President Obama and the American Jewish Community

Ambassador Susan Rice's Remarks at the AIPAC Synagogue Initiative Lunch

On Monday, March 5th, Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice addressed the Synagogue Initiative lunch at the AIPAC Policy Conference. There, she reiterated the administration's support for Israel and shared the story of her personal connection with Israel. Following her speech, over 400 rabbis sang her favorite psalm, Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad - "behold how good and how pleasing if people could sit together in unity."

Ambassador Rice's remarks are below:

Thank you all so much. Good afternoon. And boy is it great to see friends and colleagues, including Lee Rosenberg and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, who’s such a great source of wisdom and compassion. Technically, I’m not sure I’m allowed to have a rabbi, but if I am, it’s she.

 

Julie, thank you so much for that incredibly warm introduction. It’s great to be back at AIPAC. This extraordinary gathering is a testament to the strength and dedication of the pro-Israel community and the American Jewish community—a community devoted to the unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond, to human rights for all, and to the wider principle of tikkun olam.

 

In fact, being here calls to mind one of my favorite psalms: Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad—I’ll take some lessons afterwards if anybody’s willing— but as you know well, that is “how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.” That verse strikes so many chords: how good it is when citizens of different backgrounds come together in common purpose; how deeply we yearn for the day when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael can at last find peace; how much stronger we are when we band together than when we let ourselves be split apart. It’s a theme of great power and great hope.

 

But it doesn’t always reflect the imperfect world in which we live. In that world, as President Kennedy said, we go forth asking for God’s blessing and God’s help, but, quote, “knowing that here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”

 

In our imperfect world, we still face leaders who deny the plain truths of history, who deny their people’s basic rights, who deny the right of their neighbors to exist.

 

Therefore, in our imperfect world, we remain determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. That is why, under President Obama’s leadership, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1929, imposing the toughest sanctions ever against Iran. This resolution targets the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, bans ballistic missile launches, provides for rigorous inspection of suspect cargo in the air or on the sea, prohibits the sale of many heavy weapons to Iran, severely constrains financial transactions with Iran, and highlights the oil sector’s role in financing Iran’s nuclear program.

 

In our imperfect world, we also remain determined to hasten the day when the brave people of Syria can shake off the yoke of bondage and tyranny. And we remain determined not to rest until a secure, Jewish, and democratic State of Israel lives side by side with a viable Palestinian state established through direct negotiations—two states for two peoples, living in peace and security.

 

Today, I’d like to focus on another persistent challenge we face: ensuring that Israel gets the fair and equal treatment at the United Nations, with all the rights and responsibilities of any UN member state.

 

And this subject brings to mind an old story about one of my distinguished predecessors, Adlai Stevenson.

 

The year was 1961. The Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and a diplomat from Ireland were sitting next to each other in the United Nations General Assembly, watching Ambassador Stevenson defend the Kennedy Administration’s actions at the Bay of Pigs. Explaining the Bay of Pigs to the General Assembly wasn’t a fun assignment, and Stevenson was having a rough time. He squinted over his glasses and started in on a particularly overwritten section about why Castro’s sins had justified the operation. Stevenson declared, “I have already told you about Castro’s crimes against man. But now let me tell you about Castro’s crimes against God.”

 

Then, Stevenson peered down at his notes and stammered a bit: “Castro has—Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.” And at that, the Israeli diplomat looked over at his Irish friend and said, “I always knew that, somehow, we would be blamed for this.”

 

Now, all countries come in for knocks every now and then at the United Nations, including our own. Nobody is above fair criticism. But what Israel faces is something very different. It’s relentless. It’s obsessive. It’s ugly. It’s bad for the United Nations. It’s bad for peace. And it has got to stop.

 

So we fight it. Ladies and gentlemen, not a day goes by -- not one -- when my colleagues and I don’t work hard to defend Israel’s security and legitimacy at the United Nations.

 

Last fall, when the Palestinians prematurely sought UN membership, we stood firm on principle and rallied others to ensure no further obstacles were placed in the path to peace. President Obama went before the UN General Assembly and said, and I quote: “There is no short-cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades….Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.” As the President reminded us yesterday, that was not a big applause line in the General Assembly Hall, but it was the right thing to say. And, for those who may still seek such a short-cut, the vote count in the Security Council has not improved this year.

 

Last February, when the Palestinians pushed a Security Council resolution on settlements—a final status issue that can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties—the United States vetoed it.

 

When in 2009 and 2011, major events were held to follow up on and to commemorate the notorious Durban conference, which had featured such ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, we twice refused to participate.

 

When the deeply flawed Goldstone Report was released, we insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself and maintained that Israel’s democratic institutions could credibly investigate any possible abuses.

 

When the tragic flotilla episode occurred, we worked hard to find a constructive path forward to minimize the damage to the traditional ties between Israel and Turkey.

 

When a 2010 resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference singled out Israel’s nuclear program for rebuke, we rallied our partners and defeated the resolution. And when the same resolution was considered in 2011, its sponsors, anticipating another defeat¸ preemptively withdrew their proposal.

 

When the Human Rights Council turns session after session to Agenda Item Seven on Israel, the Council’s only standing agenda item on any single country in the world, we fight hard on principle to end this glaring, structural bias.

 

When pre-cooked anti-Israel resolutions come up by the dozen at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, UNESCO, and elsewhere, we consistently oppose them, and we press others to do the same.

 

Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking at the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.

 

And when an American working for the United Nations as a Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights indulged in anti-Semitic web postings and endorsed vile conspiracy theories about 9/11, I called for him to resign.

 

These are our principles. That is our commitment.

 

But we do far more than just play defense. We have also racked up important wins that support Israel as it struggles to assume its rightful place among its fellow nations.

 

Over the past few years, the United States has negotiated a dramatic expansion of Israel’s participation in the important group of Western countries known by a crazy acronym JUSCANZ, both in New York and Geneva, and that enables Israel’s participation in the UN system.

 

When terrorists recently struck at Israeli diplomatic personnel in India and Georgia, we led the Security Council in unanimously condemning the attacks “in the strongest terms.” It was the first Security Council statement supporting Israel against terrorism in seven years.

 

Israel is also proudly showing the world how much it has to offer. In January 2010, with U.S. support, Israel became Chair of the Kimberley Process—an important conflict-diamonds certification initiative. Israel will join the board of UNICEF this year. And just last month, Israel won its first-ever seat on the executive board of the United Nations Development Program, which Israel’s Deputy UN Ambassador called, and I quote: “a milestone in Israel’s integration into the global agenda of the United Nations.”

 

Now, we’ve still got real work to do to ensure that Israel has all the rights and responsibilities of every other UN member state—no more, no less. And we will not let up.

 

But there’s an important distinction to understand. Israel gets singled out at the UN, not by the UN. When Israel gets marginalized and maligned, it’s not usually because of the UN Secretariat or the international public servants who work for agencies such as UNICEF or the IAEA. It’s typically because of the decisions of individual member states. As one of my predecessors, the late Richard Holbrooke, liked to say, “Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.”

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I know you’re profoundly frustrated by the treatment Israel all too often endures at the UN. I know I am too. But, I hope we never let that very justified frustration blind us to the real good the UN does—from imposing crippling sanctions on Iran and North Korea to saving untold thousands of Libyan civilians from Muammar Qaddafi to protecting victims of genocide in Darfur. Some people suggest simply giving up on the United Nation. But, for all the UN’s flaws, doing so would deeply harm American security and American values — and it would leave Israel alone to get bashed. It’s not in our interest to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But it is very much in our interest to have the United Nations keep the peace in conflict zones at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops to do the job, to save the lives of desperate refugees or starving children, and to support fragile democracies from Tunisia to Haiti to South Sudan.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, we will continue to be guided by our principles. In word and deed, President Obama has insisted that the United States be clear and consistent: the treatment Israel receives across the UN system is unacceptable. Efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy have been met with the unflinching opposition of the United States. And they always will be.

 

This is but one of the reasons our Israeli friends are glad we’re at the UN — in New York, Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere. They’re glad we’re there to stand up for fair treatment; to fight double standards; to uphold our shared values; and to help Israel assume its rightful place across the entire UN system. They’re glad we’ve got their back. And they know how much we do to help, in forum after forum, in fight after fight.

 

Even still, you should know that this on-going fight for Israel at the United Nations is just one part of a much larger mandate from President Obama. His guidance to us all has been crystal clear: to strengthen and deepen America’s special and enduring relationship with Israel — a relationship rooted in common interests and common values.

 

That’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. That’s why, even in tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels. That’s why, on top of the record funding we secured in the Fiscal Year 2011, we provided additional support for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system — which has already been used to defend innocent Israelis who live near the Gaza frontier.

 

The stakes could not be higher. I’ve seen it personally. In 2008, I joined President Obama — then Senator Obama — on his second visit to Israel. I followed behind him as he studied each wall at Yad Vashem. I watched from afar as he slipped a personal prayer into the stones of the Kotel. And I touched the charred remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave, unyielding citizens of Sderot.

 

Strong as those memories are, I will never forget my first visit to Israel, when I was just 14 years old. I went with my younger brother and my late father, who was then on the Board of Directors of Trans World Airlines (TWA). We had the extraordinary experience of flying on one of the very first flights from Tel Aviv to Cairo, just around the time of Camp David. On that same trip, we went to Yad Vashem, we floated in the Dead Sea, we walked the lanes of the Old City, climbed Masada, and picked fruit at a kibbutz. I learned by heart the words of the sacred prayer, the Sh’ma. And since that first wonderful visit, my admiration for Israel has grown ever stronger.

 

Let me close with one last powerful memory from that same time. I am a native Washingtonian, and my mother still lives across the street from the Egyptian Embassy. So I got to see Anwar al-Sadat bound out of his motorcade waving — triumphant, proud, and sure — just after he had signed the Camp David Accords. As a kid, I think I was more impressed by the heavily armed Secret Service agents occupying our roof.

 

But, as an adult, I am most impressed by the central lesson that Sadat’s actions taught us: that human conflict and human suffering can be ended by human courage. Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim—how good it is when we come together. How important it is for us to stand together for peace, security, and dignity for Israelis, Palestinians, and all the people of the Middle East. How crucial it is that we shun the voices of division and despair, and that we reaffirm the deep and bipartisan foundation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel.

 

We’ve come far. But we’ve got far more to do. And in that work, let there be no doubt. America remains deeply and permanently committed to the peace and security of the State of Israel. That commitment starts with President Obama, and it is shared by us all. It spans generations. It spans political parties. It is not negotiable. And it never will be.

 

Thank you so much.


Jarrod Bernstein is the Director of Jewish Outreach in the Office of Public Engagement.

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