Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Dr Georgette Bennett Is Helping to Change Our World

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Game-changing leadership often begins at “no, it can’t be done.” In the face of complexity and suffering, many people get stuck in conventional wisdom and default easily to the status quo.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Georgette Bennett.

TED speaker, Dr. Georgette Bennett is an award-winning sociologist, widely published author, popular lecturer, and former broadcast journalist. An innovative and entrepreneurial leader, she is an active philanthropist focusing on conflict resolution and intergroup relations. In 2013, Bennett founded the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA) and has since worked to raise awareness and mobilize $270 million of humanitarian aid on behalf of more than three million Syrian war victims. In 1992, she founded the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, the go to organization for combating religious prejudice. She is also a co-founder of the Global Covenant of Religions/Global Covenant Partners, which focuses on delegitimizing the use of religion to justify violence and extremism. Bennett served in the U.S. State Department Religion and Foreign Policy initiative’s working group on conflict mitigation, tasked with developing recommendations for the U.S. Secretary of State on countering religion-based violence. She was awarded the AARP Purpose Prize for her work with MFA and recently received an Extraordinary Women Award from the 92nd Street Y. In 2021, Bennett was included in Forbes 50 Over 50 Women of Impact list, and cited, along with Condoleezza Rice and Susan Rice as women who helped shape the course of modern American foreign policy and human rights. Her book, Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By: How One Woman Confronted the Greatest Humanitarian Conflict of Our Time was published in late 2021. Her next book, and RELIGICIDE: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence., co-authored with Nobel Peace Prize Co-recipient, Jerry White, was released in November 2022.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m a child of the Holocaust. I was born in Budapest soon after the end of World War II. Budapest had been under a siege that ended in 1945. That siege left 38,000 people dead of bombings and starvation. My own mother lost a pregnancy lugging home a sack of half rotten potatoes because there was nothing else to eat. And I was born into a bombed-out apartment building.

Most of my family literally went up in smoke in Nazi death camps. But my parents survived the camps, and I was my mother’s first and only live birth after seven miscarriages. Given those circumstances, the odds of my having been born were almost nil. So, I view mine as an accidental and unexpected life. Because of that miracle, I’ve never lost my feeling of indebtedness to the world and that has driven most of my life’s work.

But it was something else as well. After having survived the Nazis, my mother was arrested by the Soviets, who liberated Hungary from the Nazis. It was clear that persecution of my parents would not end as long asif they remained in Hungary. So, we fled and arrived in the U.S. in 1952 as stateless refugees.

My Holocaust background primed me to wonder why religion inspired so much hate. My career as a criminologist led me to a deep interest in the link between religion and violence. And my roots as a refugee child gave me connected me with the suffering of displaced people.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

When I started my undergraduate work at Vassar College, I was required to read Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, for Freshman orientation. As a child who grew up in the 50s, I entered college on the cusp of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Friedan’s book was a real eye-opener for me. It exposed the quiet desperation of women confined to traditional roles and revealed the possibilities of a life made freer and fuller by providing women with more options. Fast forward to 1971. I was just completing my Ph.D. and had started teaching in the City University of New York system. I was recruited by one of my fellow (or should I say “sister”) faculty members to join the Women’s Advocacy Committee. WAC was made up of only 12 women — but they were all icons of the Women’s Movement — and the founder was Betty Freidan! WAC organized the first Women’s March in New York, and they were so effective that then-Mayor John Lindsay designated them an official mayoral committee charged with advocating for women in agencies of City government. Almost through a process of drawing straws, I ended up at NYPD — and that was the start of my life of crime (prevention) as a criminologist. Fast forward again to me in my 70s. I recently completed an oral history, much of it focused on my NYPD days, for the Veteran Feminists of America. That’s the archive that houses our second-wave feminism stories.

So, what does all this have to do with the two most recent books mentioned in my bio? Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By, which deals with the Syrian crisis, was born from a report I read about the gender violence that was both a weapon of war and a consequence of war. RELIGICIDE reveals how this form of anti-religious violence is so often borne on the backs of women and how manipulation of reproduction is used to wipe out an entire religion and its cultural heritage.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I mentioned earlier that I taught in the City University of New York system. But I didn’t mention how young I was. At age 25, I was younger than a lot of my students. Accordingly, I identified more with them than my much older fellow faculty members. I also related more to the fashions that young people were wearing than the clothes that my professional role required. Back then, in the early 1970s, hot pants were all the rage. I had a wardrobe of them, which I wore with thigh high boots. One day, I swept into class in burgundy velvet hot pants and tall burgundy suede boots. Shortly after, I was called into the Dean’s office. She told me that one of my students had complained, “I can’t concentrate in class when Dr. Bennett is wearing hot pants.” Of course, I got a dressing down (no pun intended) for my inappropriate attire. From then on, no more hot pants for me — not in class, anyway! That dumb mistake taught me that clothes communicate and are a key part of the image one projects. Now that may seem self-evident. But back then, I was focused on being the cool professor with whom students could relate. I wasn’t focused on the need to inspire confidence. Confidence is partially derived from looking the part and looking the part is a form of respect to one’s students, patients, and clients. It’s also a form of boundary maintenance, which is very important in professional relationships — especially where the power dynamic is uneven.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

My co-author, Jerry White, and I are trying to address a form of violence that has gone unnamed, unrecognized, unabated, and unprosecuted. We call it “Religicide.” While other forms of violence are decreasing worldwide, anti-religious violence is growing.

Many see religion as being the cause of most violent conflict. While it’s true that the abuse and misuse of religion undergirds much violence and extremism, we make the case that religion can, and must, be part of the solution. That’s because international law addresses only some components of religicide — such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. But there are no laws that adequately address religicide in its entirety. It, therefore, slips through the cracks. So, when you see the religicides being perpetrated against the Uyghurs and Tibetan Buddhists in China, the Royhinga in Myanmar, the Yazidis in Iran, and arguably, Native Americans in the US and Canada, you’re witnessing murder in plain sight. In the face of international paralysis, the wrongdoers are getting away with it. Our book sets out to change that.

How? First by addressing the gaps in international law, including the politics of the UN Security Council. Of the five permanent members, China and Russian are among the world’s greatest violators of human rights. Given their power to veto any resolution that interferes with their crimes, we can’t expect any solutions to come from the UN’s most powerful body. That makes it all the more important to turn to other means of addressing this horrific problem. Therefore, RELIGICIDE provides an action plan to reverse religicide with an integrated top-down, bottom-up, and middle-out approach, relying on collaboration among diverse faith groups, international organizations, public officials, businesses, and community leaders. Our goal is to catalyze a movement that will mobilize all these forces in order to end the devastation of an entire religion, its practitioners, their habitats, and their cultural heritage.

A caveat: RELIGICIDE is not intended to be a bludgeon for the extreme right to use against non-believers or those who believe differently than they. This book is respectful of secularism and the secular world. Indeed, religions depend on secular laws to protect their rights. So, this book is not a bid to elevate belief over non-belief, impose religion on anyone, or breach the separation of Church and State. It’s about the human rights of those who do believe and, unprotected by laws or governments, are subject to horrific forms of persecution.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book? What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

In April 2015, His Majesty King Abdullah II convened a high-level “Ring of Faiths” steering group in Amman, Jordan. The group had the participation of the Vatican, Lambeth Palace, scholars from Cambridge and Oman, His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, and representatives to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. World leaders such as Pope Francis, the Prince of Wales, and the archbishop of Canterbury stood behind the effort. King Abdullah had invited religious scholars, faith leaders, and diplomats to work together on recommendations for a UN resolution that would identify and make religicide a crime under international law. The charge from these leaders was to lay out an actionable legal framework to reduce interreligious and sectarian violence and create a code of conduct regarding protection of religious belief, practice, and sacred heritage.

Jordan’s interfaith activities were stewarded by Prince Ghazi. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Ghazi also served as Abdullah’s personal envoy and occasional regent when the king was absent from Jordan. In short, Ghazi is one of the most influential figures in Jordan. In 2015, Ghazi hosted a gathering of world leaders in interreligious relations,, to which Jerry and I were invited. The event could not have been more timelytimelier.

By then, ISIS was firmly entrenched in Iraq and Syria. Days before the Jordan meeting, ISIS shocked the world with an act even more gruesome than their notorious beheadings. The previous month, ISIS had taken hostage Muath al-Kasasbeh, a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot whose plane crashed near Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria. ISIS offered to spare Muath’s life in exchange for a failed suicide bomber who had been sentenced to death in Jordan. But the government insisted on their pilot’s release. Instead, ISIS released a video on February 3, showing Muath being burned alive in a cage.

Five months before, in the wake of a meeting with then-US Secretary of State John Kerry, the monarchy had announced its plan to expand its activities to combat ISIS by providing a base for future U.S. air strikes. By the time of Ghazi’s 2015 interfaith meeting, Jordan did more than provide a base: it took direct military action. On February 5, King Abdullah ordered Operation Martyr Muath, a three-day series of airstrikes over ISIS-held territory in Syria in which fifty-five ISIS fighters were killed.

Ghazi’s convening of interreligious leaders opened at the secluded Kempinski resort on the Dead Sea the day after the last airstrike. In the wake of Muath’s murder, ostensibly in the name of Islam, our meeting was not an empty exercise.

The ideological response was the focal point of Ghazi’s meeting. Tall, sleek, and movie-star handsome, Ghazi swept into the ornate conference room bedecked in stately gold and brown royal robes and red-checked keffiyeh. At the top of his agenda: selling the concept of “religicide” to the UN. The four-page resolution, drafted with the shadow help of Jerry White, read in part:

…threatening, propagating, planning, initiating, executing the killing, cleansing, displacement, destruction, desecration, of religious groups, sects, and communities, constitute a particular form of genocide targeting a religious group when such acts are…deliberate…systematic…and purportedly justified by religious or sectarian aims, or as part of a campaign of offensive religious or sectarian conquest — this crime herein and henceforth being referred to as ‘religicide.’

That year, Jordan had been elected to serve a two-year term on the Security Council. Ghazi was satisfied that, as written, the document would pass muster in the UN. Many of us had misgivings, including an ambassador, who counseled that such moves must first be circulated among Security Council members and reviewed through many iterative drafts. But Ghazi insisted it was non-negotiable and preferred a “cram-down” approach because he had the king’s approval. Our presence at the Kempinski was to be our seal of approval for this document.

This unprecedented initiative to name and denounce religicide was important but never got off the ground. The effort, though noble, was top-down, siloed, elite, and rushed. Significantly more time was needed to build bridges among faith leaders and diplomats, as well as to socialize and discuss the concept of religicide and deliberate on the implications for international security, human rights, and humanitarian law. The UN Security Council, for reasons described earlier, was not the right place to introduce a religicide resolution, because it was likely that the United States, China, and others would block it at the outset. And that’s precisely what happened. Jordan’s draft resolution, even with the significant support and approval of religious leaders, never saw the light of day.

This taught us that any one sector or group, working in a silo on its own, will not mobilize the power needed to expose and end religicide. That was our “ah ha” moment.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I think of a Benedictine Nun in Germany who has been helping provide asylum to Yazidi survivors of religicide. One of the Yazidis who fled Iraq found compassionate refuge at Dinklage Abbey, thanks to this Benedictine sister. My co-author Jerry White happened to visit the abbey and broke bread with several Yazidis who prayed for all other nations before they would eat. Survivors shared with us their special traditions and belief in blessing, as well as horror stories of how their people had been targeted for more than 70 genocides over centuries. The latest attempt at religicide was at the hands of ISIS. Because of these trusted relationships, Jerry and I supported the return of several families from Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps to return to their sacred homeland in Nineveh Province. There we helped these resilient families restore two destroyed wells and jumpstart regenerative agriculture, planting fruit trees and vegetables, as well as restoring a local shrine and housing to share with unsheltered families at risk for extinction without outside humanitarian support and friendship.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Our book, RELIGICIDE, advances the role of civil society in filling the gaps in international law. Because victims of religicide are essentially unprotected by international bodies and governments, religious, business, and political leaders have important roles to play.

It is critical for religious leaders to take a values-centered stand against all violent atrocities, particularly those done in the name of God. They must clarify the toxic scriptures that are historically endemic to all the great faiths, emphasizing the overriding call for compassion, mercy, and peace. Religious leaders share a responsibility to role model wise decision-making, listening with empathy, and speaking responsibly to their followers. The words they use matter, and their teachings can have a profound impact on whether force or violence is deployed in a community. Civil society networks that include religious leaders can help build community resilience, capacity for early warning, and rapid response to mitigate conflict.

The less isolated a state, the less likely it is to engage in mass violence. So, economics also play a role. Mass violence is less likely when economic interconnections are in place — such as those between a perpetrating state and other states or private businesses and a perpetrating state. In the case of China and Myanmar, both of which are guilty of religicide, economic incentives, sanctions, and conditionality can be effective ways to interrupt mass violence. Among incentives, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund should invest in countries that distance themselves from religicidal states. To these, we add Most Favorite Nation status and trade agreements, along with tariff reductions and direct purchases. Boycotts and sanctions can also be effective because they signal international disapproval for religicidal acts and punish bad behavior.

We also call for boycotts of goods and services performed by forced Uyghur labor in China. Impact investing and sustainability goals are other tools that enable businesses to rethink their supply chains and move them away from exploited labor. Apple has been called to account for a supply chain that includes seven companies said to use forced Uyghur labor. The recent revulsion for “blood diamonds” is another case in point. Conditionality, as explained by the Carnegie Commission, involves “the forging of links between responsible, nonviolent behavior and the promise of greater reward through growing integration into the community of market democracies.”

The Islamic State (ISIS) was fueled by oil revenues from the fields it controlled in Syria. With periodic oil gluts, it would have been feasible to boycott oil from ISIS-controlled Syria. Once ISIS was driven from that area, it lost a major source of income and provided leverage to the U.S., which took control of the oil fields. (Unfortunately, the United States failed to use its leverage to shrink the crisis and protect those being assaulted by ISIS.)

Political leaders and diplomats also have a role in engaging religicidal states and non-state actors. While it’s tempting for States to suspend diplomatic relations with bad actors, it’s important to maintain communications with both the victimizers and the victimized. Diplomats can make the case for how religicidal policies impact their own country’s interests. In so doing, they make it clear there’s a much bigger dog in the picture than the one that the offending state is beating. Their ability to forge multilateral alliances greatly strengthens the response to religicide. However, diplomacy fails if diplomats don’t fully understand the collective trauma of the large groups with which they’re negotiating, as well as the long-lasting economic, cultural, social, and environmental costs of religicide.

How do you define “Leadership?” ”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the ability to inspire people to move toward a shared goal. One such leader is King Abdullah II of Jordan, whom I mentioned earlier in relation to the religicide resolution that never made it to the UN Security Council. That particular resolution didn’t make it over the finish line, but it is only one out of many successful initiatives taken by the King.

Believing that sectarian religious conflict will be the cause of the next great global conflagration, Abdullah is working to avoid World War III by fostering interreligious engagement. To that end, he promulgated the Amman Message, an unflinching and courageous statement, coming from a Hashemite king — a direct descendant of the Prophet. Amman Message made three key assertions:

• There is no justification in Islam for violence and extremism.

• Islam must engage with the modern world.

• Islam is a religion that respects pluralism.

He later went on to mobilize outreach to the Christian World with “A Common Word Between You and Us.” The launch of “A Common Word” catalyzed engagement by hundreds of Christian and Muslim scholars. Abdullah was also the lynchpin for the Global Covenant of Religions, which seeks to delegitimize the use of religion to justify violence and extremism.

In all these ways and others, Abdullah has tapped his powerful network and used his position to lead interfaith initiatives that advance peace, mutual respect, and reconciliation.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for

  1. Game-changing leadership often begins at “no, it can’t be done.” In the face of complexity and suffering, many people get stuck in conventional wisdom and default easily to the status quo.
  2. Resilience is something you can get in shape for and practice ahead of the tough times. Resilience is social as no one survives or succeeds alone.
  3. If you don’t shoot for 150% when advocating for positive system change, then you likely won’t achieve even 50%.
  4. Spiritual practice and discipline are necessary to sustain hard work over decades, to not burn out in fury.
  5. Strategy is an act of creation — an artform that goes beyond clever planning. We define strategy as the art of creating power for sustainable change in the face of uncertainty and conflict.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is “Every ‘no’ brings you closer to a ‘yes.’” I learned that lesson selling encyclopedias door-to-door when I was trying to earn extra money for college. I never succeeded in selling any encyclopedias (because I learned that the pitch I had been taught to make was a lie). But that quote sure served me well with every other tough task I undertook in my life!

Especially in my work on behalf of Syrian war victims, I encountered obstacles at every turn. I saw in that crisis an opportunity to build bridges between sworn enemies as well as save lives. Because Israel shares a border with the countries most impacted by the Syrian war — and because it is so well resourced to deal with natural and manmade disasters — it seemed logical that it should be a staging area for the outbound delivery of international humanitarian aid into Syria. So, I first met with the Israeli consul-general in New York to sell him on my idea. He was on board. I then went to the head of the International Rescue Committee to sell him on the idea that Israeli know-how could be funneled through IRC. And he was on board. But two weeks later, he phoned me to say: “I’ve heard from our people on the ground in Jordan. They said that if we’re, in any way , seen as being in partnership with Israel, their lives are in danger.”

So, there I was with egg all over my face. What now? Well, if a proactive Israeli response was unacceptable, what about a communal Jewish response? I met with the head of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He was immediately on board, and we initiated the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees. I soon scaled that up to the leading multi-religious response in the U.S., focused exclusively on Syria. It’s called the Multifaith Alliance (MFA) and it now has more than 100 partner organizations.

But I never gave up on my initial idea. My small team and I did briefings for the UK, European, and Canadian parliaments. We met with every level of government in Israel. We banged on doors in the U.S. Congress. For two years, we held clandestine meetings in European capitals with a small group of influential Syrians and Israelis. And then, it happened! In 2016, Operation Good Neighbor became official Israeli government policy. The border between Israel and Syria was opened to facilitate the delivery of massive amounts of humanitarian aid into Syria. Aas of this date, MFA has delivered more than $260 million worth of aid benefitting nearly three million Syrian war victims. Much of this was the result of improbable partnerships between Syrians and Israelis — sworn enemies who were able to rise above politics, mutual suspicion, and hatred — in order to alleviate terrible suffering.

It’s true: every no brings you closer to a yes!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I wish that I could have a vegan meal (I’m vegan) with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. He’s the stepson of a fellow Vassar alum who also served on the Board of the International Rescue Committee with me. I’m a big fan of Tony’s and knew him before he was confirmed in his current position. But I’ve never had a serious sit-down with him. I’d like to be able to have an in-depth conversation about U.S. policy toward Syria and Russia. I’d also like to explore how the U.S. might incorporate some of the recommendations that Jerry and I make on how the U.S. might respond to the religicides being perpetrated in plain sight. I’d also ask him to revive the U.S. State Department Religion and Foreign Policy initiative’s working group on conflict mitigation, on which I served and which Jerry created when he was in the State Department.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

There are several places where you can find my work on-line:;;; The last two websites are organizations I founded — the first in 1992 and the second in 2013. Both were forged in response to violence and the need to confront hate.

Here are links for my heroic co-author, Jerry White, who is Executive Director, United Religions Initiative and Professor of Practice, University of Virginia:;;;

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Dr Georgette Bennett Is Helping to Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.