Remarks at AIPAC Policy Luncheon for Rabbis and Cantors
Deputy Secretary of State
Mark, thank you for a wonderful introduction, and I also want to say to Howard Kohr, thank you so much for stopping by. Howard has been a longtime friend, a counselor, and an extraordinary colleague for many years.
As we gather here this afternoon, an event of truly historic proportions is taking place elsewhere: Tim Cook is unveiling the new iPhone. So I’m incredibly grateful to all of you for being here with me. The last time I spoke to an AIPAC gathering, my face—together with that of the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough—was beamed into Dallas Cowboys stadium on the largest Jumbotron in the world. So who would think that speaking before a sizable but still much smaller audience of rabbis and cantors would be much more manageable, but it isn’t. I can’t shake this feeling I have that I forgot to practice something.
All of that said, I’m incredibly glad to be here with all of you today. Over the years, in various capacities, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with the AIPAC community. It is no secret that our Administration and AIPAC have not always seen eye-to-eye on every single issue, but we share a common purpose, a sacrosanct commitment, unable to be bent, unable to be broken, to Israel’s security, to Israel’s strength, to Israel’s future as a prosperous, democratic, Jewish state.
It is a commitment that has been upheld by U.S. administrations of all stripes for nearly seven decades through times of peace and times of war, times of calm and times of crisis.
It is a commitment rooted in the shared memories of communities in both of our homelands that have known the hellfires of persecution, the blessings of sanctuary, and the fragility of hard-fought freedom.
It is a commitment that is passed down to each new generation—one that I inherited from my own family, including my father’s father, Maurice Blinken, who fled the pogroms in eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century, made a success of himself in America, and went on to commission the study that demonstrated Israel’s economic viability on the eve of its independence.
And it’s one that I inherited from my stepfather, Samuel Pisar, for whom we said Kaddish nine months ago.
Having survived four years in Majdanek, Auschwitz, Dachau, my stepfather was just 16 when the war ended. The only survivor of his family. The only survivor of a school of 900 children in Bialystok Poland.
As the guns of liberation moved towards Auschwitz during the final months of the war, he was sent out of camp on a death march. With the Americans advancing from the west and the Russians from the east, he made a run for it and found cover, despite the German fire. A day later, still hiding in the Bavarian forest, he heard a sound—a rumbling deep sound.
He looked out from the woods—and instead of seeing the dreaded swastika, he saw something else, a five-pointed white star. He ran for that star—he ran for that tank. And the hatch opened. And he got down on his knees and spoke the only three words in English that he knew and that his mother had taught him. “God Bless America.”
The GIs lifted him from the ground into the tank, into the United States, and into freedom.
Until his death this past July, my stepfather honored that moment—that gift—by dedicating his life to the memory of the Holocaust, the advocacy of human rights, the search for co-existence among adversaries, and the preservation of Israel as an active participant in Jewish communities from New York to Paris to Jerusalem.
It was his experience and those of my entire family that have led me to serve with tremendous pride alongside extraordinary public servants in President Obama’s administration these past seven years—men and women who see our ties to the state of Israel not simply as the matter of policy, but as our individual responsibility.
As President Obama said last year at Adas Israel here in Washington—and I quote—“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.”
And I can stand before you and say with utter conviction of these past seven years that no administration and no President has done as much for the defense of Israel as President Obama, whose own personal concern for the security and safety of Israel’s citizens I have seen time and time again.
When wildfires engulfed Mount Carmel forest, President Obama pledged immediate assistance—delivering thousands of gallons of fire retardant and flying in American disaster response experts to battle the flames side-by-side with Israeli firefighters.
When a mob attacked Israel’s embassy in Cairo and threated the lives of its staff, President Obama’s rapid intervention helped prevent a catastrophe.
And when Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, my friend Ron Dermer, called me urgently in the middle of the Gaza crisis late one night at the White House to ask for an emergency resupply of Iron Dome interceptors, I went into the Oval Office the next day and I briefed the President, and he said three words to me: “Get it done.” And in a matter of days, legislation for an additional $225 million in short-fuse funding for Iron Dome was drafted, introduced, passed by Congress, and signed into law by the President of the United States.
Simply put, our security partnership has never been stronger.
The Obama administration has invested more than $23.5 billion in foreign military financing for Israel—far more than for any other country and more than at any previous time in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship. That commitment amounts to $8.5 million every single day—guaranteeing and even increasing Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Above and beyond this direct assistance, our unprecedented support has helped develop a multi-tiered rocket and missile defense system to protect Israel from dangerous threats at any range.
David’s Sling and the Arrow 3 weapons systems recently completed successful joint tests and will enter coproduction this year. And the first deliveries of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are expected this December—making Israel the only country in the Middle East with the most advanced fighter in the world.
Since 2011, we have provided Israel with over $1.3 billion for the Iron Dome system alone, which, as all of you know, has already done so much to protect homes, schools, and hospitals from the rainfall of rockets.
The last time I had the honor to speak to AIPAC’s Rabbis at your annual Rabbinic Symposium, Rabbi Michael Beals from Delaware—I don’t know if he’s here today—stood up and recounted—Michael, you are here, it’s great to see you. I remember when you stood up and told us the story of being with your family at a zoo outside of Tel Aviv one summer afternoon when the sirens went off.
And, as I recall, you looked around and you saw the terrified faces of other parents. And there was no time to get to a bomb shelter. So everyone hit the ground—and literally watched as a rocket flew overhead, headed straight towards you and the group of people you were with, but it was destroyed mid-air by Iron Dome interceptors.
The Iron Dome, you said, saved our lives. And indeed it did. Thank you for your testimony. It stayed with me all this time.
When negotiations for the renewal of the ten-year memorandum of understanding are finalized, that agreement will likely constitute the largest single pledge of military assistance from the United States to any country in our history—cementing our unparalleled security relationship well into the next decade.
I also have to tell you that our intelligence and operational cooperation has also never been stronger.
Our nation’s armed forces have conducted more joint military exercises than ever before, including the largest exercises in our history. Our top scientists and technical experts are working together to provide Israel with new capabilities to detect and destroy tunnels.
Our vigilance in protecting Israel’s legitimacy and fighting for its full and equal participation in UN institutions has also never been stronger.
Every year, at the UN in New York and its various governing bodies, the U.S. has taken the lead in either successfully blocking anti-Israel resolutions—16 in the last UNGA session alone—or brokering resolutions on which Israel can agree. And often we are there alone, standing in defense of Israel.
Two weeks ago, on the dais of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, on behalf of the United States, I spoke out against the Council’s persistent bias and reiterated our commitment to stand with Israel at the UN now and for all time.
At UNESCO, because we are there, we have had a visible impact, but I have to tell you, that impact will be far greater and far better sustained when the United States is allowed to contribute financially to the organization, which will in turn foster greater sustainability of its critical programming, including Holocaust education around the world.
We have helped secure Israel’s permanent membership in the Western European and Others Group, as well as its membership in the like-minded human rights caucus from which it has long been excluded in New York.
And this year, for the first time, no meetings will be held at the United Nations on Yom Kippur, as the Day of Atonement joins Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, and Thanksgiving as an official United Nations holiday.
And after being blocked for accreditation through five sessions of the UN’s NGO committee, the Israeli humanitarian organization ZAKA has finally received the status it deserved and the status afforded other groups of its caliber.
Our resolve to stand with Israel in its quest for long-term peace and security remains just as strong today as it has ever been.
The horrific attacks that have shaken Jerusalem, Jaffa, and other communities across Israel over the last six months have absolutely no justification—none whatsoever. These are acts of pure terror, and against them Israel has not just the right, but the duty to protect itself. And as Vice President Biden has said, we not only condemn these attacks, we condemn the failure to condemn these attacks.
We join American and Israeli communities in their profound grief at the loss of innocent lives, including 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz and 29-year-old Taylor Force.
But we also know this: we know that the status quo is not static, as events on the ground further imperil the viability of a future where two states live side-by-side in peace and security.
As President Obama has repeatedly emphasized, and as the Vice President said again last night, the United States will never stop working towards this goal because it is the best way to guarantee long-term regional stability and the preservation of a true and secure democracy in the Jewish homeland.
Now I know that this future seems more distant than ever—a mirage cast by dreamers and doves. But to deny its possibility denies our obligation, as inheritors of a legacy of moral, physical, and political courage, to face down our own demons of cynicism and live our values in the cause of peace.
This past November, we marked the twentieth anniversary of a day seared into my memory and into the memory of so many others around the world—the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.
On that day, I was a young speechwriter in the White House working for President Clinton, and I remember like it was yesterday sitting at my keyboard in stunned shock, desperately trying to help find the words for President Clinton to tell our country what had happened. Only a few moments before, the President had come down from the residence literally in tears. Sitting there at the keyboard with colleagues behind me, I asked, “How do we end this statement?” How can words possibly be enough to convey what’s happened and what this means to the President but also to the country, to Israel, and to the world?
And it was a colleague, a late colleagues, a remarkable, extraordinary woman, Evelyn Lieberman, who was standing there. And she offered the answer. “He needs to say goodbye to his friend. He needs to say shalom, haver.”
The next day, on the flight to Israel for the State Funeral, President Clinton called me into his cabin to continue working on the eulogy. Some parts were good, he said. But others still needed a little bit of work. There was someone on the plane he wanted to me to sit with to try to perfect some of the language. “Go talk to him,” President Clinton said. “He’ll know what to say.”
And of course he did, because the man that the President wanted me to talk to on the plane that day was Elie Wiesel.
Together, he helped us honor a leader whose great love of country and people guided him, in the words of President Clinton, to clear the path to peace and continue to light our way.
Twenty years later, Yitzhak Rabin’s memory endures as a challenge to all of us—a challenge as relevant today as it has ever been, precisely because the regional threats facing Israel are so profound.
To the south, Hamas rockets. To the north, Hezbollah. To the northeast, Nusrah, Daesh, and an ever-worsening humanitarian catastrophe. And across the region, Iran’s destabilizing influence and its support for terrorism.
Given Iran’s behavior and its repeated threats to destroy Israel, President Obama made it his highest priority of his administration to ensure that Iran is not allowed, under any circumstances, to obtain a nuclear weapon, which would pose an unacceptable risk to Israel, a threat to the United States, and a danger to the entire globe.
From the outset, President Obama made clear that achieving a peaceful, diplomatic resolution was preferable—not only because of the costs of war, but because a negotiated agreement offered a more effective, more verifiable, and more durable resolution of the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program.
Think back to where things stood then.
Iran’s nuclear program was speeding ahead while the window for preventive action was closing. Our experts told us that Iran could, if it chose to, produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb in as little as two months. And that gap was narrowing too.
So even as we began talks, there were those who told us we were making a terrible mistake—that we were jeopardizing the safety and security of our nation and our partners.
But President Obama and Secretary Kerry maintained that the United States, our allies, including Israel, and the world would become safer the day after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was implemented.
And that is exactly what has happened.
Under that agreement, every single one of Iran’s pathways to a bomb is blocked—its uranium pathway, its plutonium pathway, its covert pathway—all blocked.
Ninety-eight percent of Iran’s enriched uranium has been shipped out of the country. The majority of its centrifuges have shut down. The core of its heavy water reactor has been filled with concrete. And the most rigorous verification program in history is fully in place. All of which means that if Iran decided to break out secretly, it would have to come up with an entire nuclear supply chain from start to finish—something our experts agree they could not do without being detected and there being time to take action.
Even so, our unrelenting vigilance of Iran has not and will never wane, and our commitment to fight Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region has not and will never change.
Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches are dangerous and provocative, and they underscore the importance of our continued efforts to slow and degrade Iran’s missile program, so that Israeli children do not have to watch the skies in constant terror. That is why on the very day that the Iran Deal was implemented, we announced sanctions in response to Iran’s ballistic missile test.
It is also why we need the Senate to do something and that’s to do its job and to confirm my colleague Adam Szubin as the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. Those of you who know Adam knows that he wakes up in the morning, goes to bed at night, and dreams in between about how to maintain and sustain the pressure that we need on Iran to make sure that it is doing the right thing and not the wrong thing.
He is a model public servant who has been working at the Treasury for ten years implementing our sanctions authorities. Every Senator who has called for more sanctions should be pushing for, not delaying, his confirmation.
So against these threats and any others, the United States will continue stand up forcefully in defense of our ally and our friend Israel. No difference of approach, no disagreement of policy will ever stand in our way.
We know that threats to the security of Israel and the safety of the Jewish people do not always take the form of missiles and bombs.
When Jews are attacked on the streets of Paris or Copenhagen; when swastikas appear on college campuses and synagogues; when Jewish families feel unsafe in major European cities, we must do more to speak out against rising tide of anti-Semitism. But more than speak out, we must act.
That is why United States embassies and consulates are increasingly involved in supporting Jewish communities under pressure and under threat wherever they may be. In Belgium and Sweden, our embassies have reached out to local policy forces to ensure concerns of Jewish communities are addressed and its citizens are kept safe.
When a private foundation in Hungary wanted to honor a notorious World War II anti-Semite with a statue, we said, that is unacceptable, and it’s going to affect our relationship. As a result of our insistence, the Prime Minister spoke out publically against the monument, and the Hungarian government withdrew its support.
Now that might seem like a small item, but we know this, you know this, from our history: every small step on the path to anti-Semitism and intolerance leads to a terrible destination, and we have to stop the first steps, not wait to the last.
“We’re called on to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past,” President Obama said earlier this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
We are also called on, by the values of our faith and the tenets of our humanity, to stand up for others, to deny bigotry any oxygen in our discourse or hatred any space in our communities.
To fight—as so many of you have—when the same xenophobic rhetoric that allowed boats of Jewish refugees to be sent back to Hitler’s Europe is used to demonize those seeking refuge from persecution and war today. We have to stand up for them.
Last fall, there was a piece on NPR that struck me, and it talked about how leaders of faith are navigating what is truly a global refugee crisis. The host asked a rabbi how he saw his role in responding to this political and moral challenge, and the Rabbi responded that he saw it as a quarterback who throws the ball a just little bit ahead of the receiver because you want to make people run just a bit to catch up to the message that you’re offering.
It was a sentiment that I think my stepfather would have appreciated.
At the height of the Cold War, Samuel Pisar, then an aide to President Kennedy, became one of the first to argue for normalizing relations between East and West—recommendations that later inspired the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente.
Having survived the inferno of the Holocaust as a child, he was not credulous by nature or by experience. But he believed that the conflicts and animosities of the past must not be allowed to dictate our future. That no two groups are fated to be “hereditary enemies.” And that determined, purposeful diplomacy, backed by strength and anchored by principles, could change the course of history for the better.
And, indeed, it has.
We’ve heard a lot in recent times about how the United States is somehow allegedly on the retreat or disengaged, particularly in the Middle East. In fact, we have never been more engaged in more ways in more places than we have at this very moment in our history.
And America diplomacy—American leadership—has produced powerful and positive results for our people and for the world.
Just think about the last couple of years alone.
It has been American diplomacy that has mobilized more than 65 countries around the world to confront Daesh and violent extremism, that brought together other countries around the world to deal with the threat of Ebola.
American diplomacy that has revitalized NATO’s commitment to the defense of its own members, rallied European allies to stand up against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and penalized Russia for its actions there.
American diplomacy that has deepened our engagement with the Asia Pacific—securing a landmark trade partnership that will bring 40 percent of the global economy behind the highest labor, environmental, and intellectual property rights standards.
American diplomacy that has carried our relationship with India to new heights, and helped competing Afghan blocs achieve their first peaceful democratic transition in that country’s history.
American diplomacy that has convened the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and helped build new relationships among our governments and with the private sector.
American diplomacy, as we have seen today, that has reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba. That enlisted 195 countries in a historic climate deal to protect the planet we share. And, of course, negotiated the agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and advance the security of Israel, the United States, and the world.
And American diplomacy, right now, that with all of its challenges, led by the Secretary of State, that has forged a cessation of hostilities in Syria, opened the roads for greater humanitarian access, and led to the possibility of a negotiation to a lasting peace.
In each of these cases and in many others, I like to do a little thought experiment that I will leave you with—and it’s based on the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which I’ve always watched at home before going out for Chinese food on Christmas.
As those of you know, the movie is about a man, George Bailey, who is on the verge of suicide because he thinks his life has been a failure. He has let down his friends, his family, his community. And he is standing on a bridge, and a guardian angel appears and shows him what his community, Bedford Falls, would have been like had he not been there.
And while it’s easier to prove a counter-factual in a Christmas movie, I think it is clear where the world would be without American leadership on these and so many challenges.
Can we do even better? Can we more effective? Are there failures? Of course. But the fact is that without us we know where the world would be.
Even in this time of global uncertainty and chaos, I have more confidence today than I have ever before in the power of American diplomacy to navigate this turmoil, to guard against its risks, to take advantage of its opportunities—guided by our north star: the prosperity, the security, the strength of the United States and that of our friend, our ally, our partner, the State of Israel.
Thank you very much.