Remarks by David Axelrod
National Jewish Democratic Council
April 22, 2010
Good evening. Thank you, David and Marc for your gracious introduction. I’d also like to thank Michael Adler, Marc Stanley, David Harris, and of course Ira Forman for their leadership of this important organization.
Thank you also to the Members of Congress attending tonight, including my longtime friend Jan Schakowsky.
I also want to acknowledge a great friend without whom I would not be here tonight. Her name is Bettylu Saltzman. She is a great community leader and political activist in Chicago and just a wonderful, wonderful friend. So when Bettylu calls, I listen. She called me 18 years ago and said, I met the most remarkable young guy named Barack Obama and I think you should meet him, too. And I said, really, why? And she said, I don’t know but I just have this feeling he could be the first black President.
So now I take Bettylu to the track with me any chance I get.
Two people who aren’t here in person tonight, but I know are here in spirit are my dad and my grandfather—both immigrants from the pogroms, though from different shtetls in Eastern Europe.
They fled persecution and violence for the freedom to practice their faith, and live a better life, and they found it in America. They passed on to me a great sense of appreciation for the freedom and boundless opportunity of the United States. (My grandfather worked as a butcher to put himself through dental school. Unfortunately for me and his other patients, he carried the talents of his old profession to the new. But that’s another story. Mostly what he lived for were the daily minions and Shabbat services at the shul.)
So my dad and grandfather would have been proud tonight as Jews, as Americans, but also as dyed-in- the-wool Democrats, who saw in the progressive values of our party that same spirit of Tikkun Olam—that obligation to look beyond our selves to make a better world. It is the ideal President Kennedy articulated in his Inaugural address when he said that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.
And they would have been prouder still to know that I am working for a President who governs by that ideal every single day; a President who took over a nation in crisis, and has courageously, thoughtfully led, making politically-difficult decisions to guide us through the storms; focusing on the next generation, and not just the next election. And let me say to the members of Congress who are here today, you and our great leaders, Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid, deserve great credit for the courage and leadership you have shown in these very difficult times.
Together, we have done things that are in the best tradition of our party.
My father and grandfather would have been proud that I work for a President who has embraced the value of education, taking historic steps to insure that every child has the opportunity to make the most of his potential, and that the doors of higher education stay open for the children of all our families, and not just a privileged few. He knows what that will mean for those kids. He knows what that will mean for this country.
They would be proud that I work for a President whose resolve and determination led to the passage of a law that, at long last, will bring the security of decent, affordable health care to all Americans—for those who have insurance today, and for those who don’t.
They would be proud that I work for a President who understands our obligation to be good stewards of the earth—and that we need a new energy policy for the 21st Century that will strengthen our economy and protect our planet.
They would be proud that I work for a President who has returned science to its rightful place, and opened the possibility for new cures to those suffering from dreadful diseases, through the healing possibilities of stem cell research.
They would be proud, as I am proud, to work for a President who brought greater diversity and a great justice to our highest court; a President who fought for justice for Lily Ledbetter and equal pay for women in the workplace; a President who has combated discrimination with the Mathew Shepherd hate crimes law; a President who is ending discriminatory practice in hospital visitations; a President who is working to end a policy that deprives patriotic Americans of the right to serve the country they love because of who they love.
My dad and grandfather would have been proud that I work for a President who is repairing America’s global alliances and restoring America’s leadership in the world. We saw it again just last week, when world leaders gathered here to commit to securing nuclear materials that represent a mortal threat. A President who is responsibly ending the war in Iraq, and refocusing the offensive against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
When the President took office, Iran was united, and the world was divided in its approach to the nuclear threat there.
Today, Iran is bitterly divided and the world is united as never before in its determination to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And I believe that determination will soon express itself through credible sanctions in the United Nations.
I know this is an issue of profound concern to those of us in this room, because while Iran is a threat to everyone, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel. And although all the issues I’ve touched upon tonight are central to our community, for those of us here tonight, the survival and security of Israel is an absolute concern. I know this is true for you, and it is true for me as well.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my extended family chipping in to send my grandparents on their first trip to Israel. I remember the joy with which my grandfather tearfully shared his emotions about what it meant to finally set foot in the Jewish homeland. My grandmother was president of the Jersey City chapter of Hadassah, and the JNF’s blue and white collection boxes were a ubiquitous presence in my grandparent’s home, and ours.
These are memories I have carried with me on six very meaningful visits to Israel, journeys I’ve shared with my children, and one I hope they will share with theirs. And I also know that in this room tonight, my story and relationship to Israel is not particularly unique, but rather something we share.
So I acknowledge there is considerable concern in our community on this issue. But I’m here to say that while I understand those concerns, they are predicated on a misconception. As someone who has known the President for nearly 20 years, as someone who has worked closely with him for ten years, and as someone who sits twenty feet from him and works with him every day, I know what’s in his heart, I know what’s in his head, and I know that his commitment to Israel is a bedrock principle.
The President understands that the special relationship between the United States and Israel is based on common values, interwoven cultures, and mutual interests. These are unbreakable bonds. They are bonds that endure.
But perhaps it’s best to let the President’s words speak for themselves. The other day, he wrote a letter to a friend from Chicago, Alan Solow, who many of you may know as the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
In it, he said:
“For over 60 years, American Presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States. I share that understanding and have made the pursuit of peace, including a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a top priority from my first day in office. I am deeply committed to fulfilling the important role the United States must play for peace to be realized, but I also recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside; it must be negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard choices and compromises that take on history. We are determined to help them, particularly because the status quo does not serve the interests of Israel, the Palestinians, or the United States.
As for our relations with Israel, let me be very clear: we have a special relationship with Israel and that will not change. Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.
As we continue to strive for lasting peace agreements between Israel, the Palestinians, and Israel’s neighbors, all sides should understand that our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable and that no wedge will be driven between us. We will have our differences, but when we do, we will work to resolve them as close allies.
I look forward to continuing our work together on behalf of peace.”
The President’s commitment to Israel’s security is reflected in more than words. He has given them meaning by ensuring Israel’s continued qualitative military edge in the region, by expanding cooperation on joint military exercises and missile defense, by reinvigorated defense consultations, particularly on the most vital issues, by fighting any attempt to de-legitimize Israel around the world, and of course, by working to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
It is that very commitment that has caused the President to work so vigorously to re-start peace talks toward the two-state solution both we and the Israelis agree is the only way to achieve sustained peace and security for Israel, the Palestinians and their neighbors. Without a two-state solution, it will become increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democracy. And the President knows that any agreement must ensure Israel’s continued security.
As we work towards this common goal, there will inevitably be disagreements, as there are between any two friends and allies. When they occur, the United States and Israel will work through them together, as friends do. But let’s not confuse these occasional disagreements over policy with the fundamental partnership that has guided our two nations for so long, and will continue.
Thank you again for this recognition. I know I stand here as the President’s representative, but I also know I stand here among those who share common commitments, and a common experience.
Once again I’m reminded of my grandfather. Although this time I hear his voice in my head, yelling at me, “Duvid! Don’t talk too long!”
But I want to close with one more memory.
Last July, on what would have been my father’s 99th birthday, I had the honor of returning to the country he fled, standing in the courtyard outside the Kremlin, watching a Russian military band and color guard play our national anthem in honor of the visit of America’s first African-American President.
And as I stood, hand over heart, I was overcome with an appreciation for our extraordinary country, what it has has meant to my family, and for the great privilege of working for this unique and magnificent leader at such a pivotal time.
I’m tempted to say, Dayenu. That would have been enough.
But this award is a wonderful, additional blessing, for which I am very grateful.
Thank you very much.