President Obama: "American Jews Have Helped Make Our Union More Perfect"

This past month has provided another opportunity to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of the Jewish community to the United States as part of the tenth annual Jewish American Heritage Month. Beginning in 2006 after Congressional resolutions by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Arlen Spector, each May has seen our country recognize "the more than 350-year history of Jewish contributions to American culture." As part of this year's events, President Obama took the bima at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. this past Friday, one of the few times a sitting U.S. president has spoken from a synagogue.

During his address, President Obama hailed the impact that the American Jewish population has had on our country, stating that the community has "helped make our union more perfect." He stated:

From Einstein to Brandeis, from Jonas Salk to Betty Friedan, American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect.  And as a community, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect.  The story of Exodus inspired oppressed people around the world in their own struggles for civil rights.  From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from women’s rights to gay rights to workers' rights, Jews took the heart of Biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves. 

Earlier this year, when we marked the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, we remembered the iconic images of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Dr. King, praying with his feet.  To some, it must have seemed strange that a rabbi from Warsaw would take such great risks to stand with a Baptist preacher from Atlanta.  But Heschel explained that their cause was one and the same.  In his essay, “No Religion is an Island,” he wrote, “We must choose between interfaith and inter-nihilism.”  Between a shared hope that says together we can shape a brighter future, or a shared cynicism that says our world is simply beyond repair.

President Obama further discussed his administration's strong commitment to Israel, affirming that "It would be a moral failing on the part of the U.S. government and the American people, it would be a moral failing on my part if we did not stand up firmly, steadfastly not just on behalf of Israel’s right to exist, but its right to thrive and prosper." He stated:

It’s particularly important to remember now, given the tumult that is taking place in so many corners of the globe, in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods, those shared values compel us to reaffirm that our enduring friendship with the people of Israel and our unbreakable bonds with the state of Israel -- that those bonds, that friendship cannot be broken.  Those values compel us to say that our commitment to Israel’s security -- and my commitment to Israel’s security -- is and always will be unshakeable. 

And I’ve said this before:  It would be a moral failing on the part of the U.S. government and the American people, it would be a moral failing on my part if we did not stand up firmly, steadfastly not just on behalf of Israel’s right to exist, but its right to thrive and prosper.  Because it would ignore the history that brought the state of Israel about.  It would ignore the struggle that’s taken place through millennia to try to affirm the kinds of values that say everybody has a place, everybody has rights, everybody is a child of God.

As many of you know, I’ve visited the houses hit by rocket fire in Sderot.  I’ve been to Yad Vashem and made that solemn vow:  “Never forget.  Never again.”  When someone threatens Israel’s citizens or its very right to exist, Israelis necessarily that seriously.  And so do I.  Today, the military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries is stronger than ever.  Our support of the Iron Dome’s rocket system has saved Israeli lives.  And I can say that no U.S. President, no administration has done more to ensure that Israel can protect itself than this one.  

Speaking about a proposed nuclear agreement with Iran, President Obama spoke of his commitment to ensuring Israel's security and ensuring that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. He said:

The deal that we already reached with Iran has already halted or rolled back parts of Iran’s nuclear program.  Now we’re seeking a comprehensive solution.  I will not accept a bad deal.  As I pointed out in my most recent article with Jeff Goldberg, this deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure that it delivers on its promise.  I want a good deal. 

I'm interested in a deal that blocks every single one of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon -- every single path.  A deal that imposes unprecedented inspections on all elements of Iran’s nuclear program, so that they can’t cheat; and if they try to cheat, we will immediately know about it and sanctions snap back on.  A deal that endures beyond a decade; that addresses this challenge for the long term.  In other words, a deal that makes the world and the region -- including Israel -- more secure.  That’s how I define a good deal.

I can’t stand here today and guarantee an agreement will be reached.  We’re hopeful.  We’re working hard.  But nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  And I’ve made clear that when it comes to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, all options are and will remain on the table. 

Moreover, even if we do get a good deal, there remains the broader issue of Iran’s support for terrorism and regional destabilization, and ugly threats against Israel.  And that’s why our strategic partnership with Israel will remain, no matter what happens in the days and years ahead.  And that’s why the people of Israel must always know America has its back, and America will always have its back.  

President Obama's full address, including his comments regarding the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice's "Solidarity Sabbath" raising awareness of anti-Semitism, can be found here. More information regarding Jewish American Heritage Month can be found here.