Remarks for Denis R. McDonough Israel Independence Day Celebration
Good evening, everyone. Erev tov. Thank you, Ambassador Dermer, for that kind introduction. And thanks to you and Rhoda for inviting me to share Yom Ha’atzmaut with you. It’s great to see so many distinguished Members of Congress—from both sides of the aisle—as well as members of the diplomatic community. And to any Minnesotans in the audience, I want to give a shout-out to the “Frozen Chosen.”
I have to admit, for a guy named McDonough, I feel very much at home. As many of you know, I’ve been fortunate to work closely with the Jewish community during my time at the White House. Last December, Kari, two of our kids and I even had the great privilege of celebrating Hannukah on the South Lawn of the White House. I got to ride in a cherry picker with Rabbis Abraham and Levi Shemtov, 30 feet up in the air, to light the national menorah. That was pretty neat—and more than a little bit reassuring—even celestial—being surrounded by clergy as I elevated from the earth.
I’m honored to join you to mark this anniversary of Israel’s independence. It was 68 years ago, as the Sabbath sun set, that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed to the world a state “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” Persevering through centuries, the people of Israel have created a vibrant and diverse democracy. They have forged a future of astounding possibilities. They have truly made the desert bloom.
For as long as the state of Israel has existed, the United States has been Israel’s unwavering friend and ally. It took President Truman only 11 minutes to recognize Israel after it declared independence—over the objections of some of his own advisers. I can’t recall anything in Washington happening in just 11 minutes. It is a testament to the deep and enduring bonds between our two countries—bonds that stretch across administrations and political parties, across oceans and generations, across families and faiths. I’m not the first to observe that the United States and Israel are, in many ways, a family. And, like any big and boisterous family, Americans and Israelis disagree at times. As the ninth of eleven children, I speak from vast experience. But I also know that, at the end of the day, we care for each other, look out for each other, and protect each other.
I’m proud to serve a President who understands that—a President whose commitment to Israel has been unprecedented. For President Obama, Israel is not just another foreign policy issue. It’s not a political football. He feels this in his kishkes—in his gut. I was with then-Senator Obama when he traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem in 2008. I watched him bow his head in prayer at the Western Wall. He also traveled to Sderot, where he saw the devastation wrought by Hamas-launched rockets and met with Israelis living under the threat of attack. Israel is not an abstraction to him. Earlier this year, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to speak at the Israeli Embassy, where he honored the Righteous Among the Nations.
It was my favorite speech by the President, maybe ever. Of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who refused to tell the Nazis which of his fellow soldiers were Jews, the President said:
“It’s an instructive lesson, by the way, for those of us Christians. I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, I, too, am a Jew.” I remember thinking as I listened to that speech, “If I get that call, I hope I have the courage of Sergeant Edmonds.” In that speech, the President also reaffirmed that “America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakeable.”
These are not just words. We are backing up that unshakeable commitment with unparalleled action. Since President Obama took office, the United States has provided Israel almost $24 billion in military aid to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge. We’ve invested in missile defense systems, like Iron Dome, that have saved Israeli lives. Later this year, we’ll begin delivering the cutting-edge F-35 fighter jet, making Israel the only Middle Eastern nation to obtain this advanced aircraft. And we’re in the process of discussing a new agreement to guide our military assistance for the next decade. This would be the largest military aid package in American history—with any country—and this Administration continues to work it hard. And even as we acknowledge that the Iran deal has stirred strong passions, we firmly believe that continuing to implement this deal is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and keep Israel safe.
America’s commitment to Israel motivates the United States to speak out and take action whenever anti-Semitism and bigotry arise. That’s true on the floor of the United Nations, in the streets of Europe, or here in our own country. Because, as Secretary Pritzker said so powerfully last week, “hate speech has a friend in silence.” Each of us has a responsibility to continue calling out and working against hatred wherever we see it. And we will.
Our commitment to Israel and its long-term security also calls us to continue pursuing a path to peace—to seek two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security. We are under no illusions that this will be easy. History has proven otherwise. For both Israelis and Palestinians, the hurt and heartache run deep. At the same time, we continue to believe that peace is necessary, that it is just—and that it is possible. We will continue urging both sides to take meaningful action towards this vision of two states. That is our solemn promise, and the future we hope to help build together.
Just a few weeks ago, the President hosted his eighth and final Seder at the White House. Like so many Jews here and around the world, the President and his guests ate the bread of affliction and dipped greens into salt water. They retold the tale of the Exodus—of an oppressed people wandering for years before finding redemption. Because of Theodor Herzl’s dream and Ben-Gurion’s determination, because of Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann and so many others, that yearning to return to Israel was fulfilled. That 2,000-year-old hope for a homeland has become reality. Israel is now strong, and independent, and thriving. And, together, we will continue working to keep Israel flourishing in the years to come. Toda rabah, and chag sameach.