Arnold Schwarzenegger on Antisemitism, Voting Rights and the Meaning of His Life

Arnold Schwarzenegger waded head on into the war between Israel and Hamas at Town & Country’s annual philanthropy summit on Thursday. The actor and former governor of California, who has emerged in recent years as a proselytizer of peace and positive thinking — in spite of years in the bruising confines of state government and Hollywood — denounced the rise of antisemitism in the weeks since Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel from Gaza and massacred 1,400 Israelis.

“We are in a very strange situation,” he said from the dais on the 44th floor of Hearst Tower in Manhattan. “We have a country that was attacked for no reason really. People burned alive, butchered, their heads cut off and all of this kind of stuff.”

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At the same time, he added, “Palestinians have the right to live and the right to have their own country, their own state.”

Ultimately, said Schwarzenegger, the conflict, which has seen Israel’s defense forces bomb large swaths of Gaza City as they seek to root out Hamas militants, is rooted in the “tremendous failure of politicians.”

“Life is life,” said the “Terminator” actor. “I think it’s unnecessary.”

Schwarzenegger is among Town & Country’s annual philanthropy issue cover subjects, along with Charlize Theron, Michael J. Fox and the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker. Since he left office in 2011, Schwarzenegger has prioritized philanthropic work. Long a champion of the Special Olympics and climate change, his more recent efforts include voting rights and supporting military veterans. And his latest book — “Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life” — is part memoir, part instruction manual for building a life of purpose.

But his current persona arguably debuted in early 2021. That’s when he posted to Twitter an eight-minute video lamenting the storming of the U.S. Capitol and comparing the attempt by Donald Trump, his government enablers and the MAGA faithful, to overturn the presidential election to Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, in November 1938, when mobs attacked Jews from Berlin to Vienna. A child growing up in Austria, Schwarzenegger, whose father was a member of the Nazi Party in Austria, recalled “broken men drinking away their guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history.”

“I’ve never shared this so publicly, because it is a painful memory,” he said in the video.

Since then Schwarzenegger has emerged as a clarifying voice of humanism. His newsletter, which he posts to his website and via Instagram and Twitter, where he has more than 30 million followers combined, is a respite from the negativity polluting much of social media. Much of his charitable activity is facilitated by the Schwarzenegger Institute at USC, where he has championed after-school initiatives, climate change and immigration reform. But he also funds causes out of his own pocket; in 2020, he offered grants to help local jurisdictions reopen polling places, largely in the South, and this week he donated $1 million to SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Emergency Financial Assistance Program.

As a kid, he said, “my dream was to be a bodybuilder, to get into movies eventually and to become rich and famous.”

In recounting his path from movie star to humanitarian, Schwarzenegger recalled a phone call years ago from three rabbis connected with the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They were raising money to open The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, the education arm of the Wiesenthal Center. They asked Schwarzenegger if he would introduce them to prominent Hollywood Jews who might be inclined to help. He did, and at the groundbreaking, he said, he was invited to cut the celebratory cake with Simon Wiesenthal.

“So I’m cutting the cake. And my father was part of the Nazi Party. And here I am, the next generation, I go in the total opposite direction. In one generation. The horrors that take place because of hatred, I don’t want that to be repeated. Love is always stronger than hate.

“The first half of my life,” he continued, “was all about me. The second half of my life is all about making the world a better place.”

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