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July 24, 2014

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Where I Stand — Brian Greenspun: Finding people of hope

CLAUDINE WILLIAMS is a woman deserving of respect. Everybody says so.

What seemed like everyone in town showed up Wednesday night for the Anti-Defamation League's Distinguished Community Service Award Dinner. The honoree, of course, was the irrepressible Williams. It was just one more way for this community to show its respect for an individual who, from the moment she hit town 35 years ago, has never stopped giving back.

I have emphasized the word "respect" because, at its core, the ADL has been about exposing racial, ethnic and religious intolerance around the world. It has strived to educate a world which from time to time has lacked the kind of respect for people's differences that has caused racial strife, ethnic and religious wars and a Holocaust that must never again be repeated -- by or against anyone. It is a theme that is playing out in the Balkans, across the Mediterranean to the Middle East and in other parts of the world where people would just as soon kill each other as learn from one another.

But here in Las Vegas, while we may have our problems from time to time, we have almost always been the kind of community that has recognized our various citizens for who they are and what they contribute rather than the personal characteristics of skin color, religious denomination or ethnic origin. Claudine has been at the forefront of that kind of understanding. Whether it was at the helm of her Holiday Inn hotel-casino which now graces the Strip as Harrah's, or as a member of the boards of IGT, Sunrise Hospital, the Chamber of Commerce or any number of civic and charitable institutions, Claudine Williams has always been the kind of example of community service and community spirit that people could point to with pride and the knowledge that here, truly, is a person of the highest caliber.

I happen to be a bit biased about last night's awards dinner because two of my favorite people were involved. Certainly the always charming and always giving Claudine is one of them. The other is the president of the Las Vegas ADL, my sister Susan Fine. It was through her efforts that Claudine said yes and the community turned out, as only Las Vegas has proved over and over again that it is more than willing to do for a good cause. Susan also is responsible for the night's guest speaker. A man who has truly exemplified the notion of public service, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.

Mitchell was voted the "most respected member" of the Senate six years in a row. To everyone in the room at the Four Seasons Hotel Wednesday night, that came as no surprise. He was clearly the most respected man in the room, if not before, then certainly after he was through speaking. For what he talked about was his incredible experience as the chairman of the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and the historic accord reached last year that ended decades of death and destruction in the Catholic and Protestant communities of that beautiful island nation.

Mitchell was appointed by President Clinton to step into a war amongst the Irish people that has had its roots in 800 years of discontent, destruction and disrespect. During the last few decades thousands of men, women and children have been murdered by guns and bombs in one of the planet's most unrelenting efforts at mutual annihilation. And for what?

That question and its many answers was the subject of Mitchell's incredible journeys from Dublin to Belfast to England and back again for more than two years. But the result of his efforts -- with the involvement of Irish and English leaders who took the gravest of risks -- is a peace agreement that has a good chance of success. Is there complete and harmonious peace in the region? Of course not. But people in the North and South awake each morning with hope in their hearts rather than despair on their minds. There is a deep-felt belief that tomorrow will be better and brighter in a world where violence was part of everyday life. If that's true, that is saying a mouthful. Mitchell says it is so.

Mitchell's speech was appropriate for a number of reasons. As we sat amidst the beauty of that room and the bounty of the dinner, we were cognizant of the fact that half a world away people are being chased from their homes and killed because they are different from one another. Much closer to home, schoolchildren are killing other schoolchildren just because they are different and therefore "not deserving" of respect.

Mitchell says that just can't be tolerated. And so does the Anti-Defamation League. And so does Claudine Williams.

Whether we are at home or across the oceans, the lessons of the peace negotiations are the same. According to George Mitchell, for success to be achieved, people must have a hope that tomorrow will be better than today. They must have a conviction that life does not have to be about bombs and bullets and the destruction they leave in their path as part of the everyday life of ordinary Americans. And yet we have that ugliness all around us. In our schools, in our communities and in our large urban centers, we are constantly reading about deaths that could and should have been prevented.

That's what the ADL does in our cities and towns. It teaches that injustice and intolerance have no place in the coming world. That violence and hatred were contributors to the bloodiest century in mankind's history, but they should have no place in the new millennium. Can they be successful? Certainly. Will they be?

That depends upon people like Claudine and the hundreds of Las Vegans of goodwill who came to show their respect. If I were a betting man, I'd take the odds. That's the safe bet and the one based on the concept that respect for one another is easy to give and harder to get. Good people, however, keep trying. Claudine Williams is one of those good people who deserves the congratulations of all people of good will and good cheer.