President Obama and the American Jewish Community

In the Heart of Motor City, Vice President Biden Addresses Yeshiva Beth Yehuda

On November 13th, 2011, Vice President Biden delivered a speech to over 2,000 rabbis, educators and Jewish community and business leaders in Detroit. The remarks, included below, were made at the anniversary dinner of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda, the oldest and largest Jewish schools system in Michigan.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN
DELIVERS REMARKS TO THE
YESHIVA BETH YEHUDA ANNIVERSARY DINNER

Renaissance Center Marriott Hotel
Detroit, Michigan

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  I understand I’m not even the end of the program.  (Laughter.)

Well, first of all, let me thank Debbie for inviting me.  And she is correct, everyone knows about you in Washington.  And everyone knows something else -- at least Joe Biden knows -- when Debbie Stabenow asks you something, just say yes the first time.  Don’t say, I have to check my schedule.  Don’t say, I’m not sure -- just say yes.  Governor, start listening to her.  Say yes, because Carl and everyone else listens to her.  (Applause.)

By the way, Governor, it’s an honor to be with you tonight.  I appreciate your -- being with you.  I think we can call a quorum of the United States Congress here today.  (Laughter.)  To all my former colleagues in the House and the Senate, I say thank you for allowing me to be here with you.

Ladies and gentlemen, 97th anniversary -- I’m told you began with a weekly class of just five students some 97 years ago.  And now, you’re the largest Jewish school system in the state.  And nearly a century -- for nearly a century you’ve set a standard for excellence not just in Jewish education, but in education period, preparing each generation for leadership and service in the community, which is an unyielding Jewish tradition.

I’m probably one of the few Christian members of the Congress who can say the motzi.  (Laughter.)  I’ve attended more Jewish dinners than some of you have.  (Applause.)  I’ve raised more money from AIPAC than some of you have.  (Applause.)  I have spent more money raising money for the Federation than some of you have.  (Laughter.)  You think I’m kidding, don’t you.  I’m not. 

It’s a testament to all of you that so many of Michigan’s leaders are assembled here today -- your master of ceremonies indicated, reading off all of the people who are here.  It is a testament to the great, great work that you do. 

Although I was not educated here, I was not educated in the tradition -- I was not educated in a Jewish school, I was educated in the traditions of Judaism.  I was educated about the oppression and genocide committed against the Jews, the historic ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.  I was educated at my dinner table by what my Jewish friends at home refer to -- and you would -- as a righteous Christian, a man who taught us that without vigilance, the safe haven of Israel, it could happen again without Israel. 

I got in trouble some years ago and Carl may remember.  About 18, 20 years ago, I was speaking to the Zionist Organization of Baltimore.  And I said, I am a Zionist, for I learned you do not have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.  The fact of the matter is that the man who raised me was absolutely committed to the notion that it should never happen again, the man who could not understand why there could even be a debate about the establishment of the state of Israel.  That man was my dad.

So it was no surprise to my friends when I was elected to the Senate in a state less than 1 percent of the Jewish -- less than 1 percent of the population is Jewish, that I got so deeply involved early on in the Senate with the business of Israel.  I was elected when I was 29 years old.  And I continued my education, because I had the opportunity to get there and be educated by men like Hubert Humphrey, like Abe Ribicoff, like Jack Javits -- people who were my mentors as a young kid in the United States Senate.
 
And like all of you, I feel we have an obligation to educate all of our children about the darkest moments of the past, so we can avoid them in the future.  That’s why when children -- when my children were old enough, I took them -- as Carl remembers -- my first trip taking my oldest son at 15, then my second son when he turned 15 to Europe.  We literally flew into Germany, went down to Munich, got in a car and drove to Dachau, the first place they ever visited, because I wanted them to understand what mankind is capable of, the incredible humanity.
 
But I also wanted them to understand that the most horrible circumstances imaginable that occurred there and in other concentration camps is only paled by the endurance of the human spirit.  Folks, it’s more than just Zachor.  It’s more than just remembrance.  It’s an American national security interest that Israel remain free, secure in a democratic state in the Middle East.  As I said when I -- (Applause.)

If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent one.  As I said in a speech I recently made at Tel Aviv University, American support for Israel is not just an act of friendship; it’s an act of fundamental national self-interest on the part of the United States, a key component of our broader efforts to secure this region and the wider world as well as secure our own security.  President Obama feels exactly the same way. 

When we came to office, when it came to standing up for Israel’s security both in terms of the threat it faces and countering those who seek to delegitimize Israel -- this is the most concerted effort in my 36 years in the Senate and two and a half years as Vice President that I have seen an effort to literally delegitimize Israel as a nation state.  It’s occurring in Europe.  It’s occurring around the world. 

The commitment we have made -- all my colleagues in the Senate and House that are here, all our administration -- is equal to and surpasses that of any of our predecessors.  Early in our administration when the President gave his speech in Egypt to the Muslim communities around the world, he made our commitment plain as day, standing in Cairo in the midst of an Islamic audience. 

He told the audience in the heart of the Arab world, and I quote, that “America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable.”  Now listen -- (Applause.)  Listen to what he said this September at the United Nations General Assembly.  He said, “Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it.  Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombers on their buses.  Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region other children are taught to hate them.  Israel, a small country with less than 8 million people looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten and are committed to wipe it off the face of the map.”

That statement was not made at a Jewish dinner.  That statement was made for the whole world to hear before what was a mildly hostile General Assembly.

The threats against the Jewish state have changed dramatically since I first became a senator in 1973.  Then, there was no concern about a nuclear armed Iran, Hamas armed with sophisticated rockets, Hezbollah with longer range missiles, uncertainty among Israel’s neighbors during what has become known as the Arab Spring.
 
So now, as a consequence of those changes our commitment to Israel’s security must and does reflect those new threats.  In spite of our own tough economic times -- I need not tell folks in Detroit about tough economic times.  In spite of these tough economic times, the President with the help of the Congress has secured $3 billion in annual assistance for Israel, the most ever.  (Applause.)

On top of that, the President asked for an additional $205 million to help Israel produce what is referred to as the Iron Dome, the short range rocket defense system that has intercepted dozens of rockets along the Gaza border, rockets that could have struck hospitals, schools, or homes.  And it is now being installed along the Lebanese border.
       
President Obama saw firsthand the need for a system back in 2008, when he was -- when he actually visited the region.  He saw how the residents of the border areas were perpetually in the cross hairs of Hamas and Hezbollah.  And he worked with Israel on two new missile defense systems -- Arrow and David’s Sling -- on a high-powered radar system that could detect missiles by satellite and give the Israelis early warning of a launch against them.
 
It’s not just the technology, but the human relationships that will ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge.  Since taking office, we’ve launched the most comprehensive and meaningful strategic and operational consultations across all levels of our government, unprecedented in their scope, frequency and character.

The largest ever joint military exercise in our joint history -- Juniper Cobra, it was referred to as.  The most visits by senior high-level Department of Defense officials and their Israeli counterparts -- over 200.  Such cooperation, as you observed, only exists with the closes allies; cooperation that a friend of mine for 39 years, Benjamin Netanyahu himself, has rightly called unprecedented. 

The President is also keenly aware of the existential threat that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could and would pose to Israel.  It would also be, I might add, a direct and serious threat to the United States.  That’s why President Obama is absolutely determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.  (Applause.)

We have built up the strongest and most far-reaching sanctions that Iran has ever seen.  As a result, Iran is increasingly isolated, and we are not -- we’ve severely set back its ability to buy technology to continue its nuclear and missile programs.  We’ve made it increasingly difficult for Iran to do basic business transactions around the world.  For example, major multinational companies have suspended or stopped some $60 billion worth of energy projects with Iran, while banks, insurers and other financial institutions have ceased doing business altogether, just in the last 18 months.

And don't take my word for it.  Here’s what President Ahmadinejad -- after saying initially the sanction had no consequence -- here’s what he recently told the Iranian parliament, just two weeks ago.  And I quote, “the West as imposed the most extensive and dastardly sanctions.”  He went on to say, “Every day our banking and trade activities and our agreements are being monitored and blocked.  This is the heaviest economic onslaught,” he went on to say, “in our nation’s history.  Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore.”  And he went on.

The Israelis know that they can count on us and on this President.  As recently as this September, when demonstrations in Cairo turned violent, and protestors breached the wall of the Israeli embassy there, tearing down Israel’s flag and threatening the security of the embassy staff, the Israeli’s asked for our help.  President Obama immediately responded. 

Afterwards Bibi, I should refer -- I’ve known him so long -- the Prime Minister, Netanyahu, said of the President, I quote, “I requested his assistance at a decisive, I would say even fateful moment.  He said he would do everything possible, and that’s exactly what he did.  He activated all the United States’ means and influence, which are certainly considerable.  I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude.”

Even -- even as we remain vigilant to any and all threats to Israel’s security, we will have -- and I can tell you for eight Presidents we always have had -- tactical disagreements over policy.  But none of these disagreements go to the heart of our relationship.  They never have.  And we will never allow it to occur.

That’s more important than it ever has been today, because, as I said, we are witnessing the most sustained aggressive attempt to de-legitimize Israel that I have ever seen.  And I have been more deeply involved in this issue than anyone but four people who are still in the United States Congress. 

The United States is fighting these efforts with everything we have.  It was one thing to help stop the sale of AWACS to the Saudis -- I voted against AWACS to the Saudis years ago.  It’s a very different thing -- it’s a very different thing to meet the pernicious undermining of Israel’s statehood that is occurring subtly all around the world.

We stood by Israel when the Goldstone Report on the 2009 Gaza War was issued, because we will always support Israel’s right to self-defense.  We refused to attend events that -- (applause) -- and by the way, this has been bipartisan -- we’ve refused to attend events that legitimize the flawed -- excuse me -- 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which outrageously singled out Israel for criticism.

We vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution that declared Israel’s settlements illegal, and we’re working around the clock to prevent the United Nations and its agencies from further isolating Israel, and from prematurely endorsing a Palestinian bid for statehood.  (Applause.)

And we are strongly -- strongly -- opposed to the decision by UNESCO to in fact recognize Israel as part of its organization to approve the Palestinian bid for full membership. 

We have repeatedly made clear to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the international community, that long-lasting peace can only be achieved -- as Israeli leaders have argued from the beginning -- by negotiations between the two parties themselves, period.  Period.  (Applause.)  As the President said of the United Nations last month, There are no shortcuts to peace.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we know, as our Israeli friends know, and I think everyone knows, that the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is not sustainable. 

For the Palestinians, statehood will not just fulfill legitimate, long-sought aspiration common to all people’s, it will restore the fundamental dignities and self-respect that their current predicament denies them and their current actions keep them from achieving.  For Israel, this is about both preserving its identity as a Jewish state, and achieving the lasting security that Israel deserves. 

It is no secret that demographic realities make it increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a Democratic country, in the absence of a Palestinian state and an agreement.

Like many Americans, I’ve experienced the magic of Israel many, many times.  But at a relatively young age, when I had just turned 30, I first visited on the eve of the Yom Kippur War.  My very first meeting was with a woman I’ve always admired -- had always admired -- from afar, as millions of Americans did. 

I remember being ushered into her office where she sat me down in front of her desk, and she had behind her a series of maps that she kept pulling back, up and down, while she chain-smoked.  She, Golda Meir, explained to me what had happened in the Six-Day War.  She read to me the most woe-some tales and letters from young men, young Israeli soldiers, and women who had been killed on the front.

There was a young man sitting next to me named Yitzhak Rabin, who I met for the first time.  As the Prime Minister spoke, I think she could see my sense of apprehension as I thought of the daunting threats that faced Israel at the time.

About an hour and a half into our meeting, she suddenly looked at me and she said, Senator, would you like a photo -- would you like a photo opportunity?  I thought, What in the heck did that come from?  (Laughter.)  I said, Of course I would, Madame Prime Minister.  Many of you have been in her office, the same office.  We got up, they opened the double doors and walked out into that hallway, and there are all kinds of press there. 

And as we’re standing next to one being photographed like it was a press conference -- not speaking, just being photographed -- she looked straight ahead, and talked to me while I was looking straight ahead.  And she said, Senator, you look worried.  And I said, Well, I am -- I looked at her and I said, I am, Madame Prime Minister, after what she had just told me.  She said, Don’t worry, Senator.  We Israelis have a secret weapon in our conflict with the Arabs.  We have nowhere else to go.  We have nowhere else to go.

With the United States, past Presidents and this President know, that Israel has nowhere else to go.  That’s why we have done more than any administration on the security front with Israel because we know it has nowhere else to go.  To make sure that Israel can stay exactly where she is -- a Jewish state, secure and free.  And that is why the bond between America and Israel is absolutely unshakeable. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, as my dear grandfather used to say every time I walked out his door, he’d say, Joey, keep the faith.  Ladies and gentlemen, keep the faith.  I commit to you, as a supporter of Israel for 40 years, and the record to show it, that I can match against any man or woman who ever served in the United States Senate, I guarantee you we will stand with Israel because we know she has nowhere else to go.  And we want her to stay right where she is.  (Applause.)

God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

Jarrod Bernstein is an Associate Director in the Office of Public Engagement.

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