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Jack Lew Speaks to the American Jewish Committee Global Forum

The White House chief of staff discusses President Obama's work to boost the economy and unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel.

Last night, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew spoke at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum. There, he praised the Committee’s decades of work to build a better world at home and abroad. He also stressed the steps the President has taken to prevent a second Great Depression and create an economy built to last. And he reiterated our commitment to the unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel.

Below are his full remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good evening.

Thank you, Bob, both for that introduction, and for everything you do for the American Jewish Committee. I want to acknowledge the distinguished foreign ministers who I am privileged to share this stage with tonight.

I also want like to thank my friend David Harris for his decades of leadership in the American Jewish community. And finally, I would like to recognize all the familiar faces in the audience, people I know from my work in government and the private sector, and from my neighborhood. It is a pleasure to be with all of you tonight.

During the AJC’s early years, one of the organization’s most important missions was to prevent the persecution of Eastern European Jews. And speaking at this year’s Global Forum means a lot to me personally, because my father was one of those people.

He was born in Poland. His family left their small town at the end of World War I. My mother’s family made the journey just a few years earlier.

They were lucky. They had the opportunity to leave before it was too late. And they were especially lucky to come here, to America – a country that has always stood for freedom, both within its borders and around the world.

My parents made sure that I grew up with a deep appreciation for how fortunate I was to be an American. I was raised in a family that placed high importance on preserving our Jewish values, and promoting our shared American values.

That is something the AJC has always placed high importance on as well. You have helped make our union more perfect, and our world a better place. In the 1920s, you supported immigrants like my father as they sought to realize the American dream.

In the 1950s and 60s, you helped advance civil rights for African-Americans.

In the 1980s, you organized on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Today, you continue to fight for the basic promise of America: that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can make it if you try. Wherever your parents came from, you can be Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, and yes, even President of the United States.

Whether or not we are going to preserve that promise is the question being debated here in Washington today. And the stakes have never been higher: this is a make or break moment for the middle class, and for all those working hard to get into the middle class.

For many years, well before the crisis of 2008, wages were staying flat, as costs for everything from food and health care to college went up. When we were hit with the worst economic disaster of our lifetimes, the situation became even more dire.

With our economy on the brink of a second Great Depression, our leadership in the world was called into question.

These were the challenges President Obama faced, when he took office. We still have a long way to go before our economy is fully recovered – before everyone who wants a good job can get one. But today, we are beginning to see what change looks like.

Because over the past 25 months, businesses have added more than 4.1 million jobs.  Manufacturers are hiring for the first time since the 1990s. And the American auto industry is back on top.

That’s not all. Today, taxes are at historically low rates for middle class families and small businesses have seen their taxes cut 18 times since President Obama took office. 

At the same time, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent for the first time in more than a decade.

That’s good for our economy, and just as importantly, it’s good for our national security.

Of course, there’s so much more: protecting a woman’s right to equal pay for equal work;  historic healthcare reform that is already saving seniors money on prescription drugs, and helping young people buy insurance on their parents’ health plans; student loan reform that cuts out the middlemen, and gives more young people the chance to go to college.

That’s what change looks like. While we still have a long way to go, together we are restoring the values that helped build the world’s most prosperous economy and strongest middle class. Today, President Obama is fighting for an America where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

And just as importantly, he is also making sure that America stands up for its values around the world. When President Obama took office, two costly wars made it hard for us to address the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

And our diminished diplomatic standing made it hard for us to mobilize the international community to join us in common cause.

A little more than three years later, President Obama has kept his promises. He brought the war in Iraq to a responsible end, and he has restored America’s place as the one indispensable nation in world affairs.

Less than 48 hours ago, I had the honor of travelling with the President to Afghanistan, where he signed a historic partnership agreement and again thanked our brave men and women in uniform. Thanks to them, Al Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated, and we have delivered justice to Osama bin Laden.  And from a hanger at Bagram Air Base, the President laid out his plan to complete our mission in Afghanistan, end the war, and turn responsibility over to the Afghan people.

Much has changed since President Obama took office. But one thing that has never changed is the President’s commitment to the state of Israel.

Now, it’s possible that over the next few months, you may hear some of our friends on the other side question President Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security. But the facts tell a clear and very different story. A story I am proud to share.

In 2008, President Obama said, and I quote, “Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is nonnegotiable.”

He has never wavered from that conviction.

The President believes deeply that the United States and Israel share common interests, and common values. And I invite you to look at what President Obama has done while in office. At every crucial moment during the last four years, we have been there when Israel needed us.

This begins with the cooperation between our militaries, which has never been closer. Even in the midst of a truly difficult budgetary environment, our military aid for Israel has increased every single year. We have shared cutting-edge military technology.

As the President has put it, and I quote, “We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge, because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”

Put simply, President Obama gets it. As a Senator, he traveled to Sderot and met with families living in fear of rocket fire. He knows the threats that still exist. And that is why he has provided critical funding to deploy the Iron Dome system that has intercepted rockets that otherwise could have cost innocent Israelis their lives.

President Obama has supported Israel through diplomacy as well. When the Goldstone Report unfairly singled out Israel, we challenged it. When the Durban conference was used as an excuse to attack the Jewish State, we boycotted it, and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism.

When the General Assembly of the United Nations convened last year, President Obama told the leaders gathered there that any lasting peace must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and its legitimate security concerns.

That’s an easy thing to say here.

It was not such an easy thing to say there.

Now, one of the most pressing of those security concerns is Iran. When President Obama took office, international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program were at a standstill. Iran was asserting itself throughout the region, and the international community could not come to agreement about how to respond.

Today, because of President Obama’s leadership, the situation is very different. After Iran’s leaders rejected the President’s diplomatic engagement, he mobilized the international community, and put the regime in Tehran under greater pressure than ever before.

Today, unprecedented sanctions have helped to slow Iran’s nuclear program, and tightened the economic screws on the regime. This summer, sanctions will become even tougher.

So in just a few years, the Iranian regime has seen a reversal of fortune. Today, their leadership is divided and under pressure.

Even as we continue to work towards a diplomatic solution, we’re going to keep up the pressure, because President Obama takes the threat from Iran extremely seriously. He has made clear his is not a policy of containment; it is a policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And in pursuit of that policy, the President has taken no options off the table.

And I am also proud to say that President Obama understands that part of maintaining Israel’s long-term security as a Jewish state is pursuing a just and lasting peace—he has echoed the call made by leaders such as Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and President Shimon Peres, in calling for a secure Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state.  

No one has labored longer or harder in pursuit of peace than President Peres, and to honor his lifetime of service and achievement, President Obama looks forward to awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom this summer in Washington.

Now, peace is hard to achieve. But President Obama has always believed that just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it is not right. So in the days ahead, he will to continue to fight for an America that remains true to its ideals. He will do everything he can, not just to get our economy back to where it was, but to create an economy built to last for future generations. And he will stand firmly for Israel’s security, for peace, and for the basic rights and freedoms that we all cherish so deeply.

You know, I began tonight by talking about my father. I think about the world his generation handed down to me. Our task is to make sure that the world our generation leaves to our children is full of opportunity: the kind of place where you can achieve anything, if you’re willing to work for it – a world that is safer, more peaceful, and more free.

I’m proud to be a guest of an organization that is working to build that kind of world, bit by bit and step by step. And as you do, I want you to know that President Obama, and his entire administration, will be with you every step of the way.

Thank you.