Georgette Bennett: 3 steps to build peace and create meaningful change

Recorded atApril 10, 2022
Duration (min:sec)10:34
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute135.29 very slow
Readability (FK)59.06 easy
SpeakerGeorgette Bennett

Official TED page for this talk


As the child of Holocaust survivors and a World War II refugee herself, peace builder Georgette Bennett was stunned by the human toll and tragedy of the Syrian civil war. She got to work, bringing together historical enemies to build an aid pipeline from Israel to Syria -- a feat many considered impossible, but has since helped millions. Through this inspiring story of unlikely partnership, Bennett shares three steps for creating change and invites all of us to take action when we see someone in need.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 What happens when a Syrian refugee, an Israeli aid worker and an American Jew walk into a room?
200:12 (Laughter)
300:14 No, this is not the start of a really bad joke, I promise.
400:18 This actually happened to me.
500:21 Starting in 2015, I found myself holding a series of secret meetings in various European capitals with a small group of Syrian and Israeli civilians.
600:35 And we were there to try and figure out how we can get aid to the Syrian people who were enduring the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
700:47 But how did we end up at this table together?
800:50 After all, Syrians and Israelis are sworn enemies, and technically they've been in a state of war since 1948.
900:58 Yet here we were, literally and figuratively, trying to find a way in.
1001:06 And here is the punchline of that bad joke I promised not to tell.
1101:11 We found it.
1201:12 We figured out a way to get aid into Syria through Israel.
1301:21 Now how did we do that?
1401:25 I applied a three-step process that I've used in a bunch of other settings, and I'm hoping that those three steps will be useful to any of you who want to do some good in the face of any of the myriad overwhelming conflicts that we're facing today, including Ukraine.
1501:48 So what are my three steps?
1601:51 Find an entry point, identify a gap, and then find something doable with which to fill that gap.
1702:00 It sounds pretty simple, right?
1802:02 So let me walk you through it.
1902:05 When I read a report on the Syrian war, it hit me very hard and it felt very personal.
2002:14 I was stunned by the scale of the misery, and it echoed the suffering of my own family during the Holocaust.
2102:24 My parents survived concentration camps in Poland and in Hungary, and after the war, we had to flee and we arrived in the US as stateless refugees.
2202:36 So when I saw the destruction of Aleppo, I was put in mind of Budapest, the city of my birth, the bombed out city of my birth.
2302:48 And when I read about starvation by siege in Syria, I remembered my own mother who lost a pregnancy lugging a sack of rotten potatoes home because there was nothing else to eat.
2403:03 And when I saw the eviscerated and emaciated corpses of Syrians who had been tortured in Damascus prisons, I also saw the walking skeletons of Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Bergen-Belsen, where so many of my own family members literally went up in smoke.
2503:25 And when I saw Syrian refugees flooding across borders, I also recalled my own displacement as a refugee child.
2603:37 So as one person ...
2703:40 As one person, what can you do next?
2803:44 When you're confronted with something that you know needs to be changed, you have to find an entry point.
2903:53 For me, that was mobilizing a Jewish response and then scaling that up to the interreligious response in the US, focused exclusively on Syria.
3004:06 It's called the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees.
3104:10 And today, we have more than 100 partner organizations.
3204:15 (Applause)
3304:22 I saw an opportunity to build bridges while also saving lives.
3404:27 And here’s how.
3504:30 The southwest part of Syria was very difficult to access because it was surrounded by regime forces.
3604:38 That was a gap.
3704:41 Israel shares a border with that part of Syria.
3804:44 And guess what?
3904:46 It's easy to get aid into southwest Syria from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.
4004:52 That gave us something doable with which to fill that gap.
4104:57 All we needed was the how.
4204:59 And that's why my colleagues and I found ourselves in clandestine meetings all over Europe.
4305:06 We were making the case that Israel should be used as a staging area for the outbound delivery of international humanitarian aid.
4405:17 We lobbied the UK Parliament, the EU Parliament, the Canadian Parliament.
4505:22 We banged on doors in Congress.
4605:24 We met with every level of government in Israel.
4705:27 And ... We got nowhere.
4805:33 But then it happened.
4905:35 In September 2016, the Israeli government launched Operation Good Neighbor.
5005:42 It was now official government policy to open the border so that aid from other countries could be facilitated and sent in to Syria.
5105:55 So soon after, once we were able to get Operation Good Neighbor going, soon after, enormous cargo containers of aid -- many of them bearing goods from Syrian organizations -- were being unloaded in Israeli ports by Israeli soldiers, sent over to the Golan Heights and from there, our partners on the ground in Syria would pick up the aid and distribute it to an area with a population of 1.3 million people.
5206:29 We delivered 120 million dollars of aid this way.
5306:33 We supported three medical facilities, a bakery that produced 15,000 pitas a day.
5406:41 The Israelis provided water, fuel, electricity.
5506:46 We shipped medical equipment, ambulances, food, clothing, sanitary kits, medicine, whatever else was needed.
5606:56 And by working through local councils, we were able to help stabilize an entire region.
5707:04 For two years, this was the only part of Syria that worked.
5807:09 But then, because of an incursion by the regime and its allies, that area was completely taken over and destroyed.
5907:18 But that did not stop us.
6007:21 We expanded our deliveries to other hard-to-reach parts of Syria.
6107:28 Today we have delivered nearly 245 million dollars in aid.
6207:36 (Applause)
6307:43 It wasn't easy and it wasn't without hiccups.
6407:47 But by working with these unlikely partnerships, we were able to help more than two and a half million war victims and still counting.
6508:01 (Applause)
6608:05 Now, here's the great news.
6708:08 You don't have to go to a war zone to do this.
6808:12 I've applied my formula in a bunch of other settings.
6908:16 So let me share a couple of quick stories with you.
7008:21 Early in my career, 1971, to be exact, I was living a life of crime.
7108:29 Crime prevention, that is.
7208:31 (Laughter)
7308:32 I was also deeply immersed in the women's movement.
7408:35 So where could I make a difference?
7508:39 My entry point was the New York City Police Department.
7608:44 Victims of sexual assault were being very badly treated.
7708:48 That was a gap.
7808:50 The doable way to fill that gap was to set up the first sex crimes unit in the country.
7908:58 Well, today we've got "Law and Order: SVU" to tell us how it's done.
8009:02 In fact, they've been telling us how it's done for the past 23 seasons.
8109:06 But back then, back then, this was a new idea.
8209:11 I've done the same thing with large corporations.
8309:15 When the new millennium was approaching, the human resources field was laser-focused on workplace 2000, with diversity being a key goal.
8409:26 But religion was very rarely looked at as an aspect of workplace diversity.
8509:31 Yet if you looked at the changing demographics, it was obvious that this was going to be a big issue.
8609:38 So that was a gap.
8709:40 Another organization I founded, the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, found a doable way to fill that gap by guiding major corporations in accommodating religious beliefs in the workplace.
8809:57 Well, it's been a long road to Syria from my early forays as a professional change agent.
8910:07 But when I saw the Syrian tragedy unfold, a biblical verse, Leviticus 19:16, kept reverberating in my brain.
9010:19 "Thou shalt not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor cries out from the earth."
9110:26 Well, that's why I got to work.
9210:29 I hope you will, too.
9310:32 Thank you.
9410:33 (Applause)