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)

Grapel Returns Home Thanks to Joint US-Israel Efforts

(NJDC) Yesterday, Ilan Grapel — the dual U.S.-Israeli citizen held since June in an Egyptian prison on espionage charges — returned to Israel through the tremendous joint efforts of Israel’s and the United States’ leadership. On his arrival, Grapel thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others for helping to secure his return.

Video shows Grapel’s late-night arrival in Israel; his welcome by his own Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who worked to secure his release and flew to Israel to escort him and his parents home; his welcome by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; and his joint welcome meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Occupy Wall Street – Commentary Still Doesn’t “Get” Young Jews

— by Kenneth Bob

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Yogi Berra’s overused aphorism, fits this moment perfectly.

Mid-week before Yom Kippur, Daniel Seiradski, a new media activist, asked on Facebook whether people would attend a Kol Nidre service at the site of the Occupy Wall Street. First there were a hundred people who responded in the affirmative, then two hundred and by the time the service was held a few days later, press reports estimated that there were 1000-1500 people in attendance.

In addition to the impressive numbers, the press quotes and online comments from the mostly young attendees, whether they skipped their regular synagogue observance or would not have attended services otherwise, were uniform in their appreciation of the organizers and in their sense of meaning they felt from their participation. All in all, an inspiring story of organization and communal engagement.

Mathew Ackerman, writing for Commentary, was not pleased. He admitted that

“it must be said there is, of course, justification to be found for specifically economic protests of a leftist variety in the prophets, perhaps most especially Isaiah. But it stretches truth far beyond the breaking point to claim such texts based on conditions in ancient Israel offer much guidance for the policy questions of our day, or impel a religious believer to a particular side of the political aisle.”

His tone became harsher, suggesting that “the organizers’ attempts to combine Judaism and today’s fashionable politics are simply incoherent.”

Seeing this critique of young, Jewish progressives by a Commentary writer took me back 40 years. In the February, 1971 issue of the magazine, four articles were dedicated to the Jewish role in the brewing “revolution” in America. In particular, writers took aim at Arthur Waskow‘s recently published The Freedom Seder and the entire radical Zionist movement that emerged on campuses at that time in response to the anti-Israel New Left.

More after the jump.
Norman Podhoretz, the magazine’s editor, wrote that the The Freedom Seder should be considered “a contribution to the literature of Jewish anti-Semitism” and suggested that Waskow and his ilk “belong to the tribe of the wicked son.”

Walter Laqueur, the noted historian, wrote that “the hope that young radicals of this generation will become “good Jews’ is a slender one, comparable perhaps with the hope of a psychoanalyst for the recovery of a patient with a weak ego structure or a serious intellectual deficiency.”

With the benefit of time, we now know that these “young radicals” have become Jewish Federation directors, Rabbis, not-for-profit executives, Jewish Studies professors, Jewish journalists, and active lay leaders in a wide range of Jewish life. Laqueur also challenged the sincerity of the movement’s “strong identification with Israel,” but that prediction was terribly off the mark as well when considering the number of kibbutzniks, social activists and others the movement produced for Israel.

As satisfying as it may be to settle old scores, what is truly important is that the Jewish community ignore >Commentary’s hope regarding the organizers: “Let their successes be few, and the passage of their movement from the American Jewish scene swift.” On the contrary, efforts like those on Kol Nidre should be encouraged and supported by the community.

Why? Regardless of your view of Occupy Wall Street (I am supportive) the related Jewish effort inspires creativity, develops leadership and results in community. Are these not all values that the Jewish community strives for?

I, for one, would expect that “graduates” of 2011 Wall Street Kol Nidre service and other such events will be activists in our community for years to come.

And one footnote, for historical purposes, linking this span of 40 years that I have described. Arthur Waskow, the author of the The Freedom Seder, is now a Rabbi and contributed the inspiration that became the New York Kol Nidre service this year.

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu.

Ackerman Turns On J Street

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY 5)

After learning of J-Street‘s current public call for the Obama Administration to not veto a prospective UN Security Council resolution that, under the rubric of concern about settlement activity, would effectively and unjustly place the whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process on Israel, and — critically — would give fresh and powerful impetus to the effort to internationally isolate and delegitimize Israel, I’ve come to the conclusion that J-Street is not an organization with which I wish to be associated.

It is not Israel that is refusing to enter final status negotiations. It is not Israel that has refused again and again to make unilateral gestures of good faith (recall the hundreds of West Bank security checkpoints and roadblocks removed, and the 10 month settlement freeze). It is not Israel that is now trying to force the peace process back in to the same dead-end from which the Obama Administration has spent the past month trying to extract itself. But astonishingly, it is Israel that J-Street would put in the stocks in the public square.

The decision to endorse the Palestinian and Arab effort to condemn Israel in the UN Security Council, is not the choice of a concerned friend trying to help. It is rather the befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.

America really does need a smart, credible, politically active organization that is as aggressively pro-peace as it is pro-Israel. Unfortunately, J-Street ain’t it.

Congressman Gary Ackerman is the Ranking Democratic member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

See J-Street’s response after the jump.
— J-Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami

J Street deeply regrets and objects to Rep. Gary Ackerman’s statement today. It reflects a misunderstanding of J Street’s position and of the UN Resolution in question.

J Street hopes “never to see the state of Israel publicly taken to task by the United Nations,” as we said in our statement last week. In fact, our statement outlined how both Israel and the United States can help to avoid this issue coming to a vote at the United Nations – first, by Israel acting in its own self-interest to freeze settlement activity over the Green Line and, second, by the Obama Administration asserting “clear leadership in a serious effort to reach a two-state resolution of the conflict.”

In the absence of either of these, it should not surprise Representative Ackerman or other friends of Israel that the issue is brought to the United Nations and the broader court of world opinion. Without a two-state solution to the conflict in the near term, pressure on Israel in international fora will increasingly be the norm and not the exception.

As supporters of Israel, the fact that we have reached this point pains us deeply, and so does the Congressman’s misrepresentation of our position and of this resolution.

First, we do not “support” UN condemnation of Israel or endorse this resolution. We have urged the United States to consider withholding its veto from a resolution criticizing Israeli settlement activity – a resolution that closely tracks the policy of the United States under the last eight administrations.

Second, the resolution expresses support for a two-state solution and stresses the urgency of achieving a just, comprehensive and lasting peace. It calls on both parties to improve the situation on the ground, build confidence, and create conditions necessary for promoting the peace process. The resolution does not, as the Congressman implies, place the ‘whole responsibility for the current impasse in the peace process’ on Israel – and neither does J Street.

Third, the resolution calls on both parties to continue negotiations on final status issues.

The status quo in the Middle East is untenable. The future of Israel, as both a democracy and the homeland of the Jewish people, hangs in the balance without progress toward a two-state solution.

At a moment crying out for leadership, what’s needed now is not the politics of yesterday that the Congressman offers with this attack, but the courage to put on the table the tough steps that are needed to end this conflict. We do Israel no favors by offering a pass from facing the consequences of counter-productive actions and policies.

J Street has never excused Palestinian intransigence or signaled that the Palestinian leadership need not meet its obligations as well. We have called on the leaders of all parties to help bring about a reasonable, negotiated two-state resolution to the conflict.

We urge Congressman Ackerman to take a closer look at J Street’s statement, the UN Resolution and the situation on the ground. Saving the two-state solution will require leaders with courage and vision, both of which are sadly lacking in the Congressman’s statement today.