Jewish American Heritage Month Reception at White House

President Barack Obama hosted the annual Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House to honor and celebrate the Jewish community’s contributions to America. Obama welcomed everyone to the celebration by remarking upon the Jewish community’s long and important history of civic involvement. 400 Jewish leaders from across the nation attended. A partial guest list follows the jump below.

Remarks by President Barack Obama
White House, East Room, May 30, 2012

This year, we celebrate Jewish Heritage Month — Jewish American Heritage Month, and we’re also commemorating an important anniversary.  One hundred-fifty years ago, General Ulysses Grant issued an order — known as General Orders Number 11 — that would have expelled Jews, “as a class,” from what was then known as the military department of the Tennessee.  It was wrong.  Even if it was 1862, even if official acts of anti-Semitism were all too common around the world, it was wrong and indicative of an ugly strain of thought.

But what happened next could have only taken place in America. Groups of American Jews protested General Grant’s decision.  A Jewish merchant from Kentucky traveled here, to the White House, and met with President Lincoln in person.  After their meeting, President Lincoln revoked the order — one more reason why we like President Lincoln.  (Laughter and applause.)

And to General Grant’s credit, he recognized that he had made a serious mistake.  So later in his life, he apologized for this order, and as President, he went out of his way to appoint Jews to public office and to condemn the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe.

Today, we have a few documents on display — maybe some of you saw them when you walked in.  There are two letters of protest from Jewish organizations to President Lincoln.  There is President Lincoln’s handwritten reply, saying that he had taken action.  And there is a receipt for the donation that President Grant made to the Adas Israel Synagogue here in Washington, when he attended a service there in 1876.

So together, these papers tell a story, a fundamentally American story.  Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream.  But this country holds a special promise:  that if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right; our union can be made more perfect and our world can be repaired.

Today, it’s our turn, our generation’s turn.  And you guys, your generation’s turn.  You’re younger than us.  (Laughter.)  We got some later generations here in the front.  We’re the ones who have to stand up for our shared values.   Here at home, we have to rebuild an America where everybody gets a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share, and everybody is playing by the same rules.

Beyond our borders, we have to stand alongside our friends who share our commitment to freedom and democracy and universal rights; and that includes, of course, our unwavering commitment to the State of Israel and its security and the pursuit of a just and lasting peace.  (Applause.)

It’s no secret that we’ve got a lot of work to do.  But as your traditions teach us, while we are not obligated to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from that work.

So today, we don’t just celebrate all that American Jews have done for our country; we also look toward the future.  And as we do, I know that those of you in this room, but folks all across this country will continue to help perfect our union; and for that, I am extraordinarily grateful.

God bless you.  God bless America.  (Applause.)

Guest list follows the jump.
More after the jump.
Partial Guest List

  • Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park
  • Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel in Merion Station
  • Rabbi David Ackerman of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley
  • Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA)
  • NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley
  • NJDC President and CEO David A. Harris
  • Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren
  • Democratic National Committee Chair Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
  • Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD)
  • Representative Shelley Berkley (D-NV)
  • Representative Howard Berman (D-CA)
  • Representative David Cicilline (D-RI)
  • Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN)
  • Representative Susan Davis (D-CA)
  • Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL)
  • Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY)
  • Representative Sander Levin (D-MI)
  • Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY)
  • Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)
  • Representative Jarrod Polis (D-CO)
  • Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL)
  • Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA)
  • Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA)

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