Prof. Amos Shapira, President of the University, Jay and Shira Ruderman, Prof. David Faraggi, Rector of the University, Former MK Ronit Tirosh, Professor Gur Alroey, Faculty and Students, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to be here today to celebrate the inauguration of “The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies” at the University of Haifa, the first graduate program of its kind to be offered to university students in Israel.
The entire American Embassy and I applaud the Ruderman Family Foundation’s generous support for worthwhile, high-impact ventures such as this new program to deepen knowledge and increase understanding about the American Jewish population in Israel. The Ruderman Family Foundation is recognized both in Israel and the United States as a remarkable innovator in building Israel-Diaspora relations. The Program for American Jewish Studies shows the same innovation as previous Ruderman initiatives – such as the Ruderman Fellows Program, which engages Members of Knesset across the political spectrum on relations between Israel and U.S. Jewry. The foundation supports the sister city program that links Jewish communities in two of our countries’ most vibrant cities, Boston and Haifa. In Israel and the United States, the foundation has made inroads into the inclusion of people with disabilities as equal members of society through its work in the fields of education and healthcare. So thank you to Jay and Shira and the foundation for your leadership.
I also congratulate the University of Haifa on this pioneering approach to diaspora studies. It takes vision for a university to chart not just a completely new program, but an initiative that will make a meaningful contribution to strengthening one of the most important relationships for both sides – those doing the studying and those being studied. Prof. Shapira and Prof. Alroey, I look forward to the research your students and scholars will produce, and to their using their knowledge to educate the broader Israeli public. Thank you for your leadership.
In my time as U.S. Ambassador, I have focused intensively on the people-to-people bonds that form the foundation of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Our embassy staff spends time getting to know Israelis from different communities, in all parts of the country, and building opportunities for exchanges between them and Americans of all backgrounds.
It is so critical that these connections flow in both directions. So nothing makes me, in my role as the American Ambassador, happier than to see the establishment of a program that will deepen and strengthen this relationship and provide the next generation of Israeli leaders with an understanding of American Jewry and its social, political, religious, cultural, and economic aspects – to ensure an even stronger relationship a decade or two from now than it is today.
Tonight, I couldn’t be more excited to be here with you to celebrate. And what gets me excited is that we’re not just celebrating the opening of an academic program. It’s more like the opening of a bridge – a bridge that will facilitate two-way flow of knowledge and understanding that will enable new and deeper people-to-people connections, and facilitate the exchange of dialogue and ideas for generations to come.
The American Jewish Studies program here in Haifa will provide insight about “What’s happening in the American Jewish community” for the next generation of Israel’s leaders. And given that the American Jewish community is the single largest Jewish community outside of Israel, it will continue to be influential both in the United States, Israel’s greatest ally, and in Israel’s future. The program for American Jewish Studies will help develop Israeli leaders who understand what it means to be a Jewish American, improving the communication and understanding needed to deepen and strengthen the close relationship between Israel and the United States.
One of the things Israelis may discover as they delve deeply into American Jewry is its diversity. Israelis themselves are so diverse that this should come as no surprise. But I think a lot of eyes will be opened. I was interested to learn, for example, when a group of the Ruderman Fellows—Members of Knesset – travelled to the United States last year for engagement with the American Jewish community, that for a number of them, it was the first time they had ever set foot in a Reform or Conservative synagogue.
That suggests a fruitful avenue of inquiry – looking at the core institutions that have been at the center of American Jewish identify – so different from the core institutions for most Israelis’ Jewish identity – and examining how they are evolving and changing.
Let me suggest a few other areas of study. The Pew Center recently released a survey of American Jews that generated a lot of headlines. Most described, in so many words, a community in decline, characterized by intermarriage and assimilation, synagogues with falling memberships, and except for the Orthodox, declining numbers.
But anyone who has spent time in the American Jewish community can’t help but notice something else: an explosion of creativity and energy. Large synagogues and traditional Jewish organizations may have trouble attracting new members. But new, independent minyanim, havurot, other prayer and study communities, community mikvehs, and the like pop up almost every day – and thrive. Summer camps and day schools, where some of the most innovative Jewish education is going on, are filled to overflowing, even as their cost puts them beyond the economic means of many families. The internet and our libraries abound with learned Jewish scholarship, from every possible perspective. And debates about Israel, although sometimes painfully raw, indicate ongoing passion and a feeling of connection to this place. We see it in debates on war, peace, security, delegitimization, women at the Wall, democracy, and so on.
I’m a proud product of the American Jewish experience. Very American – with all four grandparents born in the United States – quite unusual for someone of my generation – and touched by every stream of Jewish life: I grew up attending a Reform synagogue, and it was at a Reform summer camp that I learned Hebrew. When it came to college, I attended Brandeis University, the country’s one Jewish sponsored non-sectarian university. We are members of an independent traditional egalitarian minyan in a Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. Julie and I decided that our two adopted daughters would have Orthodox conversions, and at the community day school our children attend, they interact with kids from every denomination.
Maybe my favorite example of the many vectors of American Jewish life colliding was my experience travelling to Israel after high school on a program called the Isaac Mayer Wise Inside Israel program. This was a Reform movement program, named for the great 19th century Reform Jewish rabbi, who preached the value of Americanizing Jewish immigrants and religious practice, and had nothing good to say about Zionism. But the program attracted kids from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox backgrounds, we lived with Israeli families and learned Hebrew, and among the graduates, at least a quarter made aliya, one is Baal Tshuva, another is a Reconstructionist Rabbi, and one is the American Ambassador to Israel. That is a lot to sort out, a lot worthy of study.
It’s a brain-twisting mix of contradictions, of social science data and empirical experience. Believe me, we American Jews are having trouble sorting it all out. So I welcome the prospect of Israeli scholars, with their unique perspective, developing and sharing their insights on the American Jewish community. Fittingly, I hope they will also educate the Israeli public and help build greater understanding between two communities that love each other, and need each other, but don’t always “get” each other.
And while it’s good for Israeli Jews to connect to and learn about American Jews, this bridge doesn’t end there. The American Jewish population is deeply woven into the American social and political fabric, and getting to know American Jews means getting to know America. From Emma Lazarus’s verse of “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” mounted on the Statue of Liberty, to Irving Berlin’s composition “God Bless America,” to countless politicians and artists and scientists, the stories of the Jewish Diaspora are also at the core of the American story. And they continue to be. So whether it’s studying Jewish political leaders such as Senator Joe Lieberman or analyzing the social commentary and political satire of Jon Stewart, understanding the Jewish perspective in America is also a gateway – a bridge – to understanding America. I wish the scholars and students of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies great success, stimulation, and enjoyment as they delve deeply into their research on all these matters and more.
On my way here, I told my daughter I was speaking at a program on American Jewish Studies. She got it immediately: “Oh, they’re studying us.” She liked that. There is an imperative for this study hinted at in this week’s Parsha, Vayeishev. When Joseph is in the pit, and Judah 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.
This mutual understanding will continue to buttress the U.S. – Israeli relationship, a relationship that is strong, healthy, and as close as it has ever been. The connection between our countries is based on common strategic interests as well as the shared values and moral bonds of our two democracies.
The United States’ commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad. Israel is a valued strategic asset to the United States, and as we face common threats in the Middle East – terrorism, proliferation, instability – the United States is proud to stand with Israel. And we know this relationship enhances our own security as well.
The United States firmly believes that it is in our national interest to support Israel as a strong, secure, Jewish, democratic state here in the historic homeland of the Jewish people. That commitment includes strongly supporting the goal of achieving a “two-states for two-peoples” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We support this so strongly that Secretary of State John Kerry, has traveled to Israel eight times this year, to provide support as Israel and the Palestinians launched and sustain direct peace negotiations. Secretary Kerry has made clear that the United States will use all its diplomatic creativity to help these negotiations succeed.
We have no illusions about the difficulties ahead. However, a sustainable and just peace will provide Israel with the security and recognition that it deserves, it will enable Palestinians to achieve their legitimate aspirations for self-determination in a state of their own. So it is a vision worth fighting for.
Finally, the United States and Israel agree that there is no higher priority than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. On this crucial issue, the goals of the United States and Israel are identical.
President Obama has been crystal clear in stating that he will not permitIran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period. And we are prepared to use all elements of our national power to ensure that we are successful.
Our coordination with Israel in support of this shared goal has been intensive, continuous, and highly effective. Together with many other nations, we have put in place the strongest sanctions regime in history, which has brought Iran to the negotiating table. In these negotiations in Geneva – the latest round of which began today – we will not squander the leverage that sanctions have given us. No deal is better than a bad deal, and we will not agree to a bad deal.
We are seeking, with our P5+1 partners, to test whether Iran is prepared to ensure that its nuclear program can only be used for peaceful purposes. We are trying to first reach an agreement on an initial six-month phase that freezes and rolls back the Iranian program.
Iran could get very limited sanctions relief during this period, while the main oil and banking sanctions that have brought them to the table would remain in place, and the pressure would increase. With the time that gives us, we will seek to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that ensures Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.
Our goal is clear: to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, through diplomacy and sanctions if possible, but using other means, including a military option, if necessary. We will not fail to achieve this goal.
The political climate in the Middle East is more challenging now than it has been in quite some time. We have a lot of work to do, together. The bridge that we are opening tonight, the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies here at the University of Haifa, will prepare the next generation of Israelis to carry on this important work. This program will connect Israelis and Americans, improve communication, and strengthen the bond between Israel and the United States, helping prepare the next generation of educated and engaged Israelis to steward this special relationship.
I wish you every success on this timely and important project. Thank you and B’Hazlacha!