Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement Valerie Jarrett addressed the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ (JCPA) annual conference and affirmed President Barack Obama’s commitment to the Jewish communal legislative agenda.
She spoke about her Jewish roots: Her African-American parents (James Bowman, a renowned pathologist, and Barbara Taylor Bowman, an early childhood expert) once hosted a Seder for a a group of their Jewish friends. At this seder, her father told her that her great-grandfather was Jewish.
Jarrett underlined Obama’s “unshakeable support for Israel’s security, his opposition to any effort to de-legitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.” She also spoke about the Obama administration’s commitment to other Jewish priorities such as innovation, education, infrastructure and civil discourse.
Full transcript follows the jump.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. Thank you [JCPA Vice-Chair and Maryland State Democratic Party Chair] Susie Turnbull and [JCPA At-Large Board Member and NJDC Chair] Marc Stanley for your warm introduction. I’d also like to thank Conrad Giles and Rabbi Steve Gutow for their phenomenal leadership of the JCPA. And thank you as well to Josh Protas and the entire JCPA team for all your hard work on yet another successful conference. I’m honored to be here, to stand with you here, because you have stood with President Obama time and again, even at the most challenging times.
Your hard work helped the President successfully repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The policy that deprived patriotic Americans of the right to serve the country they love because of who they love.
You have brought much-needed attention to the issue of child nutrition, hosting forty child nutrition Seders in thirty-four communities last year. At a time when 30 percent of our children are overweight, and children in more than half a million American families went without the food they need, you’ve brought to life a Jewish value dating back to Leviticus, when farmers were encouraged to leave the edges of their field un-harvested so the hungry would have the food they need.
President Obama shares this value as well, and with your help, last December he signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which includes significant improvements to help provide children with healthier and more nutritious food options; educate children about making healthy food choices; and teach children healthy habits that will last a lifetime.
This issue is also close to the heart of our First Lady, Michelle Obama. Her Let’s Move initiative has set the goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation. And working with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, we have also reaffirmed our commitment to end childhood hunger in America by 2015.
As many of you know, this is Women’s History Month. Just last week, the Obama Administration released a new report called “Women in America.” It is the first comprehensive federal report on women since the Commission on the Status of Women, established by President Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, released a report in 1963.
The President understands that the issues facing women today are not just women’s issues, but issues for the entire family. President Obama’s commitment to women was shaped by growing up watching his single Mom struggle to make ends meet, while trying to balance the demands of her career with the needs of her children. His grandmother, who helped raise him, hit a glass ceiling while working at a bank. The President has always supported the First Lady throughout her career, and he is determined that his daughters will grow up and be able to compete with men on an even playing field.
Now that two-thirds of all families depend on two working parents, when women make less than men for the same work, or when women go into low paying jobs, it affects the entire family. When employers do not offer family leave, or flexible work hours, it affects the entire family. When families do not have access to affordable child care, children may wind up in second-rate care, or spend afternoons alone in front of the television set. And as every parent knows, we cannot be productive at work if we are worried about our children’s well being, so poor childcare affects the entire family.
Our report on Women in America shows us how the lives of American women have changed over time, and gives us the evidence based data required to adopt policies and programs that will improve the quality of life for women and girls. Going forward, I encourage everyone to review our report, and look forward to working with you on these issues over the months and years to come.
I’d also like to thank you for highlighting the need for civility in our public discourse. The JCPA’s civility statement, signed by more than 1,500 lay and religious leaders representing over 1,000 different Jewish community organizations, is part of a long tradition of Jewish leadership on this issue, from Louis Brandeis to Elie Wiesel. And as the President so memorably said in Tucson after the tragic shootings, “at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” We look forward to your continued advocacy for civil discourse.
It is clear from the partnerships we have forged to tackle so many important challenges, that our relationship is expansive, and rooted in common values. These values extend to our steadfast support for the nation of Israel – which I know is of particular concern during this period of upheaval throughout the Middle East.
Just last week, I attended a meeting between President Obama and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I had the pleasure of sitting just a seat away from Rabbi Steve Gutow, who asked the President a very thoughtful question about our efforts to help bring democracy to the region.
At the meeting, the President made clear that throughout this period of unrest, we have been consistent in rejecting violence; calling for respect for universal rights; and advocating on behalf of a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the needs of the people. These are universal values, and the President will uphold them everywhere, as he has done from Egypt to Bahrain to Libya. As he does so, he will also work closely with the international community to ensure that the process of transition is orderly and stable, and that the region evolves in a way that advances American interests, including peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
The President also made clear that while the region will evolve, some things will never change. Among them is his unshakable support for Israel’s security; his opposition to any effort to de-legitimize Israel, or single her out for criticism; and his commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.
We know that as the status quo in the Arab world is not sustainable, and neither is the status quo in the search for Middle East peace. We need to find a way to ensure direct negotiations have credibility and purpose, because that is the only way to resolve the conflict. The JCPA has been an important partner with us on these efforts, and we will need your continued support in the weeks ahead, as the United States continues to explore how to move forward with our Israeli, Palestinian, and other partners in the region. So let us continue to work together closely, so we can help ensure a future for Israel that is secure, prosperous, and peaceful.
On a whole range of topics, it’s clear that we share common values, and through those values we also share common goals. One of the most important is the Jewish notion of L’dor, v’dor, or “from generation to generation,” the idea that each generation has an obligation to make life better for the next generation.
The President describes this as “Winning the future” for our children. And to do this, he has explained how we need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world. These three goals are essential to growing the economy over the next several years, and keeping our country competitive in the global marketplace. I’d like to take some time to discuss each of these key pillars:
- education, and
To ensure growth, we must continue to innovate, so that we create the jobs and industries of the future by doing what America has always done best – investing in the creativity and imagination of our people to create the jobs and industries of the future. This is our generation’s Sputnik moment, and the President is calling for the highest level of investment for research and development since President Kennedy launched the space race.
One of the most exciting areas of innovation is in clean technology. You’ve been a leader on this issue for some time now. Thousands of you worked to engage Members of Congress on energy reform. President Obama has set a goal that eighty percent of our electricity will come from clean energy sources by 2035. The President is also challenging America’s scientists and engineers to invent technologies that will ensure the United States is the first country to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and make solar power as cheap as electricity by the end of the decade.
I know education is a core Jewish value, and we’ll need your help to make sure we give our children the best possible chance to succeed. This is an essential part of sustained economic growth, because we know that over the next 5 years, nearly ninety percent of new jobs will require more than a high school degree, yet a quarter of our nation’s children aren’t even finishing high school. To win the race to educate our children, the President wants to expand “Race to the Top;” recruit 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math; and expand college affordability by making permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, worth $10,000 for four years of college. We also know there is bipartisan support for our approach. Last Friday, the President visited Miami Central High School in Florida, accompanied by former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), where they highlighted the benefits that investments in education can make, not just for one school, or one community, but for the nation as a whole.
And tomorrow, the President will be traveling to Boston to visit the TechBoston Academy, where he will be joined by Melinda Gates to discuss the importance of fostering partnerships between the public and private sectors in preparing the next generation of young people to compete globally. Particularly as it relates to fostering a college-going culture for students; promoting teacher effectiveness and reforms; and delivering a twenty-first century curriculum that integrates technology across all subjects.
So it’s clear that innovation and education are essential for our future growth, but we also know that attracting new investments by business depends on whether we have the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods and information – from roads and airports to high-speed internet. So we must also put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges and transit – and we need to do it by encouraging competition and leveraging private resources, instead of the traditional earmarks process. And we need to deploy the next generation of wireless coverage to ninety-eight percent of all Americans, an exciting new initiative the President recently announced in Michigan.
The President is committed to getting the federal deficit under control, and to do so we must cut spending, cuts that will be very painful in these challenging times. This is why he has proposed a freeze on domestic spending for the next five years, and a freeze on federal pay for the next two years, allowing us to reduce the deficit by over $400 billion over ten years. These changes alone will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of the economy since the Eisenhower Administration.
But while it’s important for the government to live within its means, what we cannot do is sacrifice our economic recovery, or jeopardize the future for our children, by gutting the innovation, education, or infrastructure investments necessary to keep America competitive in a global age. We need to remember what’s most important, and prioritize. As the President has said, this is something families across America understand from their own experience. When times are tough, families try to cut back and do more with less; we don’t eat out as much, maybe we take fewer vacations, but we must avoid cutting into college savings accounts for our children. It’s the same for government.
The President is thankful for all your hard work these last several years, and as we reflect on the important things we’ve achieved together, let’s also look forward, as we work together to ensure our nation’s future remains bright.
But partnership in developing sound public policy is not the only way we’re reminded of the important work left for us to complete. Next month, Jewish families across the country will gather around dinner tables to mark Passover, a period when we reflect on the Jewish peoples’ exodus from Egypt. Families will gather with loved ones and read those stirring lines from the Haggadah, explaining how each generation should feel as though we, ourselves, were slaves in the land of Egypt.
Her Jewish Roots
As an African-American, this lesson is particularly meaningful to me. And the Passover Seder has a unique lore in my own family. Many, many years ago, my parents hosted a Seder for a group of our Jewish friends, and it was here that my father first told me that my great-grandfather was Jewish. What a wonderful surprise for our friends, and for me! So Passover has always been a special holiday for me.
It is a holiday that is important to the President as well. One of my favorite stories from the Presidential campaign took place in the spring of 2008. A group of young aides traveling with then-Senator Obama organized a small Seder in the basement of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Away from home, some for the first time, they marked the holiday as best they could, with borrowed haggadahs and makeshift Seder plates.
When then-Senator Obama learned of the gathering, he decided to participate, and I joined as well. He too had attended many Seders before, back home in Chicago, and was very familiar with the Passover story.
Even though we were all exhausted and wondered if the campaign would ever end, the evening turned out to be so much fun. We sang, had some wine, and took a momentary respite from the strains of the campaign. The President invited his staff to share stories about their family traditions. We formed a special bond that evening.
There was also a very serious lesson underlying that Seder, the same lesson each of you celebrate with your own families – the idea that a better tomorrow awaits, a belief that the future can be better if we work for it. Whether it’s the Israelites fleeing Egypt, a young person in Israel praying for peace, or a family struggling to make ends meet after the worst recession since the Great Depression.
At the end of our little Seder on the campaign trail, as we all raised our wine glasses to proclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem!,” Senator Obama raised his glass a second time, promising if he won the election, “Next year in the White House!” We all laughed.
The following year, just a few months after the President’s Inauguration, true to his word, the President invited each of us who had attended the Seder on the road, to the first White House Seder in American history. Of course, the President included the First Lady and their daughters, so that he could share the tradition with his family.
We have now enjoyed two Seders in the White House, and we all look forward to this year’s. It remains one of my most cherished evenings.
So as all of us gather around Seder tables next month, let’s remember to keep the teachings of Exodus close to heart. Let us reflect on all the important challenges that we’ve tackled together, and commit ourselves to win the future for the next generation.
Thank you for inviting me here today. And let’s get to work!