Blog Posts Related to the American Jewish Community

  • President Obama Directs New Atrocity Prevention Measures

    In the decades since the world first pledged “never again,” the U.S. response to mass atrocities and genocide has confronted several challenges. First, governmental engagement on atrocities and genocide often arrives late, when opportunities for prevention have been missed.  Second, senior decision-makers are often not personally engaged because there is a government-wide assumption that there is little that can or will be done. And third, too few other international players step up to try to prevent atrocities, and come under little domestic pressure to do so. As a result, too often, we and the rest of the international community have later regretted not taking diplomatic, political, economic, legal, and military steps that might have prevented the loss of tens of thousands of lives. In 2008 the Genocide Prevention Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretaries Madeleine K. Albright and William Cohen, found that preventing genocide was an “achievable goal” but one that required a degree of governmental organization that matches the kind of methodical organization that accompanies mass-killings. 

    This week, President Obama directed a comprehensive review to strengthen the United States’ ability to prevent mass atrocities. The President’s directive states plainly that: “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” The directive creates an important new tool in this effort, establishing a standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board with the authority to develop prevention strategies and to ensure that concerns are elevated for senior decision-making so that we are better able to work with our allies and partners to be responsive to early warning signs and prevent potential atrocities. The directive recognizes that preventing mass atrocities is a responsibility that all nations share and that other countries must also be enlisted to respond to particular crises. Therefore, the directive calls for  a strategy for engaging key regional allies and partners so that they are prepared to accept greater responsibility for preventing and responding to crimes against humanity. 

    Over the past two years, the Obama Administration has devoted enormous time and energy to better equipping our Government, and the international community as a whole, to be able to respond meaningfully to potential (and actual) atrocities.  He is the first president to establish a position at the White House responsible for policy on war crimes and mass atrocity.  In Sudan, we launched a full court diplomatic press that helped ensure that the South Sudan referendum occurred on time, thereby preventing the outbreak of mass violence that would have accompanied a delay.  In Kyrgyzstan, through engagement at the highest levels, we helped bring about the creation of a formidable international commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the ethnic killings there and to prevent relapse into conflict.  In Cote d’Ivoire, we facilitated a robust international effort to protect civilians, while maintaining firm resolve that strong-man Laurent Gbagbo had to step down.  In Libya, as civilians were being targeted by their own leader for ruthless attack, we mobilized – with unprecedented speed -- an international coalition, operating with a mandate from the Security Council and at the request of the Libyan people and the Arab League, to protect civilians endangered by Qadhaffi.  When indicators of a potential relapse into conflict emerged around the constitutional referendum in Kenya, we worked with international partners and Kenyan leaders to support a peaceful and credible process.

    We know that often holding those who have carried out mass atrocities accountable is at times our best tool to prevent future atrocities.  As such, we have engaged in an intensive effort to create a variety of international mechanisms charged with uncovering the facts and identifying those responsible for gross human rights abuses in Syria, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Cote d’Ivoire, and have announced our commitment to accomplish the same in Burma. We have also intensified our focus on finding the world’s most wanted fugitive war criminals, mobilizing interagency focus and resources towards apprehending those who must face justice.   We offered our full support to the Government of Serbia as it successfully pursued the final remaining fugitives from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, who were apprehended this year.  

    In addition to the Presidential directive, which makes clear the level of priority attached to preventing mass atrocity, we are taking another important step forward in our effort to hold accountable human rights abusers by, for the first time, barring entry into the United States of persons who organize or participate in mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or other serious violations of human rights.   Existing U.S. law renders specific classes of human rights violators inadmissible to the United States – such as participants in genocide, torture, or extra-judicial killings. However, before today, the United States did not have an explicit bar to admission on the basis of participation in other serious human rights or humanitarian law violations or atrocities.  The President’s Proclamation fills this gap, and by enumerating these grounds for denying admission to the United States, policymakers will have a new tool to warn groups that have carried out, or may be about to carry out crimes against humanity, war crimes, and related abuses , that their conduct falls within explicit standing bans on admission to the United States.  As such, we will be able to more effectively shame those who are organizing widespread and systematic violence against civilians based on ethnicity, religion, or other protected characteristics. In banning would-be organizers of human rights violations as well as perpetrators, it allows the United States to act expeditiously before planned atrocities metastasize into actual ones.

    We know that the steps this administration has taken are not panaceas to the horrifying violence being perpetrated around the world against civilians. Even today, we see violence against civilians from Syria to Sudan. But President Obama has directed us to scrub every option and bring as many levers as possible to bear in trying to influence the calculus of those promoting ethnic, religious and other forms of mass violence. The Obama administration takes very seriously its responsibility to do everything that we can to prevent atrocities, and -- with the President’s Directive and his Proclamation barring human rights violators from entering the United States -- President Obama has given the US government two new tools in the effort to meet this responsibility.

     Read the Fact Sheet

  • Jewish Social Justice Leaders Attend the White House Community Leaders Briefing Series

    Every Friday this summer, the White House has been opening its doors to community leaders from around the country to take part in our Community Leaders Briefing Series. The briefing series is a unique opportunity for grassroots leaders to start a two way dialogue with the White House about issues that are affecting their communities and to ensure that they are well-informed about government policies and programs and how they can use or maximize these resources. Leaders participate in interactive briefings, hear directly from White House officials about the issues that are affecting communities across the country, and learn more about the President’s priorities and initiatives from the people that work on them every day.

    On July 29th, the White House hosted 170 members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, who are making great strides in Jewish communities across the nation. The Roundtable is a collaboration of 20 organizations working to elevate the role of social justice in the Jewish community and to affect societal change that cuts across lines of race and faith. During the day’s activities, these leaders heard from Valerie Jarrett and other administration officials about the importance of grassroots leadership, and shared their concerns in a listening session with Director of Public Engagement Jon Carson. Below, you can read the reactions and feedback from a few of these extraordinary leaders, who are committed to continuing Friday’s conversation in their own communities.

  • Jewish Community Roundtable in Silicon Valley

    On Friday, June 25, I had the pleasure to lead a White House Outreach Roundtable in Los Gatos, California, where I met with an impressive group of community leaders from Silicon Valley synagogues, the Jewish Federation, interfaith working groups and transit providers. 

    The discussion focused on improving transportation options for older Americans who can no longer drive, which is a top area of concern for local Jewish congregations.  The service providers in the area report the demand for transit and ride services greatly exceed the supply, especially in more rural areas.

    We also discussed ways that communities could encourage more walking and biking and make local streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages through better street design, using many proven low-cost solutions like prioritizing pedestrian crossings through better traffic light timing and street markings.

  • “If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign Partners with Jewish Community

    Today Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Jon Carson, Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and I met with Jewish leaders from across the country to highlight the important role of faith-based leaders in providing guidance and assistance to their organizations and institutions regarding ways to protect against terrorism and other threats.

    Janet Napolitano at Meeting with Jewish Leaders

    Secretary Janet Napolitano and Director of the Office of Public Engagement Jon Carson meet with Jewish leaders on the "When You See Something, Say Something” campaign's first faith-based partnership in the Rooselvelt Room of the White House, June 10, 2011. (DHS Photo by Barry Bahler)

  • President Obama Honors Jewish American Heritage: "The Jewish People Have Always Persevered"

    Watch the President's full remarks here.

    This afternoon the President welcomed some of the most influential people of our time to the White House, from Members of Congress and Supreme Court Justices to Elie Wiesel, who he called "a dear friend of mine and an inspiration to the world."  As he explained, they are just the latest generations in a long tradition that has helped shape our country and the world:

    This month is a chance for Americans of every faith to appreciate the contributions of the Jewish people throughout our history –- often in the face of unspeakable discrimination and adversity.  For hundreds of years, Jewish Americans have fought heroically in battle and inspired us to pursue peace.  They’ve built our cities, cured our sick.  They’ve paved the way in the sciences and the law, in our politics and in the arts.  They remain our leaders, our teachers, our neighbors and our friends.

    Not bad for a band of believers who have been tested from the moment that they came together and professed their faith.  The Jewish people have always persevered.  And that’s why today is about celebrating the people in this room, the thousands who came before, the generations who will shape the future of our country and the future of the world.

    President Barack Obama Greets Elie Wiesel During a Reception in Honor of Jewish American History Month

    President Barack Obama greets Elie Wiesel during a reception in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month in the East Room of the White House, May 17, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

  • Repair the World: USDA Hosts its First Food and Justice Passover Seder

    Matzah, the traditional flatbread eaten by Jewish people to commemorate Passover, decorated six circular tables, along with bitter herbs (maror), “mortar” for bricks (haroset), and green leafy vegetables (carpas).  Around the tables, USDA employees, Administration officials, and a host of guests from the non-profit and Jewish community gathered to celebrate the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Justice Passover Seder.

    A traditional seder is a ceremonial Jewish meal commemorating the Passover holiday and Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt after being freed from slavery.  Held in partnership with Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, USDA’s modernized symbolic seder was held after Passover and focused on issues where food and justice intersect.

    Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opened the evening by reflecting on what Passover has meant to him and said, “This evening is an opportunity for reflection on the blessings in our lives and the importance of what we do.”

    USDA Hosts Seder

    Secretary Vilsack receives an “Omer Counter” piece of artwork on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. April 28, 2011. (by Cory Fischer, USDA)

  • Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights? Recipes for Passover

    Tonight and tomorrow night, Jewish families and friends in the United States and around the world will gather for Seders to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt and the triumph of hope and perseverance over injustice and oppression. For most Jewish families, the Passover meal is full traditions passed down through the generations like the maror, or bitter herbs, which symbolize the bitterness of slavery in Egypt or the matzoh, unleavened bread, which recalls the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt – giving them no time to allow their bread to rise.

    While some families hold the secret to the fluffiest matzoh balls in town, others have created new traditions to share with their families and friends.

    Here at the White House tonight, President and Mrs. Obama will again host a small Seder, complete with recipes provided by friends and family.  It’s a tradition that started in Pennsylvania in 2008, when after a long day on the campaign trail then-Senator Obama gathered a group of staffers – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – for an impromptu Seder.  Each year since, the same group, along with a few close friends and family, have come together to carry on the tradition at the White House.  Among the family recipes on the menu this year are a traditional chicken soup with matzoh balls, braised beef brisket, potato kugel, carrot soufflé, and matzoh chocolate cake.

  • Buchenwald

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    In Germany today, the President visited Dresden castle, held meetings and a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and toured the Church of Our Lady. The event of greatest significance, however, was a visit with Chancellor Merkel and Elie Wiesel to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where they were joined Bertrand Herz, a survivor of the camp. 
    The President and Chancellor Merkel tour Buchenwald Concentration Camp, joined by camp survivors Elie Wiesel and Bertrand Herz.(President Barack Obama places a flower at a memorial at Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp, June 5, 2009.  With the President are German chancellor Angela Merkel, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and camp survivor Bertrand Herz.  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)
    Chancellor Merkel clearly had a heavy heart as she discussed the overwhelming regret felt in Germany, concluding her remarks with a focus on the tremendous sense of responsibility she and her country feel towards the future as well:
    Third, here in Buchenwald I would like to highlight an obligation placed on us Germans as a consequence of our past: to stand up for human rights, to stand up for rule of law, and for democracy. We shall fight against terror, extremism, and anti-Semitism. And in the awareness of our responsibility we shall strive for peace and freedom, together with our friends and partners in the United States and all over the world.
    The President spoke of his great uncle:
    I've known about this place since I was a boy, hearing stories about my great uncle, who was a very young man serving in World War II. He was part of the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a concentration camp. They liberated Ohrdruf, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps.
    And I told this story, he returned from his service in a state of shock saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head. And as we see -- as we saw some of the images here, it's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock.
    My great uncle's commander, General Eisenhower, understood this impulse to silence. He had seen the piles of bodies and starving survivors and deplorable conditions that the American soldiers found when they arrived, and he knew that those who witnessed these things might be too stunned to speak about them or be able -- be unable to find the words to describe them; that they might be rendered mute in the way my great uncle had. And he knew that what had happened here was so unthinkable that after the bodies had been taken away, that perhaps no one would believe it.
    And that's why he ordered American troops and Germans from the nearby town to tour the camp. He invited congressmen and journalists to bear witness and ordered photographs and films to be made. And he insisted on viewing every corner of these camps so that -- and I quote -- he could "be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever in the future there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."
    We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished. To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.
    Elie Wiesel spoke last, discussing hope and hopelessness, and addressing the President directly:
    I was so hopeful. Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one's life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.
    We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn't. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.
    Will the world ever learn? I think that is why Buchenwald is so important -- as important, of course, but differently as Auschwitz. It's important because here the large -- the big camp was a kind of international community. People came there from all horizons -- political, economic, culture. The first globalization essay, experiment, were made in Buchenwald. And all that was meant to diminish the humanity of human beings.
    You spoke of humanity, Mr. President. Though unto us, in those times, it was human to be inhuman. And now the world has learned, I hope. And of course this hope includes so many of what now would be your vision for the future, Mr. President. A sense of security for Israel, a sense of security for its neighbors, to bring peace in that place. The time must come. It's enough -- enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It's enough. There must come a moment -- a moment of bringing people together.
    And therefore we say anyone who comes here should go back with that resolution. Memory must bring people together rather than set them apart. Memories here not to sow anger in our hearts, but on the contrary, a sense of solidarity that all those who need us. What else can we do except invoke that memory so that people everywhere who say the 21st century is a century of new beginnings, filled with promise and infinite hope, and at times profound gratitude to all those who believe in our task, which is to improve the human condition.
    A great man, Camus, wrote at the end of his marvelous novel, The Plague: "After all," he said, "after the tragedy, never the rest...there is more in the human being to celebrate than to denigrate." Even that can be found as truth -- painful as it is -- in Buchenwald.
    Thank you, Mr. President, for allowing me to come back to my father's grave, which is still in my heart.