Remarks by President Barack Obama on May 22, to Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington DC marking Jewish American Heritage Month.
THE PRESIDENT: A slightly early Shabbat Shalom. I want to thank Rabbi Steinlauf for the very kind introduction. And to all the members of the congregation, thank you so much for such an extraordinary and warm welcome.
I want to thank a couple of outstanding members of Congress who are here. Senator Michael Bennet where did Michael Bennet go? There he is. And Representative Sandy Levin, who is here. I want to thank our special envoy to combat anti-Semitism, Ira Forman, for his important work. There he is. But as I said, most of all I want to thank the entire congregation of Adas Israel for having me here today.
Earlier this week, I was actually interviewed by one of your members, Jeff Goldberg. And Jeff reminded me that he once called me the first Jewish President. Now, since some people still seem to be wondering about my faith I should make clear this was an honorary title. But I was flattered.
And as an honorary member of the tribe, not to mention somebody whos hosted seven White House Seders and been advised by and been advised by two Jewish chiefs of staff, I can also proudly say that Im getting a little bit of the hang of the lingo. But I will not use any of the Yiddish-isms that Rahm Emanuel taught me because I want to be invited back. Lets just say he had some creative new synonyms for Shalom.
Now, I wanted to come here to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month because this congregation, like so many around the country, helps us to tell the American story. And back in 1876, when President Grant helped dedicate Adas Israel, he became the first sitting President in history to attend a synagogue service. And at the time, it was an extraordinarily symbolic gesture not just for America, but for the world.
And think about the landscape of Jewish history. Tomorrow night, the holiday of Shavuot marks the moment that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the first link in a chain of tradition that stretches back thousands of years, and a foundation stone for our civilization. Yet for most of those years, Jews were persecuted not embraced by those in power. Many of your ancestors came here fleeing that persecution. The United States could have been merely another destination in that ongoing diaspora. But those who came here found that America was more than just a country. America was an idea. America stood for something. As George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island: The United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.
Its important for us to acknowledge that too often in our history we fell short of those lofty ideals in the legal subjugation of African Americans, through slavery and Jim Crow; the treatment of Native Americans. And far too often, American Jews faced the scourge of anti-Semitism here at home. But our founding documents gave us a North Star, our Bill of Rights; our system of government gave us a capacity for change. And where other nations actively and legally might persecute or discriminate against those of different faiths, this nation was called upon to see all of us as equal before the eyes of the law. When other countries treated their own citizens as wretched refuse, we lifted up our lamp beside the golden door and welcomed them in. Our country is immeasurably stronger because we did.
Anti-Semitism is, and always will be, a threat to broader human values to which we all must aspire. And when we allow anti-Semitism to take root, then our souls are destroyed, and it will spread.
From Einstein to Brandeis, from Jonas Salk to Betty Friedan, American Jews have made contributions to this country that have shaped it in every aspect. And as a community, American Jews have helped make our union more perfect. The story of Exodus inspired oppressed people around the world in their own struggles for civil rights. From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from womens rights to gay rights to workers rights, Jews took the heart of Biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves.