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Former Governor Kunin visits Beth El

From The Bennington Banner, May 7, 2007

Mark E. Rondeau — Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — Madeleine Kunin, born to a Jewish family in Zurich, fled Switzerland as a young girl in 1940 with her family in fear that the Nazis might invade the country.

More than 50 years later she returned to her native country as U.S. ambassador. During her time as ambassador she dealt with the question of Jewish World War II assets and Nazi-looted gold. She helped to prod Switzerland to confront its past and take action.

Kunin, 73, was governor of Vermont for three terms from 1985 to 1991. She came to town over the weekend to participate in the public installation of Rabbi Joshua Boettiger as the new rabbi of Congregation Beth El.

A Democrat, Kunin served more than three years as a deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration. Later she served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland from 1996 to 1999.

Kunin sat for an interview Saturday at the Bennington home of her son Adam, a cardiologist who is vice president of operations at Congregation Beth El. She spoke of the significance of the installation and of what Judaism means to her.

"It's in a way a celebration, not only of the rabbi's installation but of the synagogue and the community," she said. "The synagogue was founded in 1909, and it has survived and thrived."

"I think it's just an important community event. People go to synagogues and churches for various reasons, but part of it is to be part of a community, to belong, to celebrate the important parts of their lives — births, marriages, deaths," she said. "It's also a place of learning. Rabbi means 'teacher.' "

"We want to keep Judaism alive, too," she said, adding that it has been threatened throughout the centuries. "Anti-semitism and the Holocaust and now the situation in the Middle East and the position of Iran.

"That's been the saga of Judaism, that the religion has survived. Throughout the centuries there's been a resurgence, so this is a happy event to celebrate."

Kunin's mother took Madeleine and her brother to America, not sure if Switzerland could stay neutral during World War II. "I lost family who lived in Germany and France and Holland," Kunin said. "Fortunately not my immediate family, but aunts and uncles and cousins.

"The experience of the Holocaust has been part of my thinking, and I think in one way it influenced me to get involved in public life," she said. "One of the lessons that I draw from the Holocaust ... is it's not enough to remain silent or to remain neutral when there's some injustice going on in the world.

"I'm fortunate that I live in a time and a place where it's safe to be political, where it's safe to speak out," she said. "So it's almost an obligation that I should use whatever voice I have to be engaged."

When President Bill Clinton appointed her ambassador, "I thought of my mother, who brought us to America, and I thought she wouldn't have been able to imagine that someday I would go back as the American ambassador. That was beyond her dreams."

Kunin felt she had a real purpose in being ambassador at that time. "I could assist getting back some of those accounts, and also assist in the whole debate about what is neutrality, and when is neutrality appropriate and when isn't it?"

Kunin has been teaching at the college level for several years and recently was named Marsh Professor at Large at the University of Vermont. She will begin giving some lectures in the fall. She's been teaching a seminar at UVM on women, politics and leadership.

She is a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio. She is also chairwoman of the board of directions of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, a non-governmental organization she founded in 1991. She has written two books.

Kunin is supporting New York Senator Hillary Clinton for president. She laughed when asked if she thought the U.S. was ready to elect a woman president in 2008.

"It's up to the public, obviously, but I think we've come a long way and I think gender is much less of a question than it used to be. Certainly for legislative races, for Congress," she said. "But for an executive job like president and even for governor, gender still plays a role. But what's hard to separate is how much of it is the fact that Hillary is a woman, and how much is it that Hillary is Hillary, that is playing out in this primary. I personally am supporting her because I've waited a long time for a serious woman candidate for president, and a qualified woman. And nobody's questioning whether she's qualified, which is a major achievement."

"The bar is till higher for her, but it's very hard to pinpoint that precisely," she added.

What are Kunin's future plans? Is another book in the works?

"I don't want to talk about it yet," she said with a laugh. "I'm going to do some writing."

Otherwise, she plans to remain involved. She won't seek any office for herself but wants to help other people get elected.

"And I love teaching, because it's also a way to have some impact, to inspire this next generation. I think what I'm most concerned about is when young people turn away from current events or politics, feel they can't make a difference and are pessimistic," she said. "So I think we have a job to do to inspire young people to vote, get involved and to prove to them that they can change things, that change is possible.

"And I think we've seen that in the last few months, even in the Congress when it turned Democratic," she said. "Obviously I'm partisan, but the war in Iraq is really being debated now in a way it hasn't been. Global warming is being debated now in a way it hasn't been. Now the next step is to really do something about it, but at least we've begun the debate."

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