President Obama and the American Jewish Community

An Unbreakable Bond with the State of Israel

Yesterday, Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, addressed over 2,500 attendees at the J Street Conference in Washington, DC. There, Valerie reiterated the President’s iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and shared stories of her personal connections to the Jewish people. Attendants at the J Street Conference also heard from Tony Blinken, the National Security Advisor to the Vice President.

Below are Valerie’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good afternoon.

It’s wonderful to be here at J Street.

Thank you, Mort, for that very kind introduction, and for your many years of service to our country. 

It looks like there are about 2500 folks here, and I see so many dear friends that it would take too long to recognize each of you by name. There are three people I’d like to thank for inviting me here today: Jeremy Ben-Ami, Davidi Gilo, and Deborah Sagner. I also want to thank Judd & Linda Minor, Marilyn Katz; and Bill Singer.

Now, in just a few minutes, you are going to hear from my dear friend Tony Blinken. When you look up “foreign policy expert” in the dictionary, you see Tony’s picture.

So rather than diving deeply into the details of President Obama’s foreign policy, which I know Tony will do so capably, I thought I would speak more broadly about the President’s vision and values.

There is no better time to address those themes than right now, with Passover just a few weeks away. Passover is a special holiday for me. Many, many years ago, a Jewish friend of mine asked if we could prepare Seder at my parents’ home because her family was out of town.  My parents, of course, agreed, and during our Seder my dad surprised me by casually mentioning to my friend that his grandfather was Jewish. Now, I know what you’re thinking. She doesn’t look 1/8th Jewish. But I am. Which is why I promise that when I use some Hebrew words in my speech today, I will pronounce at least one out of every eight of them correctly.

Passover holds a special meaning for President Obama, as well. One of our favorite memories from the Presidential campaign took place in the spring of 2008.

At the end of a long and grueling day, a few of the young Jewish aides traveling with then-Senator Obama organized a small Seder in the basement of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. They used borrowed Haggadahs and makeshift Seder plates. For a couple of the guys, it was the first time they’d ever spent Passover away from home. 

President Obama heard that they were planning the Seder, and even though he had given 5 speeches that day, and it was 10pm when we finally arrived at our hotel, he said to me, “Come on; let’s join them.” The two organizers were so overwhelmed that their exhausted boss was there, that they offered to skip certain passages to save time. He firmly encouraged them to do just what they would do if they were at home, because on that night, we were their family.

At the end of Seder, we raised our glasses to say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”  The President then raised his glass a second time, promising that if he won the election, “Next year in the White House!” Well, President Obama kept his promise, and this year, I’m looking forward to the fourth annual White House Seder that we have shared with the same group that joined us in Pennsylvania, along with the First Lady, Malia, and Sasha.

This tradition is cherished by the Obama family and all of their guests – and not just because we all appreciate a good bowl of matzo ball soup. As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Passover, they reflect on the meaning of freedom. They retell a story that renews our faith in a brighter tomorrow.

These are powerful themes that run through Jewish history … and through American history. They are part of the Jewish tradition … and the American tradition.

So is it any wonder that American Jews have contributed so much to our country? Guided by faith, by history, and by a belief in Tikkun Olam, your community has always helped make our union more perfect.

Of course, within any community, or any country, there are often fierce disagreements over which path to take, and that debate is part of what makes our democracy work. But we must always remember that the shared values that unite us are far greater than what divides us. That was the message that a little-known State Senator from Illinois delivered us in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention.

He said that our politics must reflect our most deeply held beliefs, including that common creed, “I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper.” He struck a chord deep within the hearts of so many. 

His vision inspired people of all backgrounds, here in America and around the world. It became the foundation of a presidential campaign. And it remains the essence of President Obama’s mission, each and every day, as he fights for an America where everybody gets a fair shot, everybody does their fair share, and everybody plays by the same rules.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Change is hard. Change is not for the faint of heart. And change takes time. It’s been a little more than three years, and we all have a few more gray hairs than when we started. By the way, it’s funny when President Obama jokes about his gray hairs. I don’t actually find mine nearly as funny.

But as the Jewish tradition teaches us, while we are not obligated to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from it. In that spirit, we must never give up. We must never stop fighting to make our shared vision a reality. And today, we are beginning to see what change looks like.

Change is pulling our country back from brink of the worst economy since the Great Depression.  Then, putting in place rules of the road that will prevent a repeat of the 2008 disaster.

We still have a long way to go, but in the last 24 months, we have seen private sector job growth each and every month, creating a total of 3.9 million jobs. Manufacturers are hiring at levels we haven’t seen since the 1990s. And the American auto industry is back on top, with General Motors reemerging as the number one automaker in the world. President Obama had faith in the American worker, and that bet paid off. That’s what change is.

Change is the very first bill President Obama signed into law, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps protect a woman’s right to equal pay.  Why does this give President Obama such pride? Because he watched his grandmother, mother and wife strive for equality in the workplace, and he is determined that his daughters will grow up in a world where they can compete on an even playing field.

Change is reducing our dependence on foreign oil to below 50 percent for the first time in more than a decade. It’s putting in place tough new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and investing in American-made energy, including wind and solar power. Just last week, I joined the President on a four state trip where we visited a solar plant, oil fields, and pipelines. We saw the President’s all-of-the-above energy strategy at work. All the progress we are making on American-made energy is good for our economy, it’s good for our environment, and it strengthens our national security.

Change is passing comprehensive healthcare reform, whose second anniversary we celebrated last week. It’s the 2.5 million Americans under the age of 26 who are already on their parents’ insurance, thanks to the new law. My own daughter joined my plan last year for the three months between graduating law school and starting her job. It’s the seniors who have received rebate checks to help them pay for prescription drugs so they don’t have to choose between buying groceries or medicine.

It’s the parents who no longer have to worry about paying for a sick child’s treatment because children can longer be denied coverage for having a pre-existing condition.

Change is protecting a woman’s right to make her own choices about her own health. That includes giving women access to essential preventative care, such as mammograms, and, yes, contraception, without co-pays. That’s change.

And change is living by our most deeply-held values, not just at home, but around the world.

Change is restoring America’s standing in the world.

Change is ensuring every American can serve in the military prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the country they love, no matter who they love.

When I was home over the holidays in December, I saw so many service members in the airports, and I teared up knowing that many had served their last tour of duty in Iraq, because change is the President keeping his promise to end the war in Iraq by the end of 2011.

Change is responsibly winding down the war in Afghanistan.

And because of the bravery of our men and women in uniform, change is sleeping easier knowing that Osama bin Laden, and many of his lieutenants, no longer threaten the world. 

That is what change looks like to me.

When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama is steadfastly determined to live up to our most deeply-held values. An unbreakable bond with the State of Israel, that combines a commitment to the Jewish state, and its security, with a commitment to a just and lasting peace.

Now,I know that many of you are sometimes frustrated with the state of the peace process. We have a lot of work ahead. Because as the President has said, true peace cannot be imposed from outside. It can only be reached by Israelis and Palestinians coming together to reach agreement on the issues that divide them. 

Still, President Obama believes that we must fight for a lasting peace. Because now more than ever, it’s clear that peace is in the long-term interests of Israel.  It is in the long-term interests of the Palestinian people.  It is in the interest of the region. 

It is in the interest of the United States, and it is in the interest of the world.  Last year, the President told the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, “I am not going to stop in pursuit of that vision.  It is the right thing to do.”

Now, President Obama has been very clear that pursuing peace does not mean ignoring the dangers facing America and its allies. The President has made clear that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is iron-clad. He has backed up those words with record levels of security assistance, our largest ever joint exercises, and the most comprehensive and meaningful strategic and operational consultations, across all levels of our governments, in the history of this relationship.

That is vital in the face of the common threat of Iran and its illicit nuclear pursuit. The President has also made it clear that he is committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Now, I know this President. He means what he says. He says what he means.

Just today in Seoul, the President worked with Russia and China to keep the international community united – and Iran isolated. He will continue this effort because that is what this threat demands.

You know, I began by talking about the Passover story. And since I have the honor of serving as the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and this is women’s history month, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude my remarks with a story involving Miriam.

It’s a story with which I’m sure you’re all familiar.

The book of Exodus tell us that after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, and the Egyptian army was destroyed, Miriam and her fellow women took their timbrels and began to dance. From this passage, we learn that when those who wish to destroy us are defeated, we have the right, perhaps even the obligation, to celebrate.

But at the same time, the Jewish tradition does not ignore the deeper moral complexities that exist, even when we are on the right side of a conflict.

The Talmud teaches that when the Red Sea closed back on the Egyptians, the angels in heaven wished to sing a song of praise. But God rebuked them, saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea.”

To me, these passages, put side by side, remind us that we must make our decisions based on the world as it is. But, we must also hold in our hearts a vision of the world as it could be, as it should be.  It is far simpler to be guided only by fear, and never by hope. But that’s not who we are. That’s not who we have ever been. And ultimately, that is not the best way to protect the freedoms that we all cherish.

President Obama understands this well. He knows that we will not be able to beat all our swords into plowshares anytime soon. But we can still be inspired by the idea that, in the words of the Jewish tradition, the day will come when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall people learn war anymore.”  So the President will continue to stand for both freedom and peace. Common security and common dignity.

That’s a hard thing to do, but we do hard things But President Obama is determined to achieve these goals, because he believes that together, we can make our own history.

He is more confident than ever, that even as we confront the most urgent challenges of the present, we can build a foundation for a brighter future.

If you share that belief – if you think we must never stop fighting for our shared values, both here at home, and around the world, then I urge you to speak up.

Whether it’s around your family dinner table, or in your congregation, or in your community, or here in Washington --- We all have an individual and collective responsibility to stand up and let our voices be heard.

If we do this, together, then there is no doubt that we will continue, step by step, to make progress toward that more perfect union and a better, safer world.

Because in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let’s grab the arc and bend it together, and in the theme of your conference, make history.

Thank you.

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

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