Former Ambassador Shapiro’s Welcome Remarks at the Ruderman Conference for Israel-American Jewish Relations

Thank you Dany Cushmaro; thank you to Jay and Shira Ruderman and the Ruderman Family Foundation; and also thank you to Shimon Peres. 

Everything that could possibly have been said about Shimon Peres has already been said, perhaps many times over.  I consider it a personal and professional blessing to have been able to spend time with and learn from President Peres.  And the depth and breadth of his historic experience would qualify him to preside over conferences on dozens of topics.  But his role since Israel’s earliest days in attending to the building and strengthening of the relationship between Israel and American Jews – he has known every American Jewish leader since 1948, and outlived most of them – makes him a most fitting host for this gathering.

As for the Ruderman Family Foundation, it truly represents the best of America. The Ruderman agenda is wide and diverse, and represents the finest tradition of American philanthropy, as we are witnessing here tonight. When Jewish children are born, Jews everywhere offer the same three blessings: “Torah” – to cherish the lessons of the Torah and to share the blessings of study and learning; “huppah”—marriage and family; and “maasim tovim” – to do good, and to promote compassion in our imperfect world. 

Allow me to embarrass Jay and Shira for a moment and say what many of you already know: they continue to fulfill these blessings each and every day, particularly with the work of the foundation.  Your work advances in tangible ways that Torah’s teaching, v’ahavta l’reicha kamocha. Your own marriage links the foundation’s American and Israeli branches.  And in such moving ways, as the promotion of inclusion for people with disabilities, you promote good deeds, maasim tovim, vigorously here in Israel, just as you do in the U.S.  On the subject of strengthening Israeli and American Jewish ties, I am so grateful for your sponsorship of visits by Knesset Members and Israeli journalists to the U.S., your launching of the innovative Ruderman Program in American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa, and initiatives like this conference.  In our house, Julie and I compete for the title of who is more aligned with your agenda, and it is measured in the currency of retweets.

And we are so pleased to be joined tonight by the legendary Senator Joseph Lieberman, a towering figure in American political life and a towering figure in the Jewish community, and of course, his equally impressive wife and partner, Hadassah.

Let me just say this: Joe Lieberman’s contributions to American public life, to American Jewish life, and to U.S.-Israel relations really need no testimony from me. They speak for themselves in all that you have accomplished, and the decency and values with which you have done so.  For a young, Jewish Congressional staffer early in my career in Washington, you were a role model of how to fuse public service and Jewish values in the most inspiring fashion.  And for that, I thank you.

I just want to add one more note about our connection with the Lieberman family.  For years, when I was that young staffer, sitting on the back bench behind another Senator, I’m not sure that Joe knew who I was.  But he sort of did.  You see, Julie was Joe and Hadassah’s daughter Hani’s first grade teacher at the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington, D.C.  And Julie is a tremendous teacher, the kind families remember for a lifetime.  So for years after Hani left first grade, I was known to many, many people in our community – and I have to include the Liebermans – as Julie Fisher’s husband.

But that’s OK, Joe.  Because as I’m sure you are aware, in not a small number of Jewish households around the United States, you are known as the guy who almost got Hadassah Lieberman to the White House.

I also cannot address a gathering on this subject without taking note of a tragedy that befell our community this week.  With the most profound sadness, on behalf of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and the American people, I want to express the sorrow, pain, and anger we all feel over losing Ezra Schwartz, zichrono livracha

Innocent of any wrongdoing, he was taken cruelly from his family and his friends by an act of terror, which we condemn with all our strength, as we condemn all the Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis, including one that took another life today, and the incitement that often stands behind them.

To his great credit, Ezra chose to spend a year in Israel – learning, studying, growing, and deepening his own personal relationship with this place. Whether he knew it or not, he was also strengthening the bonds between the United States and Israel, and between American Jews and Israel. Now, in the most tragic way, his death forms an additional bond between our peoples.  Ezra is being buried today by his loving family in Sharon, Massachusetts.  May God comfort them among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim, and may Ezra’s memory always be for them a blessing

In some ways, this tragedy reminds us that the subject of this conference is as timely as it is important.  We live in a period of nearly unprecedented turmoil in the Middle East – a region from which emanate threats of terrorism, instability, and weapons of mass destruction, resulting in the challenges of failed states and mass migration flows.

In such a reality, the strength and durability and productivity of the U.S.-Israel relationship shines like a beacon through the darkness.  Our bonds – in the form of a unique security alliance, the shared values of two democracies, and a burgeoning economic partnership – steel us both to defend ourselves and prosper in the face of threats that, for Israel are only minutes or kilometers away, but equally, can reach across oceans and put us at risk.

Americans recognize that.  They recognize not just our moral obligation, but the mutual benefit to our security, of a close partnership with Israel.  Support for Israel in the United States is broad and deep.  But there is probably no deeper reservoir of support, and no deeper emotional attachment to Israel, than among American Jews.  Having grown up in, and traveled through, a wide range of our community’s institutions – Reform summer camps, Conservative synagogues, Orthodox conversion batei din, Jewish life on a range of campuses, community day schools, overseas programs in Israel, the full range of New York and Washington-based organizations — I feel confident that sentiment is as true today as it ever was.

But, how will we keep those bonds strong, and indeed make them stronger in the decades ahead?  This is not a simple question.  I want to see those ties strengthen and deepen, as the American ambassador, who values the bilateral relationship that serves both our interests, and as an American Jew, who feels a deep connection to Israel’s past and its future.  But there is nothing automatic about the maintenance of these close ties.  It takes work, it takes planning, it takes funding, and perhaps above all, it takes grappling with hard questions.  Programs like Brithright and Masa that bring American Jews to Israel, and Shanat Sherut and summer camp counselor programs that bring Israelis to American Jewish communities are wonderful.  They deserve praise and support.

But I want to pose a series of deeper questions that I hope the conference participants will explore.  These questions revolve around the common values that are at the root of our relationship: democracy, pluralism, Jewish solidarity, peace and security.

When American Jews and Israelis talk about democracy – a value I think runs equally deep for both – are they talking about the same thing?  Our founding documents – our respective Declarations of Independence – echo one another, but we face different challenges in bringing them to life.  For American Jews, the values of democracy, freedom of speech and worship, and equality of opportunity may not be Torah me’Sinai, but they are close – practically mother’s milk.  These values even find expression in the way many American Jews choose to support Israel.  At the U.S. Embassy, we are proud to sponsor numerous programs that increase educational and economic opportunities for sectors of Israeli society that lag behind.  And as we work in those communities – be they communities of Israeli Arabs, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or Ethiopia, or Haredim – we often encounter American Jewish communities, represented through their Federation chapters or other organizations, doing similar work to try to lift up those in need of a hand seizing the full opportunities of Israeli society.  So I raise the question: as American Jews and Israelis each seek to improve our societies, and strengthen our democratic institutions, and extend equality of opportunity to all our citizens – in the American parlance, to build a more perfect union – will we find a common language?

Pluralism is deeply rooted in both societies, and certainly has been one of the great sources of the flourishing of American Jewish life.  But we constantly struggle with challenges to our pluralistic societies – whether from lingering historical inequities, present-day political disputes, demographic evolutions, and evolving religious traditions.  Will American Jews and Israelis recognize each other’s definition of pluralism in the decades ahead?  In this connection, I do want to commend Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks about Jewish religious pluralism at the JFNA General Assembly in Washington last week, which I think acknowledged the concern of some American Jews that their form of Jewish living should find legitimacy and expression here in Israel.

The very definitions at the heart of the Zionist enterprise – the establishment of a Jewish, democratic state in the historic homeland of the Jewish people – have been debated and explored since Herzl.  So, too, the question of how Israel can achieve peace and security – neither is possible without the other – with its neighbors.  American Jews who care passionately for the Jewish state, and Israelis who live and sacrifice for the reality of the Jewish state, could benefit from a deeper dialogue. What does it mean for Israel to be Jewish and democratic?  What happens if those definitions are in tension with each other?  What can Israel do to bring closer a reality of peace and security?  What should it not be asked to do?  What is the right role for American Jews – to support, to protect, to criticize, to question?  What are our expectations of each of our governments for how they will conduct themselves – with each other, and with each of our communities – as these debates unfold?

These questions evade clear answers.  I have my opinions about some of them – which, I will keep to myself, thank you very much – but I hardly believe I have worked out the solutions.  That is for all of you to take on at this conference.  But because I consider the question so important to America’s future, to Israel’s future, and to American Jews’ future, I am deeply grateful to the Ruderman Foundation for devoting time and resources to their exploration.  

Let me just close with a brief word of Torah.  Since we are coming up on the Torah readings that tell the story of Joseph, there is an imperative for the subject of this conference hinted at in next week’s Parsha, Vayeishev.  After the brothers, in a fit of jealousy over Joseph’s dreams, strip him of his colored coat, they throw him in a pit and decide to kill him.  But then, Judah, the ringleader against Joseph, changes his mind and urges the brothers not to kill him, but to sell him.  He rationalizes his suggestion with the words, כִּי אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ הוּא, “For he is our brother, our own flesh.” Now, while those worlds were uttered at a low point in the brothers’ relationship with Joseph, they also became the basis for their eventual reconciliation.

Now I don’t want anyone to think I am making a comparison here. The relationship between American Jews and Israelis bears no resemblance to the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Whatever the complexities, it is characterized by warmth and love, not dysfunction. But the principle: “For he is our brother, our own flesh” is as good a justification as I can think of for Israelis and American Jews to learn more about each other.

I wish you all an enlightening and invigorating conference.

Thank you.