Thank you all for opening your this lovely campus to a former New Jersey boy—Exit 145—and proud of it.
Whether they are delivered by former astronauts, football quarterbacks, or Israeli ambassadors, commencement speeches are invariably about the future. They are about hope and optimism and fulfilling your dreams. But I have to be honest with you: delivering such a rosy speech today is difficult.
These are hard times for Americans and for peoples around the world. It’s a hard time to be graduating from college. I don’t have to tell you—jobs are scarce out there, people are working longer hours and making less. For the first time in memory, we can no longer assume that young people will eventually earn more than their parents or surpass their standard of living.
In such a trying environment, it would be frivolous of me, even disrespectful, to urge you to simply go out and follow your dreams. Your dreams should never be abandoned, but they are likely to be delayed.
Then what can the commencement speaker say to the Class of 2012—what sage advice can he impart, what hopeful vision of the future?
I came to this job after many years working as an historian. Quite naturally, when speaking of the future, I first of all look to the past. And looking backward, I can think of another time in history when college graduates faced slim opportunities and dreams seemed exceedingly remote.
Eighty years ago, America was at the height of the Great Depression. Unemployment was more than three times what it is today. More than 10,000 American banks had failed and here, in the Greater New York area, one of every four schoolchildren suffered from malnourishment.
The world, too, was a dangerous place. In Germany, the Nazis had stormed into power, as had racist regimes in Japan, Italy, and Spain. The Soviet dictator Stalin was putting millions of his own Russian people to death, and starving many millions more. What a world to grow up in!
Yet a generation of Americans took on that world. They wrestled with the economic hardships and were, in turn, hardened by them. They battled against their enemies’ steel and so steeled themselves. They won World War II and the Cold War, too. They produced the most prosperous period in history of America, indeed in the history of the world.
We call them the Greatest Generation and deservedly so, for they overcame adversity and achieved the unimaginable. And they did all this without ever once asking for anything in return.
Many of you are with your parents today, and I know that they are intensely proud of you. I, too, have my parents here with me and I am intensely proud of them. Living here, in New Jersey, they are representatives of that Greatest Generation. They lived through that Depression. They knew what it was to struggle. Mom, you worked your way through college, became a dedicated elementary school teacher and then when back to school to become a devoted family therapist. Dad, you fought your way from Normandy Beach across France and Germany to help defeat the evils of Nazism. You served in the Korean War, too, and came home to become a heath care leader in Newark, building bridges of understanding between the Jewish and African-American communities. You bequeathed to us, your children, a world of opportunities unthinkable in previous generations, a world for which we are profoundly grateful.
In Israel, too, we had our Greatest Generation. This was the generation that survived the Holocaust. They generation that struggled to return to the Land of Israel, the ancient homeland of the Jewish People, even if it meant walking countless miles and crossing hostile borders. They drained swamps and brought deserts back to life, in the process creating a vibrant culture, world-class universities, and a resilient democracy. And they fought wars--wars for their independence and wars for their defense. Outmanned, outgunned, often alone in the world, without allies, they fought and they won. But still they refused to hate their enemies and throughout held out their hands in peace.
Today, Israel is a high-tech powerhouse, a world leader in science, medicine, and conservation. We have a strong citizens’ army, universal health care, free education starting at age three and college tuition of around—get this--$3,000 per year. We have outstanding food—actually export wine to France—and we have awesome rock music.
True, peace still eludes us, and the threats we face can seem daunting…Yet we cannot overlook the immense blessings we enjoy or forget those who sacrificed so much to achieve them.
Like you, young Israelis are graduating into a difficult world, a world of uncertainty and turbulence. The commencement speaker at Tel Aviv University or the Hebrew University in Jerusalem would confront the same challenge facing me today.
So I will tell you exactly what I would tell them. You are the ones who will have to tough it out, who will have to struggle and strive and take responsibility. You will be asked to give a great deal while learning not to expect or even ask much in return. But what you will receive may not merely fulfill your dreams but exceed them. What you may create is a world better than the one into which you graduated—a cleaner, more principled, and peaceful world.
This is the time to make your mark and to forge your own historic legacy. The future is yours to shape. This your challenge, Class of 2012: to overcome the obstacles, to develop the grit and the thick skin, and to prevail. You will do all that, Class of 2012, and, I assure you, you will be the new Greatest Generation.