10 Political Wonders of the World

When you search “wonders of the world,” there is no shortage of lists that come up. There are natural wonders, scientific wonders and man-made wonders; lists of seven, lists of ten and lists of 100. When you search “political wonders of the world,” however, there is nothing but a chaotic mess of images: pyramids of presidents and greetings from people in faraway places.


This got me thinking about the political wonders of the world – the inspiring, humbling and profound spots where visitors find themselves with goose bumps merely thinking of the leaders, moments and very history that came before them, and what transpired in the very places where they stand.

There have been many political wonders that have touched the heart of this 46-year-old Jewish American dad, someone who has spent 25 years trying to make social, political, economic and cultural change. But which physical spaces embody the best, the worst, and the most wondrous of the political world?

In no particular order, my own Ten Political Wonders of the World:

1) 9/11 Memorial – In 2012, I joined my wife and her colleagues on a tour of the 9/11 Memorial grounds led by Michael Arad, its architect. The two reflecting pools occupying the base of what were the Twin Towers, the rush of the cascading waterfalls, the names of the victims, and the way that the noise of the city seemed to fade away allowed for the spiritual, reflective experience that the Arad imagined.

As I stood there, nearly immersed in the falls, I felt goose bumps down my back. In the 21st century, there is hardly a sight more wondrous, more terrible in memory, and more significant in how that fateful day re-shaped our global politics than that hallowed ground.

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2) Robben Island - In 2006 we visited Robben Island in South Africa. For me, it was a long- anticipated visit. In 1990, I was on the stage at Yankee Stadium when Nelson Mandela made his first visit to the United States and spoke an exuberant Yankee Stadium crowd. The political struggle in South Africa had been a defining feature of my political upbringing in New York City. Visiting the cell where Nelson Mandela had lived for more than 25 years, reading his words of wisdom and insight, was to me a kind of political pilgrimage.

I will never forget the tour guides who took us around the facility where they themselves had been prisoners. I was unable to detect even a hint of anger in any of them. As they ended the tour, they said that the reason for turning the prison on Robben Island into a museum was to educate people so that this kind of horror might never happen again. There was no mention of revenge or ill will, but simply a desire to serve humanity and educate us all for generations to come.

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3) New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. In the fall of 2005, my work with the Board of Directors of the Jewish Funds for Justice brought me to New Orleans. We had begun raising money that summer for recovering and rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As we walked the desolate streets of the Lower Ninth Ward and stood silently staring at block after devastated block, the Board’s chairman, Steve Fischman, said, “This place needs a f---ing Marshall Plan.”

That day in New Orleans, we made a circle, held hands, and offered a prayer that these communities might rebuild and that we might be repairers of the breach. In the months and years that followed, Jewish Funds for Justice made grants and financed loans to do our small part in the rebuilding effort. We funded Hispanic restaurant owners, African-American housecleaning companies and Vietnamese grocers to help them rebuild their businesses and their communities.

It is not the scale of destruction that was wrought, nor the inequities in the rebuilding process, that made the Lower 9th Ward so personally impactful. Rather, it is the resilience of those impacted and the generosity of people across the country who offered up time and money to help begin the recovery process, which makes its place on this list essential.

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4) The Lorraine Motel - In 2008, I was invited to speak at the Centenary Church in Memphis, Tennessee on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. It was on that trip to Memphis that Dr. King gave the now-famous Mountaintop speech, which ended with these famous lines:

“I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

On my way to the church, I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The end of the walking tour through the museum places you in the hotel room where Dr. King stayed before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. There is powerful history in these iconic Memphis sights, history demonstrative of the immense cultural and political impact of Dr. King and the civil rights movement as a whole.

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5) Checkpoint Charlie – On a cold, rainy night in early 1991 I ran back and forth between East and West Berlin. It had not been that long since the Berlin Wall had come down and for a young man who had grown up during the Cold War, the idea that the checkpoint remained unguarded and that I was free to pass back and forth was hard to fathom. I got drenched crossing over and over again looking at the remains of the Wall and the guard posts; the place where so much global tension had been focused until very recently. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I walked into a bar at the end of the street, ordered a good German beer and let chills wash over me as I tried to digest how much the world was going to change.

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6) Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - I was fortunate enough to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and stand in the spot where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address. In an era when speeches ran hours, the brilliance of Lincoln's two-minute speech has stayed with us in powerful ways.

Recently I took my son to the Lincoln memorial and re-read the words of that brief but historic speech to him. When I pictured not only that battlefield, but also all the lives lost, I got the chills again. Both places remain deep reminders of the divisions that have gripped our nation, but more importantly, our courage to confront them.

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7) Last month when I was in Tel Aviv, I stood on Rothschild Boulevard outside Independence Hall, where the signing of Israel’s Declaration of Independence took place in May 14, 1948. It was there that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the new state just eight hours before the British Mandate of Palestine was due to end. There is something about the Rothschild family name, the mammoth project of creating a new nation, and the energetic feel of that street that left my knees a little weak.

I have not, until recently, found myself particularly drawn to it, but as I stood on Rothschild, even in this moment of political complexity, thinking about how the world must have looked to those intrepid Jews on the heels of the Holocaust, uncertain of the future, having the chutzpah to proclaim a new nation, I got those familiar chills.

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8) Lenin’s Tomb - I visited Lenin’s Tomb in the winter of 1990. The end of the Cold War was in the air, and while I didn’t know much Russian, I did know how to ask directions to Red Square and Lenin’s Tomb. I watched the goose-stepping soldiers hour after hour as they changed the guard, and I waited in line to tour the tomb again and again. Twenty-five years later, I still get chills thinking about Lenin, the Soviet Union and how captivated I was by the world in a moment of tectonic shift and before the end of that year I was living in Poland working with Solidarnosc.

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9) Ho Chi Minh’s home - In 2005, I visited Ho Chi Minh’s home during a trip to Vietnam. To be in the land of the Tet offensive was difficult for someone who had grown up in the 1970s, when the war in Vietnam was too much for a young child to make sense of. I had heard stories of napalm, communists, draft card burning and horrific violence. However, as we walked though Ho’s modest straw home, those stories went from larger than life to incredibly intimate. Like all of us, Ho Chi Minh was a human; someone who lived, dreamed, hoped and struggled to make the world a better place for his people. There was something so simple about where he lived, and something so human about the movement he led. I was reminded about the unpredictable and even unimaginable potential that each of us has to have an impact on people and the world around us.

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10) The White House Colonnade. The Colonnade is the covered outdoor walkway that goes from the Oval Office, passes alongside the Rose Garden and brings you to the East Wing where the First Family lives. I first walked this route with my friend Mike Stratutmanis in 2011 when he invited me to join him at the Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony. Maybe three steps into the route, he motioned for me to stop, and asked me if I knew where I was. He pointed back toward the Oval, gazed out over the Rose Garden and ahead towards the East Wing. “It still gives me chills when I look at where we are and think about it. Sometimes I just can't believe I'm standing here,” he remarked. Looking me in the eye, he said, “I think if you ever stop getting chills when you walk along here then it is probably time to leave." To this day, whenever I'm fortunate enough to be at the White House and walk along the Colonnade, I still get chills.

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As I look back over these political wonders, I am struck that regardless of which side of a particular issue or telling of our history you find yourself on, everyone can acknowledge the importance of these places around the world. It is at these spaces where, in an effort to make history, people have come together, human life has been sacrificed and new ideals, habits and institutions have been birthed.

The power and potential for good embodied in these places send chills down my arms. What matters most is that we remember that our country and our world are made by the efforts of people and that through hard work, risk and sacrifice we can make - and remake - this world.

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