Jack Moline Appointed as New NJDC Executive Director


Rabbi Jack Moline and Rabbi Dara Frimmer at 2011 USDA Seder. Photo: Mike Theiler.

— by Elanna Cahn

Rabbi Jack Moline, 61, was appointed as the new National Jewish Democratic council (NJDC) executive director. Moline replaces David A. Harris, who left last February.

“It’s a great opportunity and a chance to leave my mark in a different way on the American Jewish community,” he said. “My path into Jewish life had as much to do with activism as it did with religious commitment.”

As a religious leader, Moline has been to numerous official White House meetings, mostly as director of public policy for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, a position he held from 2009 until May. He has met both has met both Former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

Marc Stanley, chair of the NJDC board of directors, said:

Rabbi Moline brings a wide and exciting range of abilities and experience to NJDC. His work as national co-chair of Rabbis for Obama, and coordinator of public policy for the Conservative movement, coupled with his interfaith expertise, and teaching and facilitating skills, make him a terrific leader for the NJDC moving ahead.

More after the jump.

As the spiritual head of his congregation, Moline has been involved in, and spoken out on, numerous social issues in the news, and was the president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. He also has served with the Alexandria Call to Community program, is a board member of the Interfaith Alliance, and is a Capitol Hill reflection group leader for the Faith and Politics Institute.

Moline has been invited to the White House, and even contributed to then-President Bill Clinton’s eulogy for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Moline, who was named as one of the top rabbis in the country by Newsweek magazine in 2008 and 2010, said that he is excited about entering into the political fray at a time when many people are being “turned off” by politics.

NJDC Welcomes New WH Jewish Outreach Director Matt Nosanchuk

— by Marc R. Stanley, National Jewish Democratic Council chair

Congratulations to Matt Nosanchuk on becoming the White House’s new Associate Director for Jewish Outreach. Mr. Nosanchuk brings with him a breadth of impressive experience and we look forward to working with him as he serves as the Obama Administration’s official liaison to the Jewish community. Mr. Nosanchuk’s predecessors have been an essential resource for us and they have all demonstrated the President’s deep and personal ties with Jewish-Americans.

Ron Dermer to Replace Oren as Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.‏


Dermer on the U.S.-Israel relationship

Ron Dermer, a U.S. born advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been confirmed to replace Michael Oren as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States. “Ron Dermer has all the qualities necessary to successfully fill this important post,” Netanyahu said.

I have known him for many years and I know that Ron will faithfully represent the State of Israel in the capital of our greatest ally — the U.S. On behalf of the citizens of Israel, I wish him great success.

Bipartisan praise for Dermer after the jump.
National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Chair Marc R. Stanley:

On behalf of the National Jewish Democratic Council, I extend my warmest thanks to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren for his exemplary service on behalf of the State of Israel. The U.S.-Israel relationship has grown even stronger throughout Ambassador Oren’s tenure, and we salute him and his wife Sally for their dedication to the unique partnership between our two countries.

NJDC also congratulates Ron Dermer on his appointment as the next Israeli Ambassador to the United States. We very much look forward to working with Mr. Dermer in his new role as he builds upon Ambassador Oren’s legacy. Together, we will continue promoting a secure, democratic Jewish State of Israel. We wish Mr. Dermer and his family a hearty mazal tov on this historic accomplishment.

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matt Brooks:

The RJC extends warm congratulations to our friend Ron Dermer on this well-deserved honor. Ron is known for being a trusted and effective aide to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Responsibility for maintaining the Jewish state’s most vital international alliance is heavy one, but knowing Ron as we do, we are confident that he is up to the job.

A visit with Ron has been a highlight on the itinerary of recent RJC delegations to Israel. We look forward to reciprocating his hospitality during his posting in Washington, DC. Mazel tov, Ron.

This is also a moment to thank Ambassador Michael Oren for four years of exemplary service during which he advanced the cause of U.S.-Israeli friendship in countless ways. We wish Ambassador Oren well in his future endeavors.

Senate Passes Immigration Reform Measure‏

— by Marc R. Stanley

The Senate has taken a huge step toward reforming our immigration system and creating a more just America. Now it is up to the House of Representatives to take immediate action on this important issue. Inaction by Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and the rest of the GOP leadership will only continue to prove that the Republican Party is tone deaf to the will of the American people — especially when it comes to Jewish Americans and our partners in the Jewish community who worked tirelessly to get this bill passed.

Stanley recently authored an op-ed in The Huffington Post on how the current immigration reform proposal reflects Jewish values.

Reaction from the President and Jewish Organizations (NJDC, BBI, JCPA) follow the jump.
President Barack Obama:

Statement by President Obama on Senate Passage of Immigration Reform

Today, with a strong bipartisan vote, the United States Senate delivered for the American people, bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all.

I thank Majority Leader Reid, Senator Leahy, Senator Schumer, and every member of the ‘Gang of Eight’ for their leadership, and I commend all Senators who worked across party lines to get this done.  

The bipartisan bill that passed today was a compromise.  By definition, nobody got everything they wanted.  Not Democrats.  Not Republicans.  Not me.  But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I – and many others – have repeatedly laid out.

If enacted, the Senate bill would establish the most aggressive border security plan in our history.  It would offer a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are in this country illegally – a pathway that includes passing a background check, learning English, paying taxes and a penalty, and then going to the back of the line behind everyone who’s playing by the rules and trying to come here legally.  It would modernize the legal immigration system so that it once again reflects our values as a nation and addresses the urgent needs of our time.  And it would provide a big boost to our recovery, by shrinking our deficits and growing our economy.

Today, the Senate did its job.  It’s now up to the House to do the same.

As this process moves forward, I urge everyone who cares about this issue to keep a watchful eye.  Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop commonsense reform from becoming a reality.  We cannot let that happen.  If you’re among the clear majority of Americans who support reform – from CEOs to labor leaders, law enforcement to clergy – reach out to your Member of Congress.  Tell them to do the right thing.  Tell them to pass commonsense reform so that our businesses and workers are all playing by the same rules and everyone who’s in this country is paying their fair share in taxes.

We have a unique opportunity to fix our broken system in a way that upholds our traditions as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.  We just need Congress to finish the job.

B’nai B’rith International:

B’nai B’rith International welcomes the Senate’s passage of a bill overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.

B’nai B’rith has been a staunch supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. We commend the bipartisan group of senators who worked to form a consensus on a more just and humane immigration policy.

This compromise legislation would strengthen border security and employment verification while creating a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. It would also allow for more legal immigration of low-skilled and high-skilled workers.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a welcome and worthy accomplishment. We urge the House to quickly consider and pass the bill.

National Jewish Democratic Council:

The Jewish community strongly supports immigration reform. According to a recent survey, 70% of American Jews believe that welcoming the stranger and pursuing justice are important political values. Further, a strong majority of Americans are in support of proposals that allow undocumented workers to achieve legal status, increase border security and enforcement, and increase visas for technology and science.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) President Rabbi Steve Gutow:

We are an Immigration Nation. For hundreds of years, people from all over the world have traveled to the United States to build better lives. Our national commitment to immigration has been critical to our national prosperity: powering innovation, creativity, and growth. However, over the past decades, our system has become tarnished with an outmoded visa system, long waiting times, harsh detention and deportation policies, and millions of immigrants without a lawful status. Today, the U.S. Senate acted in accordance with our best values: national leaders compromising to expand justice, dignity, and opportunity. In the Torah, we are taught to ‘welcome the stranger.’ Today, the Senate restored our national commitment to immigration and relight the torch of promise that welcomes aspiring Americans through the golden door.

JCPA Chair Larry Gold:

We applaud the leadership and conviction of the bipartisan group of Senators that introduced and guided this bill. That spirit of compromise and cooperation has sadly become a rarity in Washington, but today is a reminder of the important results it can yield. The Senate today has taken an important step towards a more humane system of immigration that reflects our morals while meeting our security and economic needs. However, this bill still needs improvement. We remain concerned about the level of resources being dedicated to the Southern border and how this impact communities. We look forward to working with Congress to refine this legislation. The Senate’s action today was a model of bipartisanship and we encourage the House of Representatives to adopt this spirit and quickly consider this serious bill that would bring our immigration system into the 21st century.

Is Eating Crow Kosher? Hagel’s Critics Should Apologize

Hagel Meets then-Defense Minister Barak. Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo courtesy of the Defense Department

— by Marc R. Stanley (courtesy of the The Jerusalem Post)

Now that Chuck Hagel has completed his first trip to Israel as US defense secretary, it’s time for the pro-Israel community to acknowledge the obvious: Secretary Hagel has demonstrated that he is following the president’s lead when it comes to supporting Israel. Like his predecessors, Hagel has personally committed himself to strengthening the US-Israel defense relationship and working to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and many others enthusiastically welcomed Secretary Hagel for a series of top-level meetings. The secretary’s trip was an unqualified success for the Obama administration.

More after the jump.
Netanyahu expressed his confidence in Secretary Hagel by declaring, “In the past four years, we’ve greatly enhanced the defense and security relationship between Israel and the United States, and I am absolutely confident that we will continue to further strengthen this under your stewardship of the American defense establishment.” Politico quoted a senior defense official traveling with the delegation as saying, “In Hagel’s meetings with Israeli leaders — including Prime Minister Netanyahu — they repeatedly offered strong praise for President Obama. They believe he is strongly committed to Israel’s security and clearly understands how Israel views the security challenges in the Middle East.”

Ya’alon also expressed his support for Secretary Hagel by saying, “I want, Chuck, to express my personal appreciation for your friendship and for your solid and powerful support for our country. Toda raba.”

The Israelis have good reason to be so welcoming to Secretary Hagel. He has proved himself firmly committed to America’s “iron-clad pledge… to ensure Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge [QME].” Under his watch, Israel will be a party to an unprecedented regional arms deal that will see the Jewish state receive advanced V-22 Ospreys, KC-135 refueling tankers, anti-radar missiles and advanced radar systems — some of which were denied for Israel by the Bush administration.

The new deal will simultaneously boost Israel’s QME and send a firm warning to Iran that force is a real option to stop its nuclear program. Secretary Hagel has also sought nearly $400 million in funding for the Iron Dome antimissile system, to be delivered in the coming years.

It’s no coincidence Secretary Hagel’s first meeting with a foreign leader was with then-defense minister Ehud Barak — a former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier. Before their meeting, Barak declared at the 2013 American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, “As secretary of defense [Hagel] will no doubt serve his country with the same pride and honor with which he served both on the battlefield and in Congress.”

Admittedly, the National Jewish Democratic Council was sometimes critical of Hagel when he served in the Senate. In retrospect, certain aspects of the NJDC’s criticism may have gone too far. But our prior criticisms were negligible compared to the disgraceful treatment he received during the confirmation process: Hagel was wrongfully slandered as anti-Semitic, libeled as a so-called “Friend of Hamas,” and treated with complete disrespect by certain Republicans who seemed more interested in future primary challenges and the politics of personal destruction than the confirmation process.

Hagel’s tenure to this point has done more than enough to rebut these malicious and false charges leveled by his fellow Republicans.

Given this turn of events, it’s time for his harshest critics to start making amends and admit that they were wrong.

A number of Congressional Republicans have started that process. House Armed Services Committee chair Buck McKeon (R-California) — an initial critic — now gives Secretary Hagel an A rating on his performance. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) — who skewered him during the confirmation process — told The Hill that the two now have a “professional relationship” and that “it is my job to work with him.”

Obviously Senator McCain has not offered a ringing endorsement and is unlikely to do so, but there are many who would be well served by following his lead.

If Secretary Hagel’s critics on Capitol Hill can begin to warm to him, then his most ardent critics in the pro-Israel community should as well. They co-opted the pro-Israel community’s agenda and used Secretary Hagel as a proxy for attacking President Obama. In the process, they spread baseless lies and undermined bipartisan support for the US-Israel relationship. It’s time for them to undo the damaged they caused and apologize for their shameful behavior.

The writer is the chair of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Biden Shows Full Commitment to Israel at AIPAC Policy Conference‏

— by Marc Stanley

Vice President Biden once again made it abundantly clear yesterday that he and the President are firmly committed to the pro-Israel community’s agenda. His words this morning reiterated an unmistakable message to Iran’s leaders that the President will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Further, the Vice President sent a warning to all of Israel’s enemies that, as Israel pursues a permanent peace with its neighbors, the Obama Administration has Israel’s back — a promise that has been proven time and again over the last four years. The Administration deserves tremendous praise for its unwavering support and we are eagerly awaiting the President’s trip to Israel, during which he can continue to demonstrate his unprecedented support for the Jewish state.

Full remarks after the jump.


Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz provides Biden with NJDC Proud Pro-Israel pin after his speech. (Order yours here.)

Remarks at AIPAC Meeting by Vice-President Joe Biden

Ladies and gentlemen, oh, what a difference 40 years makes. I look out there and see an old friend, Annette Lantos. Annette, how are you? Her husband, Tom Lantos, a survivor, was my assistant, was my foreign policy advisor for years. And Tom used to say all the time, Joe — he talked with that Hungarian accent — he’d say, Joe, we must do another fundraiser for AIPAC. I did more fundraisers for AIPAC in the ’70s and early ’80s than — just about as many as anybody. Thank God you weren’t putting on shows like this, we would have never made it. We would have never made it.

My Lord, it’s so great to be with you all and great to see — Mr. President, thank you so much for that kind introduction. And President-elect Bob Cohen, the entire AIPAC Board of Directors, I’m delighted to be with you today. But I’m particularly delighted to be with an old friend — and he is an old friend; we use that phrase lightly in Washington, but it’s real, and I think he’d even tell you — Ehud Barak, it’s great to be with you, Mr. Minister.  Great to be with you.

There is a standup guy. There is a standup guy. Standing up for his country, putting his life on the line for his country, and continuing to defend the values that we all share. I’m a fan of the man. Thanks for being here, Ehud. It’s good to be with you again.

Ladies and gentlemen, a lot of you know me if you’re old enough. Some of you don’t know me, and understand I can’t see now, but in the bleachers to either side, I’m told you have 2,000 young AIPAC members here. We talked about this a lot over the years. We talked about it a lot: This is the lifeblood. This is the connective tissue. This is the reason why no American will ever forget. You’ve got to keep raising them.

Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder, a lot of us in this auditorium, defending the legitimate interest of Israel and our enduring commitment over the last 40 years. And many of you in this hall — I won’t start to name them, but many of you in this hall, starting with Annette Lantos’s husband, who is not here, God rest his soul — many of you in this hall have been my teachers, my mentors and my educators, and that is not hyperbole. You literally have been.

But my education started, as some of you know, at my father’s dinner table. My father was what you would have called a righteous Christian. We gathered at my dinner table to have conversation, and incidentally eat, as we were growing up. It was a table — it was at that table I first heard the phrase that is overused sometimes today, but in a sense not used meaningfully enough — first I heard the phrase, “Never again.”

It was at that table that I learned that the only way to ensure that it could never happen again was the establishment and the existence of a secure, Jewish state of Israel. I remember my father, a Christian, being baffled at the debate taking place at the end of World War II talking about it. I don’t remember it at that time, but about how there could be a debate about whether or not — within the community, of whether or not to establish the State of Israel.

My father would say, were he a Jew, he would never, never entrust the security of his people to any individual nation, no matter how good and how noble it was, like the United States. Everybody knows it’s real. But I want you to know one thing, which some of you — I’ve met with a lot of you over the last 40 years, but the last four years as well. President Obama shares my commitment. We both know that Israel faces new threats, new pressures and uncertainty. The Defense Minister and I have discussed it often. In the area of national security, the threats to Israel’s existence continue, but they have changed as the world and the region have changed over the last decade.

The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel — and the United States — to reassess old and settled relationships. Iran’s dangerous nuclear weapons program, and its continued support of terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah and Hamas, not only endanger Israel, but endanger the world. Attempts of much of the world to isolate and delegitimize the State of Israel are increasingly common, and taken as the norm in other parts of the world.

All these pressures are similar but different, and they put enormous pressure on the State of Israel. We understand that. And we especially understand that if we make a mistake, it’s not a threat to our existence. But if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence. And that’s why, from the moment the President took office, he has acted swiftly and decisively to make clear to the whole world and to Israel that even as circumstances have changed, one thing has not: our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel. That has not changed. That will not change as long as I and he are President and Vice President of the United States. It’s in our naked self-interest, beyond the moral imperative.

And to all of you, I thank you for continuing to remind the nation and the world of that commitment. And while we may not always agree on tactics — and I’ve been around a long time; I’ve been there for a lot of prime ministers — we’ve always disagreed on tactic. We’ve always disagreed at some point or another on tactic. But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen. And we will.

That’s why we’ve worked so hard to make sure Israel keeps its qualitative edge in the midst of the Great Recession. I’ve served with eight Presidents of the United States of America, and I can assure you, unequivocally, no President has done as much to physically secure the State of Israel as President Barack Obama.

President Obama last year requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for Israel — the most in history. He has directed close coordination, strategically and operationally, between our government and our Israeli partners, including our political, military and intelligence leadership.

I can say with certitude, in the last eight Presidents, I don’t know any time, Ehud, when there has been as many meetings, as much coordination, between our intelligence services and our military. Matter of fact, they’re getting tired of traveling back across the ocean, I think.

Under this administration, we’ve held the most regular and largest-ever joint military exercises. We’ve invested $275 million in Iron Dome, including $70 million that the President directed to be spent last year on an urgent basis — to increase the production of Iron Dome batteries and interceptors.

Not long ago, I would have had to describe to an audience what Iron Dome was, how it would work, why funding it mattered. I don’t have to explain to anybody anymore. Everybody gets it. Everybody saw — the world saw firsthand why it was and remains so critical.

For too long, when those sirens blared in the streets of the cities bordering Gaza, the only defense had been a bomb shelter. But late last year, Iron Dome made a difference. When Hamas rockets rained on Israel, Iron Dome shot them out of the sky, intercepting nearly 400 rockets in November alone. It was our unique partnership — Israel and the United States — that pioneered this technology and funded it.

And it is in that same spirit that we’re working with Israel to jointly develop new systems, called Arrow and David’s Sling, interceptors that can defeat long-range threats from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — equally as urgent. And we are working to deploy a powerful new radar, networked with American early warning satellites, that could buy Israel valuable time in the event of an attack. This is what we do. This is what we do to ensure Israel can counter and defeat any threat from any corner.

But that’s only the first piece of this equation. Let me tell you — and I expect I share the view of many of you who have been involved with AIPAC for a long time. Let me tell you what worries me the most today — what worries me more than at any time in the 40 years I’ve been engaged, and it is different than any time in my career. And that is the wholesale, seemingly coordinated effort to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state. That is the single most dangerous, pernicious change that has taken place, in my humble opinion, since I’ve been engaged.

And, ladies and gentlemen, it matters. It matters. To put it bluntly, there is only one nation — only one nation in the world that has unequivocally, without hesitation and consistently confronted the efforts to delegitimize Israel. At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on the legitimacy — on behalf of legitimacy of the State of Israel. President Obama has been a bulwark against those insidious efforts at every step of the way.

Wherever he goes in the world, he makes clear that although we want better relations with Muslim-majority countries, Israel’s legitimacy and our support for it is not a matter of debate. There is no light. It is not a matter of debate. It’s simple, and he means it: It is not a matter of debated. Don’t raise it with us. Do not raise it with us. It is not negotiable.

As recently as last year, the only country on the United Nations Human Rights Council to vote against — I think it’s 36 countries, don’t hold me to the exact number — but the only country on the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to vote against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements was the United States of America.

We opposed the unilateral efforts of the Palestinian Authority to circumvent direct negotiations by pushing for statehood and multilateral organizations like UNESCO. We stood strongly with Israel in its right to defend itself after the Goldstone Report was issued in 2009. While the rest of the world, including some of our good friend, was prepared to embrace the report, we came out straightforwardly, expressed our concerns and with recommendations.

When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla in 2010, I was in Africa. We spent a lot of time on the phone, Ehud and — the Defense Minister and I. And Bibi and I spent a lot time on that phone with my interceding, going to the United Nations directly by telephone, speaking with the Secretary General, making sure that one thing was made clear, Israel had the right — had the right — to impose that blockade.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s why we refuse to attend events such as the 10th anniversary of the 2001 World Conference on Racism that shamefully equated Zionism with racism. That’s why we rejected anti-Semitic rhetoric from any corner and from leaders of any nation. And that’s why I’m proud to say my friend, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, spoke out against the kind of language in Ankara just this Friday. By the way, he’s a good man. You’re going to be happy with Kerry.

And it was in the strongest terms that we vigorously opposed the Palestinian bid for nonmember observer status in the General Assembly, and we will continue to oppose any effort to establish a state of Palestine through unilateral actions.

There is no shortcut to peace. There is no shortcut to face-to-face negotiations. There is no shortcut to guarantees made looking in the eyes of the other party.

Ladies and gentlemen, Israel’s own leaders currently understand the imperative of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres — they’ve all called for a two-state solution and an absolute secure, democratic and Jewish State of Israel; to live side by side with an independent Palestinian state. But it takes two to tango, and the rest of the Arab world has to get in the game.

We are under no illusions about how difficult it will be to achieve. Even some of you in the audience said, “why do we even talk about it anymore?” Well, it’s going to require hard steps on both sides. But it’s in all of our interests — Israel’s interest, the United States’ interest, the interest of the Palestinian people. We all have a profound interest in peace. To use an expression of a former President, Bill Clinton, we’ve got to get caught trying. We’ve got to get caught trying.

So we remain deeply engaged. As President Obama has said, while there are those who question whether this goal may ever be reached, we make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal, to pursue a better future. And he’ll make that clear when he goes to Israel later this month.

We’re also mindful that pursuing a better future for Israel means helping Israel confront the myriads of threat it faces in the neighborhood. It’s a tough neighborhood, and it starts with Iran. It is not only in Israel’s interest — and everybody should understand — I know you understand this, but the world should — it’s not only in Israel’s interest that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, it’s in the interest of the United States of America. It’s simple. And, as a matter of fact, it’s in the interest of the entire world.

Iraq’s [sic] acquisition of a nuclear weapon not only would present an existential threat to Israel, it would present a threat to our allies and our partners — and to the United States. And it would trigger an arms race — a nuclear arms race in the region, and make the world a whole lot less stable.

So we have a shared strategic commitment. Let me make clear what that commitment is: It is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period. End of discussion. Prevent — not contain — prevent.

The President has flatly stated that. And as many of you in this room have heard me say — and he always kids me about this; we’ll be in the security room — and I know that Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows this because she hears it — he always says, you know — he’ll turn to other people and say, as Joe would say, he’s — as Joe would say, big nations can’t bluff. Well, big nations can’t bluff. And Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff. And President Barack Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing.

We are not looking for war. We are looking to and ready to negotiate peacefully, but all options, including military force, are on the table. But as I made clear at the Munich Security Conference just last month, our strong preference, the world’s preference is for a diplomatic solution. So while that window is closing, we believe there is still time and space to achieve the outcome. We are in constant dialogue, sharing information with the Israeli military, the Israeli intelligence service, the Israeli political establishment at every level, and we’re taking all the steps required to get there.

But I want to make clear to you something. If, God forbid, the need to act occurs, it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power, we did everything that reasonably could have been expected to avoid any confrontation. And that matters. Because God forbid, if we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us. We have a united international community. We have a united international community behind these unprecedented sanctions.

We have left Iran more isolated than ever. When we came to office, as you remember — not because of the last administration, just a reality — Iran was on the ascendency in the region. It is no longer on the ascendency. The purpose of this pressure is not to punish. It is to convince Iran to make good on its international obligations. Put simply, we are sharpening a choice that the Iranian leadership has to make. They can meet their obligations and give the international community ironclad confidence in the peaceful nature of their program, or they can continue down the path they’re on to further isolate and mounting pressure of the world.

But even preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon still leaves them a dangerous neighbor, particularly to Israel. They are using terrorist proxies to spread violence in the region and beyond the region, putting Israelis, Americans, citizens of every continent in danger. For too long, Hezbollah has tried to pose as nothing more than a political and social welfare group, while plotting against innocents in Eastern Europe — from Eastern Europe to East Africa; from Southeast Asia to South America. We know what Israel knows: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. Period. And we — and me — we are urging every nation in the world that we deal with — and we deal with them all — to start treating Hezbollah as such, and naming them as a terrorist organization.

This isn’t just about a threat to Israel and the United States. It’s about a global terrorist organization that has targeted people on several continents. We’ll say and we’ll do our part to stop them. And we ask the world to do the same. That’s why we’ve been talking to our friends in Europe to forcefully declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This past month I’ve made the case to leading European heads of state, as Barack and Israelis know, together we have to continue to confront Hezbollah wherever it shows — sews the seeds of hatred and stands against the nations that sponsor campaigns of terror.

Ladies and gentlemen, the United States and Israel have a shared interest in Syria as well. Assad has shown his father’s disregard for human life and dignity, engaging in brutal murder of his own citizens. Our position on that tragedy could not be clearer: Assad must go. But we are not signing up for one murderous gang replacing another in Damascus.

That’s why our focus is on supporting a legitimate opposition not only committed to a peaceful Syria but to a peaceful region. That’s why we’re carefully vetting those to whom we provide assistance. That’s why, while putting relentless pressure on Assad and sanctioning the pro-regime, Iranian-backed militia, we’ve also designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization.

And because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use of the transfer of the those weapons. And we will work together to prevent this conflict and these horrific weapons from threatening Israel’s security. And while we try to ensure an end to the dictatorship in Syria, we have supported and will support a genuine transition to Egyptian democracy.

We have no illusions — we know how difficult this will be and how difficult it is. There’s been — obviously been a dramatic change in Egypt. A lot of it has given us hope and a lot of it has given us pause, and a lot of it has caused fears in other quarters.

It’s not about us, but it profoundly affects us. We need to be invested in Egypt’s success and stability. The stable success of Egypt will translate into a stable region. We’re not looking at what’s happening in Egypt through rose-colored glasses. Again, our eyes are wide open. We have no illusions about the challenges that we face, but we also know this: There’s no legitimate alternative at this point to engagement.

Only through engagement — it’s only through engagement with Egypt that we can focus Egypt’s leaders on the need to repair international obligations — respect their international obligations, including and especially its peace treaty with Israel. It’s only through active engagement that we can help ensure that Hamas does not re-arm through the Sinai and put the people of Israel at risk. It’s only through engagement that we can concentrate Egypt’s government on the imperative of confronting the extremists. And it’s only through engagement that we can encourage Egypt’s leaders to make reforms that will spark economic growth and stabilize the democratic process. And it’s all tough, and there’s no certainty. There’s no certainty about anything in the Arab Spring.

I expect President Obama to cover each of these issues in much greater detail. I’ve learned one thing, as I was telling the President, I learned it’s never a good idea, Ehud, to steal the President’s thunder. It’s never a good idea to say what he’s going to say the next day. So I’m not going to go into any further detail on this. But in much greater detail he will discuss this when he goes to Israel later this month, just before Passover begins.

I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he gets to be the one to say “this year in Jerusalem,” but I’m the Vice President. I’m not the President. So I — when I told him that, I’m not sure he thought I was serious or not. But anyway.

As will come as no surprise to you, the President and I not only are partners, we’ve become friends, and he and I have spoken at length about this trip. And I can assure you he’s particularly looking forward to having a chance to hear directly from the people of Israel and beyond their political leaders, and particularly the younger generation of Israelis.

And I must note just as I’m getting a chance to speak to 2,000 young, American Jews involved and committed to the state of Israel and the relationship with the United States, he’s as anxious to do what I got a chance to do when I was there last, Ehud with you, as you flew me along the line. I got to go to Tel Aviv University to speak several thousand young Israelis. The vibrancy, the optimism, the absolute commitment is contagious, and he’s looking forward to seeing it and feeling it and tasting it.

The President looks forward to having conversations about their hopes and their aspirations, about their astonishing world-leading technological achievements, about the future they envision for themselves and for their country, about how different the world they face is from the one their parents faced, even if many of the threats are the same.

These are really important conversations for the President to have and to hear and for them to hear. These are critically important. I get kidded, again to quote Debbie, she kids sometimes, everybody quotes — Democrat and Republican — quotes Tip O’Neill saying, all politics is local. With all due respect, Lonny, I think that’s not right. I think all politics is personal. And I mean it: All politics is personal. And it’s building personal relationships and trust and exposure, talking to people that really matters, particularly in foreign policy.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let me end where I began, by reaffirming our commitment to the State of Israel. It’s not only a longstanding, moral commitment, it’s a strategic commitment. An independent Israel, secure in its own borders, recognized by the world is in the practical, strategic interests of the United States of America. I used to say when I — Lonny was president — I used to say if there weren’t an Israel, we’d have to invent one.

Ladies and gentlemen, we also know that it’s critical to remind every generation of Americans — as you’re doing with your children here today, it’s critical to remind our children, my children, your children. That’s why the first time I ever took the three of my children separately to Europe, the first place I took them was Dachau. We flew to Munich and went to Dachau — the first thing we ever did as Annette will remember — because it’s important that all our children and grandchildren understand that this is a never-ending requirement. The preservation of an independent Jewish state is the ultimate guarantor, it’s the only certain guarantor of freedom and security for the Jewish people in the world.

That was most pointedly pointed out to me when I was a young senator making my first trip to Israel. I had the great, great honor — and that is not hyperbole — of getting to meet for the first time — and subsequently, I met her beyond that — Golda Meir. She was the prime minister.

Now, I’m sure every kid up there said, you can’t be that old, Senator. I hope that’s what you’re saying. But seriously, the first trip I ever made — and you all know those double doors. You just go into the office and the blonde furniture and the desk on the left side, if memory serves me correctly. And Golda Meir, as a prime minister and as a defense minister, she had those maps behind her. You could pull down all those maps like you had in geography class in high school.

And she sat behind her desk. And I sat in a chair in front of her desk, and a young man was sitting to my right who was her assistant. His name was Yitzhak Rabin. Seriously — an absolutely true story. And she sat there chain-smoking and reading letters to me, letters from the front from the Six-Day War. She read letters and told me how this young man or woman had died and this is their family. This went on for I don’t know how long, and I guess she could tell I was visibly moved by this, and I was getting depressed about it — oh, my God.

And she suddenly looked at me and said — and I give you my word as a Biden that she looked at me and said — she said, “Senator, would you like a photo opportunity?” And I looked at her. I said, well yes, Madam Prime Minister. I mean I was — and we walk out those doors. We stood there — no statements, and we’re standing next to one another looking at this array of media, television and photojournalists, take — snapping pictures. And we’re looking straight ahead.

Without looking at me, she speaks to me. She said, Senator, don’t look so sad. She said, we have a secret weapon in our confrontation in this part of the world. And I thought she was about to lean over and tell me about a new system or something. Because you can see the pictures, I still have them — I turned to look at her. We were supposed to be looking straight ahead. And I said, Madam Prime Minister — and never turned her head, she kept looking — she said, our secret weapon, Senator, is we have no place else to go. We have no place else to go.

Ladies and gentlemen, our job is to make sure there’s always a place to go, that there’s always an Israel, that there’s always a secure Israel and there’s an Israel that can care for itself. My father was right. You are right. It’s the ultimate guarantor of never again. God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Thank you.

NJDC Proud about Obama Receiving Israel’s Medal of Distinction


Obama and Peres in the Oval Office

— by Marc R. Stanley

The National Jewish Democratic Council could not be prouder that President Barack Obama will be receiving Israel’s Medal of Distinction during his upcoming visit to the Jewish state. This President has proven to be Israel’s most important advocate on the world stage — from defending Israel’s legitimacy and right to defend itself to providing the leadership to fund the Iron Dome defense system and rallying the global community against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We are thrilled that Israeli President Shimon Peres has chosen to honor President Obama with this award.

Firm Support for Israel in Obama’s State of the Union Address

See below for the complete transcript of the State of the Union Address along with illustrations.

— by Marc R. Stanley

President Obama’s strong words in support of Israel tonight reflect his unyielding commitment to the safety and security of the Jewish state. From his leadership on the Iron Dome missile defense system and his vocal support for Israel’s right to defend itself to his commitment to achieving peace, the President has been Israel’s most important ally. We appreciate that the President reaffirmed his commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran tonight, and that he continued to make clear that he stands with Israel as its neighbors experience instability and violence. We commend the President for his leadership in strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership and making our special relationship a top priority of his foreign policy agenda. Because of his exceptionally strong support for Israel, we are eagerly anticipating his upcoming trip to the Jewish state.

In November, Jewish-Americans voted overwhelmingly to give President Obama a second term. Tonight, the President made clear why. The policies laid out by the President on key domestic issues, such as immigration, climate change, protecting the environment, support for Israel, and other social issues are broadly supported by the vast majority of American Jews. Polls consistently demonstrate that the Democratic Party is the natural political home for American Jews and tonight’s address by the President provides even further proof.

President Obama is right to make gun control a top priority of his second term. Too many American families have been devastated by gun violence and the time is right to put in place measures to prevent the next Sandy Hook, Tucson, or Columbine. NJDC has joined with the broader faith community to urge Congress to follow the President’s lead, and we will continue to be there as the President and Congress work towards passing new legislation.

Full transcript of the President’s remarks follows the jump.
President Obama’s State of the Union address as prepared for delivery on Feb. 12, 2013:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, fellow citizens:

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this Chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress…It is my task,” he said, “to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.”

Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in twenty. Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients, and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before.

Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.

But we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs – but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs – but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.

It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth – a rising, thriving middle class.

It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few; that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can. For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.

Our work must begin by making some basic decisions about our budget – decisions that will have a huge impact on the strength of our recovery.

Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion – mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

Now we need to finish the job. And the question is, how?

In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. These sudden, harsh, arbitrary cuts would jeopardize our military readiness. They’d devastate priorities like education, energy, and medical research. They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as “the sequester,” are a really bad idea.

Now, some in this Congress have proposed preventing only the defense cuts by making even bigger cuts to things like education and job training; Medicare and Social Security benefits.

That idea is even worse. Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations.

But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and most powerful. We won’t grow the middle class simply by shifting the cost of health care or college onto families that are already struggling, or by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops, and firefighters. Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share. And that’s the approach I offer tonight.

On Medicare, I’m prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission. Already, the Affordable Care Act is helping to slow the growth of health care costs. The reforms I’m proposing go even further. We’ll reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies and ask more from the wealthiest seniors. We’ll bring down costs by changing the way our government pays for Medicare, because our medical bills shouldn’t be based on the number of tests ordered or days spent in the hospital – they should be based on the quality of care that our seniors receive. And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep – but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested, and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit. The American people deserve a tax code that helps small businesses spend less time filling out complicated forms, and more time expanding and hiring; a tax code that ensures billionaires with high-powered accountants can’t pay a lower rate than their hard-working secretaries; a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America. That’s what tax reform can deliver. That’s what we can do together.

I realize that tax reform and entitlement reform won’t be easy. The politics will be hard for both sides. None of us will get 100 percent of what we want. But the alternative will cost us jobs, hurt our economy, and visit hardship on millions of hardworking Americans. So let’s set party interests aside, and work to pass a budget that replaces reckless cuts with smart savings and wise investments in our future. And let’s do it without the brinksmanship that stresses consumers and scares off investors. The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.

Now, most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda. But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts. Every day, we should ask ourselves three questions as a nation: How do we attract more jobs to our shores? How do we equip our people with the skills needed to do those jobs? And how do we make sure that hard work leads to a decent living?

A year and a half ago, I put forward an American Jobs Act that independent economists said would create more than one million new jobs. I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda, and I urge this Congress to pass the rest. Tonight, I’ll lay out additional proposals that are fully paid for and fully consistent with the budget framework both parties agreed to just 18 months ago. Let me repeat – nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.

Our first priority is making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.

After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. After locating plants in other countries like China, Intel is opening its most advanced plant right here at home. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.

There are things we can do, right now, to accelerate this trend. Last year, we created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns. So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs. And I ask this Congress to help create a network of fifteen of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is Made in America.

If we want to make the best products, we also have to invest in the best ideas. Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy. Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s; developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs; devising new material to make batteries ten times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. And today, no area holds more promise than our investments in American energy.

After years of talking about it, we are finally poised to control our own energy future. We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years. We have doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas, and the amount of renewable energy we generate from sources like wind and solar – with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than ever before – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

America’s energy sector is just one part of an aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Ask any CEO where they’d rather locate and hire: a country with deteriorating roads and bridges, or one with high-speed rail and internet; high-tech schools and self-healing power grids. The CEO of Siemens America – a company that brought hundreds of new jobs to North Carolina – has said that if we upgrade our infrastructure, they’ll bring even more jobs. And I know that you want these job-creating projects in your districts. I’ve seen you all at the ribbon-cuttings.

Tonight, I propose a “Fix-It-First” program to put people to work as soon as possible on our most urgent repairs, like the nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country. And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children. Let’s prove that there is no better place to do business than the United States of America. And let’s start right away.

Part of our rebuilding effort must also involve our housing sector. Today, our housing market is finally healing from the collapse of 2007. Home prices are rising at the fastest pace in six years, home purchases are up nearly 50 percent, and construction is expanding again.

But even with mortgage rates near a 50-year low, too many families with solid credit who want to buy a home are being rejected. Too many families who have never missed a payment and want to refinance are being told no. That’s holding our entire economy back, and we need to fix it. Right now, there’s a bill in this Congress that would give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save $3,000 a year by refinancing at today’s rates. Democrats and Republicans have supported it before. What are we waiting for? Take a vote, and send me that bill. Right now, overlapping regulations keep responsible young families from buying their first home. What’s holding us back? Let’s streamline the process, and help our economy grow.

These initiatives in manufacturing, energy, infrastructure, and housing will help entrepreneurs and small business owners expand and create new jobs. But none of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age.

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

We need to give every American student opportunities like this. Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.

Now, even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class. But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require. But we also have to make sure that America remains a place where everyone who’s willing to work hard has the chance to get ahead.

Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.

But we can’t stop there. We know our economy is stronger when our wives, mothers, and daughters can live their lives free from discrimination in the workplace, and free from the fear of domestic violence. Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago. I urge the House to do the same. And I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year.

We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. But today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we’ve put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong. That’s why, since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, nineteen states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.

Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead. For businesses across the country, it would mean customers with more money in their pockets. In fact, working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher. So here’s an idea that Governor Romney and I actually agreed on last year: let’s tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.

Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it’s virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job. America is not a place where chance of birth or circumstance should decide our destiny. And that is why we need to build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class for all who are willing to climb them.

Let’s offer incentives to companies that hire Americans who’ve got what it takes to fill that job opening, but have been out of work so long that no one will give them a chance. Let’s put people back to work rebuilding vacant homes in run-down neighborhoods. And this year, my Administration will begin to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet. We’ll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, education, and housing. We’ll give new tax credits to businesses that hire and invest. And we’ll work to strengthen families by removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood – because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.

Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger America. It is this kind of prosperity – broad, shared, and built on a thriving middle class – that has always been the source of our progress at home. It is also the foundation of our power and influence throughout the world.

Tonight, we stand united in saluting the troops and civilians who sacrifice every day to protect us. Because of them, we can say with confidence that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan, and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda. Already, we have brought home 33,000 of our brave servicemen and women. This spring, our forces will move into a support role, while Afghan security forces take the lead. Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.

Beyond 2014, America’s commitment to a unified and sovereign Afghanistan will endure, but the nature of our commitment will change. We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

Of course, our challenges don’t end with al Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.

Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.

America must also face the rapidly growing threat from cyber-attacks. We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.

That’s why, earlier today, I signed a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy. Now, Congress must act as well, by passing legislation to give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks.

Even as we protect our people, we should remember that today’s world presents not only dangers, but opportunities. To boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia, we intend to complete negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership. And tonight, I am announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union – because trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.

We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power, and educate themselves; by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.

Above all, America must remain a beacon to all who seek freedom during this period of historic change. I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon – when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American President into the home where she had been imprisoned for years; when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, “There is justice and law in the United States. I want our country to be like that.”

In defense of freedom, we will remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia. In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can – and will – insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.

All this work depends on the courage and sacrifice of those who serve in dangerous places at great personal risk – our diplomats, our intelligence officers, and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. As long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world. We will invest in new capabilities, even as we reduce waste and wartime spending. We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal benefits for their families – gay and straight. We will draw upon the courage and skills of our sisters and daughters, because women have proven under fire that they are ready for combat. We will keep faith with our veterans – investing in world-class care, including mental health care, for our wounded warriors; supporting our military families; and giving our veterans the benefits, education, and job opportunities they have earned. And I want to thank my wife Michelle and Dr. Jill Biden for their continued dedication to serving our military families as well as they serve us.

But defending our freedom is not the job of our military alone. We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I’m asking two long-time experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.

Of course, what I’ve said tonight matters little if we don’t come together to protect our most precious resource – our children.

It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans – Americans who believe in the 2nd Amendment – have come together around commonsense reform – like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun. Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote. Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette. She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend. Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.

Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country. Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight. But we were never sent here to be perfect. We were sent here to make what difference we can, to secure this nation, expand opportunity, and uphold our ideals through the hard, often frustrating, but absolutely necessary work of self-government.

We were sent here to look out for our fellow Americans the same way they look out for one another, every single day, usually without fanfare, all across this country. We should follow their example.

We should follow the example of a New York City nurse named Menchu Sanchez. When Hurricane Sandy plunged her hospital into darkness, her thoughts were not with how her own home was faring – they were with the twenty precious newborns in her care and the rescue plan she devised that kept them all safe.

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read “I Voted.”

We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Brian was the first to arrive, he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived, and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the Americans worshiping inside – even as he lay bleeding from twelve bullet wounds.

When asked how he did that, Brian said, “That’s just the way we’re made.”

That’s just the way we’re made.

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title:

We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Jewish Councils Thrilled with Obama’s Upcoming Return to Israel

National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Chair Marc R. Stanley issued the following statement in response to the news that President Obama will soon be traveling to Israel:

The National Jewish Democratic Council is thrilled to learn that President Obama will soon be visiting Israel. We are proud of the President’s unprecedentedly pro-Israel record and this upcoming trip will provide President Obama with yet another opportunity to affirm the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel

Newly-confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry will also be visiting Israel in the coming weeks and we commend both the President and the Secretary for placing Israel and its security needs at the top of the Administration’s foreign policy agenda for President Obama’s second term.

More after the jump.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs expressed hope that the trip would strengthen coordination on key strategic challenges facing the United States and Israel, including Iran’s nuclear program, Syria, and efforts to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. JCPA president Rabbi Steve Gutow said:

While Israel’s enemies continue to advocate strategies of boycotts and international isolation, President Obama will fly to the Jewish state this spring in a demonstration of the unbreakable bond between our two countries. The US and Israel share bedrock democratic values, as reflected in recent national elections, that are at the heart of our enduring friendship. President Obama’s trip, the first since his visit as a candidate in 2008, will send a strong signal to the Israeli people of U.S. commitment to their security in a troubled and volatile Middle East.

JCPA Chair Larry Gold added:

The announcement of this visit comes at a time of robust US-Israeli military cooperation and on the day that John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to run the CIA, called for global action against Hezbollah, the terrorist organization responsible for the continued targeting of Israel’s citizens. We hope that the President’s visit will bring renewed vigor to the stalled peace process between Israel and Palestinian leadership, which is the only way to realize the goal of two states for two peoples.

Senate Confirms John Kerry For Secretary Of State

— by David Streeter

The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) hailed the Senate’s confirmation of Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to serve as Secretary of State. NJDC Chair Marc R. Stanley said

We are pleased to see that the Senate has confirmed John Kerry to be the next Secretary of State. Kerry has a long record of support for Israel and demonstrated during his confirmation hearing that he is the right person to be taking a global leadership role against a nuclear-armed Iran. To echo what so many have said already, we know that Kerry will make an excellent Secretary of State and we are proud that he will be serving as America’s top diplomat.

More after the jump.
Kerry testified on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

Given our extraordinary interest in nonproliferation, we must resolve the questions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The President has made it definitive: we will do what we must do to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And I repeat here today, our policy is not containment it is prevention. And the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance. This Administration, working with congress and an unprecedented international coalition, has put into place crippling sanctions on Iran. […] President Obama has stated again and again — and I want to emphasize this — he and I prefer a diplomatic resolution to this challenge and I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed. But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.

I’d say this to the Iranians, I hope they listen. They have continually professed the peacefulness of their program. It is not hard to prove a peaceful program. Other nations have done that and do it every day. And it takes intrusive inspections, it takes living up to the publicly arrived at standards — everybody understands what they are. The allies in the P5+1 have made it very clear […] that we are all united in this standard and that we are looking for the full compliance with the NPT […] the Iranians need to understand there’s no other agenda here […]