Thank you all so much. Good evening.
It’s great to be here with you all. You know, I spend most of my time in New York at the United Nations, and I can definitely hear some New York accents out there. But I’ve already noticed at least one key difference about Boca Raton. At the UN, Asia is a region. In Boca, it’s a kosher restaurant.
Rabbi Steinhardt, thank you so much for that warm introduction and for all you do to provide wisdom and strength to this community. I’ve been very impressed with how seriously B’nai Torah takes the U.S.-Israel special relationship, including, I’m told, having more than 100 congregants join you for a series of intensive study sessions.
I’m also grateful to the partners who’ve joined B’nai Torah in sponsoring tonight’s event: the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the JCRC of South Palm Beach County. You are valued partners in our common work to support the unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond, human rights for all, and tikkun olam.
Being here in shul calls to mind one of my favorite psalms: Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet achim gam yachad —“how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.” I shared that verse a few weeks ago with a roomful of rabbis at the AIPAC Policy Conference, and they got up and started singing, despite my dubious pronunciation. I love that psalm because it strikes so many chords: how good it is when citizens of different backgrounds come together in common purpose; how deeply we yearn for the day when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael can at last find peace; how much stronger we are when we join together than when we let ourselves be split apart. It’s a theme of great power and great hope.
But it doesn’t always reflect the imperfect world in which we live.
In our imperfect world, we still face leaders who deny their people’s basic rights, who deny the Holocaust, and who deny the right of their neighbors to exist.
So in our imperfect world, the United States is committed to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
That’s why, under President Obama’s leadership, the UN Security Council imposed the toughest sanctions ever against Iran. Those sanctions target the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, ban ballistic missile launches, provide for rigorous inspection of suspect cargo, prohibit the sale of many heavy weapons to Iran, and severely constrain financial transactions with Iran. These new measures intensify our own crippling sanctions against the regime and convince key partners in Europe and elsewhere to crank up theirs as well. This pressure has isolated Iran, unified the world in holding Iran accountable, and brought Iran back to the negotiating table, as intended. These sanctions will not be lifted until Iran has met its nuclear obligations.
In our imperfect world, President Obama, also remains determined to accelerate the day when we see the end of the Assad regime that has so brutalized the Syrian people. The United States wants the UN mission there to succeed, but the onus remains firmly on Assad to stop the violence. Unless and until he does, the pressure on him will mount.
And in our imperfect world, President Obama remains determined not to rest until a secure, Jewish and democratic State of Israel lives side by side with a viable Palestinian state established through direct negotiations—two states for two peoples, living in peace and security.
This evening, though, I’d like to focus on another persistent challenge we face: ensuring that Israel gets fair and equal treatment at the United Nations, with all the rights and responsibilities of any UN member state.
And this subject brings to mind an old story about one of my distinguished predecessors, Adlai Stevenson.
The year was 1961. The Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and a diplomat from Ireland were sitting next to each other in the UN General Assembly, watching Ambassador Stevenson defend the Kennedy Administration’s actions at the Bay of Pigs. Explaining the Bay of Pigs to the General Assembly wasn’t a fun assignment, and Stevenson was having a rough time. He squinted over his glasses and started in on a particularly overwritten section about why Castro’s sins had justified the operation. Stevenson declared, “I have already told you about Castro’s crimes against man. But now let me tell you about Castro’s crimes against God.”
Then, Stevenson peered down at his notes and stammered a bit: “Castro has—Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.” And at that, the Israeli diplomat looked over at his Irish friend and said, “I always knew that, somehow, we would be blamed for this.”
Now, all countries come in for knocks every now and then at the United Nations, including our own. Nobody is above fair criticism. But what Israel faces is something very different. It’s relentless. It’s obsessive. It’s ugly. It’s bad for the United Nations. It’s bad for peace. And President Obama is determined to stop it.
So we fight. Ladies and gentlemen, not a day goes by—not one—when my colleagues and I don’t work hard to defend Israel’s security and legitimacy at the United Nations.
· When the Palestinians sought UN membership, we stood firm on principle and rallied others to ensure no further obstacles were placed in the path to peace. President Obama went before the UN General Assembly and said, and I quote, “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations.”
· When the Palestinians pushed a Security Council resolution on settlements—a final-status issue that can only be resolved through direct negotiations between the parties—President Obama decided the United States would veto it.
· When major events were held in 2009 and 2011 to follow up on the notorious Durban conference, which featured such ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, we twice refused to participate.
· When the deeply flawed Goldstone Report was released, we insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself and maintained that Israel’s democratic institutions could credibly investigate any possible abuses.
· When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported her.
· When a resolution before the International Atomic Energy Agency singled out Israel’s nuclear program for rebuke, we rallied our partners and defeated it. And when the same resolution was considered a year later, its sponsors saw another defeat coming and withdrew their own proposal.
· Despite the meaningful progress we have made at the Human Rights Council, when it turns session after session to Agenda Item Seven on Israel, the Council’s only standing agenda item on any single country in the world, we fight to eliminate this glaring case of structural bias.
· When pre-cooked, unfair, anti-Israel resolutions come up by the dozen at the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, UNESCO, and elsewhere, we consistently oppose them, and we press others to do the same, as we did recently when the Palestinians proposed another unnecessary and wasteful Fact Finding Mission.
· Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking at the Security Council, had the gall—the chutzpah—to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.
· And when an American working for the UN as a Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights indulged in anti-Semitic web postings and endorsed vile conspiracy theories about 9/11, I called for him to resign.
This is our record. These are our principles. That is President Obama’s commitment.
But we do far more than just play defense. We have also racked up important wins that help Israel take its rightful place among its fellow nations.
· The United States has helped dramatically expand Israel’s participation in the important group of Western countries known by the crazy UN acronym JUSCANZ, in New York and Geneva—and that helps Israel participate more fully in the UN system.
· When terrorists recently struck at Israeli diplomatic personnel in India and Georgia, we led the Security Council in unanimously condemning the attacks “in the strongest terms.” It was the first Security Council statement supporting Israel against terrorism in seven years.
· In January 2010, with U.S. support, Israel became Chair of the Kimberley Process—the important initiative to stem the spread of conflict diamonds. Israel will join the board of UNICEF this year. And Israel recently won its first-ever seat on the executive board of the UN Development Program, which Israel’s Deputy UN Ambassador called “a milestone.”
Now we’ve still got work to do to ensure that Israel has all the rights and responsibilities of every other UN member state—no more, no less. And we won’t let up.
But there’s an important distinction to understand. Israel gets singled out at the UN, not by the UN. When Israel gets marginalized and maligned, it’s not usually because of the UN Secretariat or the international public servants who work for agencies such as UNICEF, UNESCO or the IAEA. It’s usually because of decisions by individual member states. As one of my predecessors, the late Richard Holbrooke, liked to say, “Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I know you’re profoundly frustrated by the treatment Israel all too often endures at the UN. The President and I are too. But we hope we never let that justified frustration blind us to the very real good the UN does. It imposes crippling sanctions on Iran and North Korea. It took action to protect thousands of Libyan civilians from slaughter by Muammar Qaddafi. It provides relief to victims of genocide in Darfur and of famine in Somalia. It acts as an essential watchdog for abuses worldwide, such as through the Special Rapporteur for Iran. It’s not in our interest to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But it is very much in our interest to have the UN keep the peace in conflict zones at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops to do the job, to save the lives of starving children, and to support fragile democracies from Tunisia to South Sudan.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will continue to be guided by our principles. We will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism. President Obama has insisted that the United States be clear: the treatment Israel receives across the UN system is unacceptable. Efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy have been met with the unflinching opposition of the United States. And they always will be.
That’s why our Israeli friends are glad we’re at the UN. They’re glad we’re there to stand with them for fair treatment, to fight double standards, and uphold our shared values. They’re glad we’ve got their back. I am glad they have ours. And Israel knows how much the United States does to help—in forum after forum, in fight after fight.
Our ongoing fight for Israel at the United Nations is just one part of a much larger mandate from President Obama. His guidance to us all has been crystal clear: to strengthen and deepen America’s special relationship with Israel—a relationship rooted in common interests and common values.
That’s why we’ve increased cooperation between our militaries to unprecedented levels. That’s why, even in tough fiscal times, we’ve increased foreign military financing to record levels. That’s why, on top of the record funding we secured in Fiscal Year 2011, we provided additional support for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system—which has already been used to defend innocent Israelis who live near the Gaza frontier.
The stakes could not be higher. I’ve seen it personally. In 2008, I joined President Obama—then Senator Obama—on his second visit to Israel. I followed behind him as he studied each wall at Yad Vashem. I watched from afar as he slipped a personal prayer into the stones of the Kotel. And I touched the charred remnants of the rockets that the terrorists of Hamas continue to fire at the brave citizens of Sderot.
I will also never forget my first visit to Israel, when I was just 14. I went with my younger brother and my late father, who was then on the Board of Directors of Trans World Airlines. We had the extraordinary experience of flying on one of the very first flights from Tel Aviv to Cairo, just around the time of Camp David. We went to Yad Vashem, walked the lanes of the Old City, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, and picked fruit at a kibbutz. I learned by heart the words of the Sh’ma. And since that first wonderful visit, my admiration for Israel has grown ever stronger.
Let me close with one last powerful memory from that same time. I grew up in Washington, DC, and my mother still lives across the street from the Egyptian Embassy. So I got to see Anwar al-Sadat bound out of his motorcade and wave just after he had signed the Camp David Accords. As a kid, I think I was more impressed by the heavily armed Secret Service agents occupying our roof. But as an adult, I am most impressed by the central lesson of Sadat’s actions: that human conflict and human suffering can be ended by human courage.
Hinei ma’tov uma-nayim—how good it is when we come together. How important it is for us to stand together for peace, security, and dignity for Israelis, Palestinians, and all the people of the Middle East. How crucial it is that we shun the voices of division and despair, and that we reaffirm the deep and bipartisan foundation of the special relationship between the United States and Israel.
We’ve come far. But we’ve got far more to do. And in that work, let there be no doubt. America remains deeply and permanently committed to the peace and security of the State of Israel. That commitment starts with President Obama, and it is shared by us all. It spans generations. It spans political parties. It is not negotiable. And it never will be.
Thank you so much.