France Honors Tom Kaplan with the Legion of Honor

April 7, 2014 | By French Culture

An especially joyous mood filled the reception hall where Tom Kaplan, Chairman of the 92Y, stood beside Ambassador François Delattre to receive the insignia of the Legion of Honor last March 5th, amidst family, friends, and colleagues.  A keen entrepreneur who is passionate about affairs ranging from endangered animals to international relations, Mr. Kaplan spoke profoundly about some of these issues, including his close ties to France. 


Francois, Your Excellency, I cannot thank you enough for your incredibly warm comments. Truly. On behalf of myself and my family, we who have benefitted so much, both from your generosity of spirit and indeed that of your country, I thank you and your colleagues: the superb Antonin Baudry, Emily Katz and Paula Cianci from the French Consulate; my dear friend James Lieber; Matthew Bronfman for introducing me to your predecessor in Washington, Jean-David Levitte, which led years later to my being able to give back to France in a quite special way; Ron Agam for introducing me to you; Thom Waye and Ilana Nesher from the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation; and Henry Timms, Susan Engel, Heather Matos, Chris Gaul and the 92nd Street Y team. I thank you all for making this splendid Franco-Semitic experience come together with such grace and warmth. Last but not least, I would like to thank the French Republic, President Hollande, and indeed former President Sarkozy for conferring this honor upon me two years ago.

Yes, it has taken us two years to fix a date for this evening's ceremony. It wasn't out of procrastination on anyone's part other than my own. Quite simply, as my family and friends know quite well, I am not given to ceremonies for myself. I don't even celebrate my birthday. It's not that I lack for self-esteem or that I am inhibited; those wouldn't be among my numerous limitations. It's just that when I put myself out there, I want it to be because I am making a statement for something which is bigger than myself. Ambassador Delattre has spoken of my range of interests and causes. Truth be told, I view this honor as reflecting a kind nod to those interests and thus the causes that are dear to me. It also comes at a time when I believe this honor makes a statement about France too, and especially her relationship to the Jewish community at such an important moment. Lastly, this worked out so well because my great friend David Petraeus embraced the idea of our making a night of two charmed events. So, with this trifecta of circumstances, now seemed as good a time as any to celebrate.

As Ambassador Delattre referenced, my engagement with France, and desire to give back to a country that has given me great joy, goes beyond its being simply a place which I (and, let's be candid, most Americans) love to visit and spend time if given half a chance. Rather it was triggered by two different sensibilities: first, my family's tendency to give back to those places and communities to which we feel a sense of gratitude and second, my efforts to do what I can to create greater understanding of France and its significance to the United States. The last decade has been a tough one in that regard. When one presidential candidate is mocked as looking “too French” and another, from a different party, is mocked a decade later simply because he "can speak French", I feel righteous indignation that my own countrymen can be so damned obtuse. To my delight, the enormous frustration which I've had on that score has been overtaken by events during the last few months. One remembers the obnoxious way in which American officials derided the French for not participating in the brilliantly conceived invasion of Iraq (despite France having sent one of the largest contingents in support of the American invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and indeed doing much the same during the First Gulf War). This sentiment has now given way to a reaffirmation of the fact that the United States would simply not exist without France's intervention on our behalf during the Revolution or...fast forward 230 or so years...that France is now pursuing the most muscular as well as consistent foreign policy in the Western alliance. From its leadership role in Libya and Mali and the Central African Republic, French forces have fought aggressively for western interests. In Syria this past summer, it was France which stood tall with the American President to punish Assad for crossing our own "red line" and using poison gas. Their carrier-based planes were ready to roll when told to stand down after a u-turn in American policy. In Geneva, it was France that said it would oppose a “sucker's deal” with Iran and that, supporting Israel and the Gulf State's point of view, had argued that no deal is better than a bad deal. As the narrative has changed from casting aspersions on the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for not participating in an unwise war in what is now an Iranian-dominated region known to fans of Jon Stewart as “Mess-o-potamia”... history is proving kinder to France. Maybe the French weren't so silly to say “let's wait to confirm that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction before we invade” and also...that “we might just not be met with flowers”. And by the way...amidst advising us well, the French added all the while that yes, they would indeed participate in our war, shoulder to shoulder with the US, if the WMD were found. “Give us some facts, and we're with you...just as we were in the First Gulf War and Afghanistan. If not, what's the rush?” So...they were not so dumb. And not so disloyal. Truly smart, truly loyal, friends tell us the truth as they see it, do they not? Seeing France now lauded for its consistent courage and stalwart leadership role in the western alliance is a tremendous source of satisfaction to me and all of France's friends. But particularly, as someone who likely would have tried his hand as a military historian had he not stumbled into business, and yet someone also used to hearing ridiculous jibes regarding France's military prowess, it was really about time.

It's been said that France has contributed to the military more than any other nation in the history of the world. In his opening remarks, Francois made mention that the word entrepreneur is French. Here are some other words you may be familiar with but whose French origins may surprise you...Army, Corps, Division, Brigade, Battalion, Regiment, Platoon. There are more....Admiral, General, Brigadier, Colonel, Lieutenant, Sergeant. Our friend Napoleon, who by the by emancipated the Jews and created the Legion of Honor among a few other things, fought against a coalition consisting of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and an illiberal assortment of several German states. Yet at its height, his empire stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to Moscow.

The French have fought really well historically. And they fight very hard... as hard as Americans. During WW1, the centenary of which we shall be celebrating this year, more French soldiers were killed than those of the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Italy combined. Listen to these statistics, courtesy of the web. The war to end all wars cost France 1.35 million dead, 4.25 million wounded (of whom 1.5 million were permanently maimed) and over half a million made prisoner or missing — almost three quarters of the 8.4 million men mobilized. Some context: France had 40 million citizens at the start of the war; six in ten men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight died or were permanently maimed. Is it any wonder that only two short decades later they weren't up to winning against the Nazi war machine, surely the most ferocious the world had seen since Ghengis Khan's Mongols emerged from the Steppes? As far as World War II, the origin of the great military myths about France as far this country is concerned, let's face it....no country withstood the full force of a German Blitzkrieg. The Russians luckily had the land mass to be able to retreat, and retreat they did, to the Urals. As for the British, much as I love them, they would have been “toast” (or at least English muffins) if it hadn't been for the Channel. Geography is often fate. So let's “get real” the next time you hear France getting knocked about its military record.

As for my own fate, I have been blessed with several relative advantages in life. First was to be born into the most fortunate generation of Jews in history. I never lose sight of this fact. When I lived in Paris, I would wake up to the sight of the quasi-imperial double eagle flying over my neighbor, the Austrian Embassy. It haunted me. Every single day I was burdened by the thought of what Jewish parents felt as their children were wrested from them during the Holocaust. Particularly when I became a parent myself, I found the thought unfathomable. I still do. It led me to do something about Iran. A friend's comment that one day our kids might ask us what our generation did to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, knowing full well Iran's true intentions regarding Israel, sparked a call to action within me. The groans of generations past and future beckoned us. It is human nature to take things for granted. But it is a fact that others have paid a heavier burden, none more so than the Six Million who perished and the nearly Six Million in Israel who may yet again if worse goes to worst.

On a more individual level, and on a less somber note, foremost among my advantages was my mother Lillian unto whom I was born, and who taught me the difference between right and wrong, as well as being a beneficiary of my father Jay and step-mother Patricia's sound counsel. The greatest advantage that I've had, however, by far, is the mate unto whom La Fortuna delivered me, my wife Daphne. It was said of Ginger Rogers that she could do everything that Fred Astaire could do, except backwards and in high heels. That, my friends, is my wife. Had she not devoted herself to being the ultimate Jewish mother and giving me the family life that I'd only dreamt of as a child, she would be receiving this recognition this evening. Know therefore that it is not out of chivalry but of bowing happily to reality that I am up here because of my wife, the mother of our children: Orianne, Leonardo and Emmanuel. She is my closest and truest friend and confidant, and the very best advisor to me in all things commercial and philanthropic. I love her and admire her.

The second advantage that I have enjoyed is passion. Ambassador Delattre referenced my interests, and all those who know me know that when I care about something, I care deeply and give everything to advancing my causes. Going “all in” is an expression that is oft-used in our household. It is my nature, always has been, and probably defines me most in the eyes of those that know me, or of me. Whether it's my home the 92nd Street Y, my beloved Panthera, Iran, Rembrandt, Oxford, advancing applied history and philosophy at Harvard and Brown, I have rarely found any greater combination in life than passion and commitment.

The third advantage I have had is unbelievable luck. When Napoleon said of one of his generals “I know he's a good general, but is he lucky?” he made a great point. Some say that attributing much of success to luck is perhaps a way of fishing for compliments...”you make your own luck”, “you deserve it” and some such things. My friends, I can only say this: I am perhaps the luckiest person I have ever met. And more than that, to the extent that I have been successful, materially or otherwise, the presence of La Fortuna is never far away. As one who knows that great success or wealth is often transient and that, as the Jews of Europe found out the hard way, nothing is guaranteed and nothing is forever... we who are the most lucky generation of Jews and Americans should know to take nothing, but I mean nothing, for granted. Those who do not acknowledge that their good fortune is often derived to a significant extent from happy accidents are not just kidding themselves in my experience, but missing a great point in understanding what happiness really is.

Knowing how blessed I have been with advantages both intrinsic and extrinsic, I would like to make my most important point of this evening. Should I appear at any time to be speaking in a more pedantic manner than usual, you'll have to indulge me...for my children are here and, as they are so rarely a captive audience, much of this is truly for them.

I have come to believe that the secret to finding true happiness is gratitude, expressing it and, much more importantly, acting upon it. This is not meant to be a thunderbolt of revelation. Two millennia ago, Cicero said that "gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all the others” and that “there is no duty more indispensable that that of returning a kindness”. For what it's worth, I have tried with varying degrees of success to make it a point to express my gratitude to all who gave me joy or did a good deed for me, intentionally or not, and to act upon it in later life. I stopped when I reached back to Second Grade as alas my memory isn't what it used to be. Only through acknowledging the kind deeds of one's fellow man, or the blessings of good fortune, can we be sure we are taking stock of what we have and how lucky we are to have it. When we learn to love the good things and good people we already have in our lives, we are at bottom acknowledging what makes us happy right now, today. The act of gratefulness opens us up to the recognition of joy. I know this sounds like common sense, but the fact is, as Voltaire put it so well: "Le sens commun est fort rare" or, as it's more commonly translated for maximum effect: “common sense is not so common." Gratitude is hard. Like exercise. And I do not presume to have mastered it at all. We take so much for granted. But I believe the principle is true. And if I could convey one thing to my children that, if they absorbed it into their hearts, I know I will have succeeded as a father, it will be that lesson.

As Robert Eamons has written, “at the core of all of these practices, however diverse, is memory. Gratitude is about remembering. If there is a crisis of gratitude in contemporary life as some have claimed, it is because we are collectively forgetful. We have lost a strong sense of gratitude about the freedoms we enjoy, a lack of gratitude towards those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom, and a lack of gratitude for all the material advantages we have.”

This is a sentiment in which I have a kindred spirit in France's Ambassador to the United States, a man who I am proud to say has been a great friend of the 92nd Street Y and the Jewish community, and who understands gratitude all too well. It has been written that, hanging on the wall of François Delattre's office is an enormous aerial color photograph depicting thousands of volunteers standing on Omaha Beach, arranged in a pattern that spells out the words FRANCE WILL NEVER FORGET. The annual extravaganza is meant as an Independence Day show of gratitude for the sacrifices of American soldiers during World War II. In my experience, France is very grateful for the memory of their liberation. I would venture to say that they are indeed more grateful for D-Day than we are for the French fleet arriving to save the day at Yorktown.

Interestingly, my extraordinary father, Jay, who passed away this past June, raised me never to expect gratitude. “Do what you do for its own sake, not for its recognition.” It was good advice, even noble advice. And so I have lived my life. But (and this really is for my children), as I am now older and, if not necessarily wiser, certainly more experienced, I would like to add my corollary to his advice: don't expect gratitude so as not to be disappointed, that's true...but don't have illusions either. Those who do not appreciate one's good deeds in a very ethically challenged era are probably unworthy people, because they have missed the point...not so much about one's actions, but of life in general. And, in so doing, they will diminish your own lives too. While I wouldn't go so far as David Hume to say that ingratitude is “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing” or, as Kant put it, that ingratitude is “the essence of vileness”, there is indeed a reason why my family motto is “no good deed goes unpunished.” But that should not deter you. For every person that you wish to teach you or befriend and disappoints, there's a great mentor or hero. And then of course when love turns out sometimes to be transient, there is the undying love of your mother...and me.

I am so grateful to so many of you here this evening. You know who you are. I would name all of you and the deeds and pleasures for which I am grateful. But it would take so long and, as you can see, brevity is my strong suit! There are, however, others who could not be here and I would like to thank them too. Ambassador Delattre, I have a story that will resonate for you. Few know it. This past summer, one of my oldest and dearest friends, my roommate when we were in school together in Switzerland, Simon Marsh, perished in a plane crash in Italy. It was devastating to all who knew him, his family especially of course, but also my own family as well. Simon and I were looking forward to the imminent completion of a project that I had started and which was very close to my heart. Among so many other things that he had done for me, Simon was supervising in England the restoration of a World War II fighter plane, a Spitfire Mk 1 which had been downed over northern France during the battles over Dunkirk. It happens the plane had been piloted by the Commander at Duxford, the forward fighter base of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of France. My intention, and it still is, was to place the plane with the RAF as an homage...a symbol of gratitude for those “Few”, as Churchill referred to his pilots, who were the thin line of brave men who were all that stood between civilization and the Nazi barbarism that had engulfed the continent. I felt that as an American and as a Jew, I must acknowledge our debt of gratitude. Yes, it was 75 years ago. Mais quand meme, as the French would say. But even so. And yes indeed, Simon, as it was put most beautifully in a French proverb, from the deaf educator, Jean Baptiste Massieu, “La reconnaissance est la memoire du coeur” (“gratitude is the memory of the heart”...it is the way that the heart remembers). Mon cher Simon, je suis reconnaissante, tres reconnaissante. “I am grateful, very grateful”, to you as well.

I can go on, but I've mentioned just a few of the many special people here and absent so that you get the point. If you, my children, can be disappointed and not become cynical, if you can maintain your passion when favors are not returned, if you can stay the course and do so without losing your integrity, you will be successful. Money will come and money will go. Today we are rich; tomorrow we are poor. Today we are at the top of the world; tomorrow we are refugees. My children...you are intelligent, but I'm sorry to tell you that intelligence is not rare. It is indeed a commodity. Whereas character is something altogether different; it's a currency. So remember, Leonardo, what we spoke about as we walked along the Seine two summers ago: intelligence, like oil and sugar, is a commodity...but character, like gold (and of course electrum), is a currency, the coin of the realm in life.

From very early on, we have tried to instill in our children the imperative of giving back. Though it is early days yet, there are hints that we may find gratification. Let me tell you a story. Around the time both of our children were at the 92nd Street Y nursery school, the family took a trip to Florida. During that vacation, we visited an alligator sanctuary where part of the experience was for children to be able to interact with snakes, turtles and other animals. Having been raised for part of my life in Florida, I recognized all the animals the snake handler was showing to the kids. Afterwards, when I approached the man, I told him that the snake I would really love to show my children is an indigo snake, the largest serpent in the United States and now indigenous only to Florida, Georgia and Alabama. He remarked that one needs to have a license to have these beautiful creatures because they are nearly extinct... but that it so happened that he had such a license, and even a baby snake, in the nursery. So off we went and indeed he had a juvenile indigo snake to show us. He put it in the hands of our daughter, Orianne, and as the reptile was weaving through her fingers, she said “Papa, could I have an indigo snake as a pet?”. I replied “Sweetheart, I would love to be able to give you that snake but it is rare.” She looked at me quizzically, so I added “rare means it is not extinct" (a word she knew because she had learned it at school), "but it is endangered and may become extinct". She was very disturbed by this piece of news. We returned the snake to its cage, and she, Leonardo and I repaired back to Miami. A few minutes into the ride she said, “Papa, would you do me a favor?” “Sure, so long as it's within reason,” I replied. “You always tell us to give back," she said, accurately. "Would you do for indigo snakes what you are trying to do for the tigers?”

I was extremely moved, not just because our family's work in big cat conservation was imprinting itself upon her but that, even as a five year old, she recognized that her motivation should be to do something when she sensed an injustice. That request was the inspiration for the Orianne Society, which has in fact saved the indigo snake and not only that snake, but some of the significant long leaf pine habitats in which it and the other flora and fauna in that part of the world exist.

There is an additional, amusing epilogue to that story. That night, after we had returned to Miami, I was in the process of getting a seat at our favorite Italian restaurant when Orianne wondered over to me and asked, “Papa, are Jews rare?” I was obviously intrigued by the question. I said “Well, yes, actually now that you mention it Jews are rare...but why do you ask?” She answered “...because I see all of these Christmas trees in the shops but only one menorah.” I said, “The fact of the matter is that the Jews represent a very, very tiny fraction of the people that are on this planet and if one thinks about it, we are actually quite rare.” “I thought so”, she nodded. The next evening we were at a different restaurant and she hopped from her seat next to mine and approached the next table. She went straight to the fellow who appeared to be the host, looked up at him and asked “Are you Jewish?” This very amused and charming Englishman looked down at her and, smiling, responded “I’m not, actually.” She said “I didn’t think so”. “And why do you say that?”, he asked. Her response became an instant classic: “Because Jews are rare.” And with that two tables of strangers burst into joyous laughter.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote, "Gratitude doesn't much like the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking life for granted. Gratitude rejoices with her sister Joy, and is always ready to light a candle and have a party. "

And so today, we are having a party. Vive la France...and thank you all for coming.

To read the speech delivered by Ambassador François Delattre, click here


Image: © Joyce Culver.com

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