now, because every page says “I can’t remember his name,” “I’ll remember in the middle of the night,” “It’ll come to me,” and so forth.
And I repeat “and so forth” too often. I’ve never realized that I said that in my speech, in my
embarrassing to see “and” come up so often. It’s embarrassing to see “well” come up so often.
It’s embarrassing to hear “and so forth” so often because if you think that you’re an articulate person who speaks well, that should not be part of speech.
Q: It’s a way of talking. The perspective you’re talking from now, I think, is that of a speech maker. That you’re accustomed to giving speeches and you work on them beforehand and you eliminate all of those little clauses, all those little helping words that move a conversation along, like “and” and “well,” et cetera. It’s my job to cut you short and say, “Now what do you mean when you say ‘et cetera,’?” And to the extent that I did not do that, that’s a failure on my part, not necessarily on your part. But I think you’re concerned about that because you’re concerned as a speech maker, listening to yourself as a talker.