Obama to Jews: Shared values compel support for Israel

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President Obama speaks at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as part of Jewish Heritage Month. Photo courtesy Ron Sachs.

President Obama speaks at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as part of Jewish Heritage Month. Photo courtesy Ron Sachs.

WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama came to Washington’s most politically connected synagogue Friday (May 22)  with a dual mission — to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month and to mark the first “Solidarity Sabbath,” a campaign against anti-Semitism.

But mostly his speech circled back to the testy issue of U.S.-Israel relations.

“No administration has done more to ensure that Israel can protect itself,” he assured a crowd of nearly 1,200 people, who responded with shrieks of approval.

“My commitment to Israel’s security is and always will be unshakable,” he said. “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.”

The visit at Adas Israel, a congregation that draws members of Congress, diplomats, ambassadors and two Jewish Supreme Court Justices, was only the fourth from a sitting president at a Jewish synagogue.

President Obama speaks at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as part of Jewish Heritage Month. Photo courtesy Ron Sachs.

President Obama speaks at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as part of Jewish Heritage Month. Photo courtesy Ron Sachs.

The president did not shy from mentioning  the U.S. push for an anti-nuclear agreement with Iran. Obama was emphatic, saying,  “Iran must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

He added: “I will not accept a bad deal. … This deal will have my name on it, so nobody has a bigger personal stake in making sure it delivers on its promise.”

The theme of shared values among Jews and Christians, who believe in God, justice, freedom and the rule of law, was threaded throughout the speech. To ignore these values would be to ignore the lessons of the ages, “that everybody has a place, everybody has rights, everybody is a child of God,” the president said.

In tying his remarks to Jewish American Heritage Month, Obama spoke of rabbis who marched for civil rights in Selma 50 years ago, and he noted the contributions of Jews, from Albert Einstein to Louis Brandeis.

“Our future will stand on the values we share,” he said, citing the anti-poverty themes he addressed a week ago at a symposium at Georgetown University.  “Our shared values compel us to redouble our effort to protect our plant and the human rights of all who share this planet.”

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President Obama was greeted by Adas Israel Congregation Rabbi Gil Steinlauf when he addressed a Jewish audience there Friday (May 22).

But the president kept returning to the subject of Israel: “The people of Israel must always know America has its back. That does not mean there will not be or should not be periodic disagreements between our two governments.”

To those who say public disagreements on policy show lack of support for Israel, he said, “I must object.” To paper over settlement policy or the Israel Palestinian conflict is “not a true measure of friendship.”

Jewish values,” Obama said, means caring as well about “a Palestinian child in Ramallah trapped without opportunity.”

Obama rejected the trend in some pro-Israel quarters to brand anyone who questions Israel’s settlement policy, anyone “expressing compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth,” or anyone who publicly disagrees with the Israeli government as “anti-Israel” or “anti-Jewish.”

“I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly,” he added, while adding that “the Palestinians are not the easiest of partners.”

The president also spoke on the significance of Solidarity Sabbath, in which world leaders publicly express their opposition to anti-Semitism. Obama said the “disturbing rise” of anti-Semitism is “a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire.  And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed….”

He concluded:”Jewish American life is a testimony to the capacity to make our values live.  But it requires courage.  It requires strength.  It requires that we speak the truth not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard.”

Greg Rosenbaum, chairman of the JAHM celebrations, said before the speech, “Having the president speak from the pulpit about these issues will advance our agenda,” educating Americans about the contributions of Jews to U.S. history and culture.

“I think it will carry tremendous moral weight on the issue of rising anti-Semitism both at home and abroad,” Rosenbaum said. 

Jewish American History Month was established by Congress in 2006. Events, including museum and online exhibitions at the Library of Congress and the National Park Service, can be found at a government-sponsored website highlighting 350 years of Jewish contributions to American history, culture and society. An interactive events calendar with listings from Florida to New York to California can be found at the Jewish American Heritage Month website.

The Lantos Foundation initiated the global “Solidarity Sabbath” as a response to the “resurgence of open, virulent, violent anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, head of the foundation.

World leaders agreed to speak out as “a way to tell Jewish citizens — and all citizens: we stand shoulder to shoulder and that bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism will find no sanctuary within our country,”  added Lantos Swett.

The foundation is promoting #SolidaritySabbath and a pledge at its website where people can affirm “our shared commitment to the most fundamental of human rights: The freedom of religion, conscience, and belief.”

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  • Matthew

    Not only the “child without opportunity in Ramallah”, but the child trapped and suffocating under Israeli-created rubble in Gaza. Rubble which used to be her home.

    If any nation on the planet other than Israel was guilty of the same war crimes as Israel, the U.S. would be strutting like a self-righteous eagle, seeking a “coalition” to stop further Israeli violence. As is, the U.S. send $4,000,000,000.00 to Israel every year, most of it in military support.

  • Samuel Bess

    So many accessions to accommodations and being politically correct.
    The world does not turn on what any man says, because man thinks
    mankind is the master of this world. The present dilemma is not about
    what President Obama says, nor what princes, nor kings, nor dictators,
    have to say, because they presuppose they are actually in some control
    over the affairs of this world. “Israel” was YhWh’s gift to Israel Forever.
    No man can broker another agreement that sets the original gift and promise
    aside. Those who have ignored that covenant in the past are no more.
    To those in Israel, alien or Hebrew who ignore this; their time may also be
    short.

  • Jack

    The Solidarity Sabbath is a fine idea and getting Obama to say he supports the gist of it probably can’t hurt.

    Too bad, though, that he does not.

  • Matthew

    Far more than Israel deserves given Netanyahu’s sneering anti-American belligerence, immoral occupation and colonization of Palestine, and regional destabilization. Israel creates its own problems then dumps them on the U.S. taxpayer. And now Israel wants even more American kids to die for their occupation.

  • Larry

    So what is the difference between Gaza and any place under the control of Islamic State?

    Gaza has Iran as a sugar daddy instead of Saudi Arabia. Hama’s has far more delusional western supporters.

    If Hamas gave a damn about Gazans, they would be spending time mending relations with Egypt and less time smuggling Iranian weapons.

  • Matthew

    Gaza and the West Bank are the rump remains of a land militarily occupied by Western backed Jews following World War II, now known as the state of Israel. There is no comparison to ISIS, other than that both ISIS and Israel are militarily violent political occupation forces.

  • Matthew

    What baffles me is that Israel seems to expect to be respected as a “nation”, when it is nothing but the product of a violent land-grab 60 or so years ago.

  • Larry

    Of course there is a comparison to ISIS. Hamas rules Gaza with the iron fist of theocracy in the same manner ISIS does with its territories. Both are dependent on foreign backers who simply want to see them run amok for their own interests. Both have leaders more interested in personal power than responsibility to the people being governed by them.

    Gaza borders 2 countries. Only one of them is Israel. Why no harsh words for Egypt? Fellow Arabs treating their own badly. Nothing at all?

    It would be nice if you had a clue as to the region. But you are so deep in the useful idiocy of the anti-Israel crowd to bother to do your homework. The Palestinians are effectively two de facto states at war with each other. Gaza and West Bank are no longer part of the same body politic. Haven’t been since the Hamas/Fatah fratricidal conflict of 2003.

  • Larry

    What baffles me is the silly argument that Israel’s existence has to be justified in order to be a valid fact. Israel exists whether you had qualms about its history or not. Just like a lot of nations. Your whining doesn’t negate its existence. They aren’t going anywhere because you have feelings about its foundation.

  • Jack

    Matthew, the law of averages suggests that if you write enough sentences, you’ll say something accurate at some point.

    Thus far, you’re defying that law handily.

    Netanyahu being “anti-American?” How? By opposing a demented deal that will put the world’s #1 sponsor of Islamic terrorism on a glide path toward nukes? Are you serious?

    “Immoral occupation and colonization of Palestine?” In case you haven’t realized, Israel has spent the last few decades giving up land, not seizing it. It even withdraw from Gaza unilaterally — at which point your Pali friends responded by lobbing rockets at Israeli moms and toddlers.

    “Israel wants even more American kids to die for their occupation?” You’re delusional. What American died for Israel? Americans died in Afghanistan because your lovely friends attacked us on 9/11. Americans died in Iraq because we wrongly thought Saddam still had WMDs and your Saudi pals spent every waking hour lobbying for that war.