Madeleine Albright, who died last week of cancer at age 84, left a significant legacy. She was the first woman to serve as secretary of state at a time when politics was very much a man’s game, leaving the door open for Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, who both served in the role after her. She was a refugee and a defender of human rights and democracy. She also came from a Jewish family, a history she said she didn’t know until later in life. It also appears that many of her family members died in the Holocaust.
Albright was born in Czechoslovakia. When she was a toddler, her family fled the Nazis. When she was 11, the family fled the country again, this time from the communists. They settled in Colorado.
Albright studied political science at Wellesley College, then got married and started a family. She earned a Ph.D. in public law and government at Columbia University, where she studied under Zbigniew Brzezinski. She later worked as a congressional liaison for Brzezinski, when he was a national security adviser in the Carter administration, and served as a foreign policy adviser for Rep. Geraldine Ferraro and Gov. Michael Dukakis. She was also a supporter of Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. When Clinton was elected president, he named Albright ambassador to the United Nations.
As a diplomat on the world stage — first as ambassador to the U.N., then as secretary of state — she wanted the United States to work with international allies to support human rights. She opposed Clinton’s decision not to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. During the Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims, she called for airstrikes against Serbian targets, and was successful in getting the Clinton administration involved.
She also played a part in Middle East peace talks. In 1988, when Clinton was leading peace talks with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Wye River, Md., Netanyahu ordered his team to place their suitcases in front of their cabins as a signal they were leaving. Albright interceded with Yitzhak Mordechai, the Israeli defense minister, and the Israeli team decided to stay. The peace talks led to the Wye River Memorandum to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
When Albright was in her 50s, The Washington Post uncovered her Jewish past. Her parents, who had been Jewish, converted to Catholicism, probably to protect their family from persecution. Albright was raised Catholic and said she never knew of her Jewish heritage before The Post discovered it. Many in the Jewish community were skeptical of her claim and speculated she was hesitant to come forward about her history because it might jeopardize her political aspirations.
Regardless of her complicated Jewish identity, Albright was someone the Jewish community should be proud of. She broke a glass ceiling for women in politics, prioritized human rights on the world stage and changed the world for the better.
May her memory be a blessing.