May 25, 2006
God Bless America: Olmert speaks to CongressBy Ed Lasky
A few days ago, I was fortunate to receive an invitation to hear Israeli Prime minister Ehud Olmert address a rare joint session of Congress. (the full text of the speech can be found here)
Occasions that merit a joint session of Congress are very rare: the President's annual State of the Union address and visits by leaders of nations that have special ties to America. In the past two hundred years, only 100 or so foreign leaders have been graced with an invitation to speak to Congress and to America in that most special of forums: the chambers that form the heart of American democracy, the US Congress.
An invitation to speak before America's representatives transcends any mere political or diplomatic calculation but is a rare gesture extended to only the most treasured of allies. Certainly, the symbolism of appearing before Congress is a sign that the American—Israel bond is one of the most special relationships in the world. The applause and standing ovation that greeted Olmert was not just a tribute to the man, but a warm embrace of Israel.
While trying to appreciate the significance of such singular moments, one harkens back to history to place them in perspective and to deepen an understanding of the stakes involved. In the hallowed halls of Congress, I had a minor epiphany, recalling Winston Churchill's speech before a joint session of Congress on December 26,1941.
While one can never be privy to the discussions going on behind closed doors in Washington, clearly a variety of issues are on the table at the moment: Syrian support for terrorism and continued meddling in Lebanon, Prime Minister Olmert's 'convergence plan' to disengage from the Palestinians, and how to focus financial aid to the Palestinians that will not serve to embolden and strengthen Hamas.
However, one issue clearly has the same existential overtones that Winston Churchill faced when Britain, and Britain alone, confronted Nazi Germany. Iran, which has gloated over the prospects that it will destroy Israel and once again bring about a Holocaust, barely a generation removed from what many had fervently had hoped would be the last one.* Olmert recognized this danger and devoted a large part of his address highlighting the Iranian threat, calling its pursuit of nuclear weapons 'an existential threat to Israel' while also recognizing that it is a peril for the entire world.
Great Britain in 1941 was a lone island facing a continent in the thrall of extremism and messianic delusions, controlled by madmen whose goal was to enslave the world and destroy the Jews. Abandoned by friends, forced to endure daily bombings against its civilians for years, she nevertheless valiantly held on and valiantly tried to defend herself against the onslaught. The threats and pain must have seemed unendurable, yet the British never succumbed to defeat or defeatism— even during the darkest of times.
Then America was grievously damaged by the surprise attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Shortly thereafter, Nazi Germany declared war on America. The battle, as historians are wont to say, was joined.
Despite the demands of being a wartime leader and scornfully ignoring the risk involved in a transatlantic trip, Churchill realized the importance of America and he came to speak to the American people. His words are timeless:
At the end of his address he offered hope not just to Americans and British but to the people of the world:
This speech had a remarkable potency then and now because of the special bonds between Britain and America. Churchill tugged at the American heart by characterizing Britain and America as members of one family, so similar are we in our ideals, religiosity, culture and history.
He himself symbolized this kinship, and at the beginning of his address remarked on his own ancestry: born of an American mother and an English father, he was heir to, and a beneficiary of, two wonderful heritages, both under attack by the forces of evil. Churchill spoke not just as a leader of an embattled ally, but also as a member of an extended Western family dedicated to its survival.
To me, it seemed particularly so. For, like almost all Americans, my identity derives from multiple sources. I am an American of Jewish heritage, and I felt my own sense of these layers sharpened as his speech progressed.
My Jewish heritage has given me a sense of the grand sweep of history and the painful consequences of tragedy. Thomas Cahill wrote a superb book a few years ago, The Gift of the Jews, which took note of the role the Jewish people had in creating the concept of monotheism, Judeo—Christian civilization, and the linear theory of history (as opposed to the cyclical theory of the ancients), with its optimistic implication that life can get better. Cahill also appreciated the role the Jewish people had in formulating the idea of the equality and dignity of each individual that culminated in the declaration that 'All men are created equal.' All these ideals reached their fruition in America.
Yet, the Jewish people themselves have rarely been the beneficiaries of such ideals. Whether enclosed in ghettoes or subject to pogroms, whether excluded from many occupations or from the exercise of their religion, whether banished or killed, much of the world was a place of tragedy for the Jewish people.
Despite all these obstacles, Jews have worked to overcome these difficulties and have given the world much that as a people we can take pride in: scientific discoveries, advances that have helped to feed all of mankind, medical miracles. Olmert noted that Israel since her founding has become part of this continuum, part of the optimistic, non—linear, progression of history that propels her just as it propels America. He said,
Yet, for so long, so much energy was wasted, so many opportunities lost because of the denial of freedom and the prevailing prejudice in most nations of the world. For so long, only one place held out hope for a better life: America. Now Israel, which has liberated so many people trapped in hostile nations, whether it be Russia, Ethiopia, the Arab world, has joined her as a bastion of freedom. Olmert went on to note
My American heritage is one for which I am eternally grateful, for America has been the place I was born, raised, educated, found my wife and now raise my family. I would not be here if America had not welcomed my ancestors who escaped the depredations of the Czar and the scourge of Russian anti—Semitism. Similar stories abound within the Jewish community. Prime Minister Olmert himself shares a parallel history: his parents escaped persecution in the Ukraine and Russia and found sanctuary in China. They then emigrated to Israel
Only in America (and then Israel, the modern day Noah's Ark for many) were Jews free of the prejudice that had so long harmed us.
For Jews in particular, America was a beacon, since so many other nations were not nearly as hospitable as America proved to be. Who could have said it ever better than the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus whose words reside permanently on a pedestal at the foot of the Statute of Liberty, where she writes of an America that welcomes, 'your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free'. This line has such power that it has, at least figuratively, become incorporated into the American credo.
Who should be surprised about the welcome extended by America? Since America's inception, America has had a special place in its collective heart for the Jewish people, and now, for Israel.
The Founding Fathers' philo—Semitism was deep and widespread. The Founders believed they owed a debt to the Jews for providing many of the basic precepts that the nation was founded upon and for inspiring them in their efforts to create a nation. This was only the genesis of a long history of friendship and partnership.
Many view this support as biblically ordained, for in the Bible it is written that God 'will bless those who bless the Jews and curse whoever curses the Jews' (Genesis 12:3) and for the last two hundred years, America has indeed blessed the Jews. The Jewish people were the progenitors of Judeo—Christian civilization that has reached extraordinary success — whether measured in prosperity, justice, freedom or liberty — in the fertile soil of America. Had Prime Minister looked upwards from the podium when he deliver his address he would have seen directly facing him a relief of Moses. Moses, the founder of ancient Israel and the man who brought forth The Ten Commandments, the foundation stone of Western civilization.
The United States has more than returned the favor. America has provided a haven for terrorized Jews from around the world, has protested pogroms under the Czar, facilitated the creation of Israel, crafted the Jackson—Vanick Amendment that was vital in permitting Jews to emigrate from Russia, interceded to facilitate the escape of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, replenished Israel military supplies after the surprise attacks by its neighbors in 1973, and in a myriad of other ways America has truly been a blessing for the Jewish people.
In the concluding words of Prime Minister Olmert, 'God Bless America.'
During this time, America has continued its ascent to become the richest, most powerful and wonderful nation in world history. It too, seemingly has been blessed, and the promises in the Bible have been fulfilled.
I reflected upon these deep ties and shared histories upon leaving the Capitol. When I looked back, I saw the Dome shining upon the highest hill in Washington. It dawned on me, that this may well have been a target of the terrorists who were flying the doomed United Flight 93. I saw the history of the ties between Israel and America even more clearly: just as Islamic extremists would destroy Israel (as symbolized by the Prime Minister) and the Jewish people, they would destroy America and the American people.
Finally, I realized that for an American of Jewish ancestry, there is no conflict in patriotism for America and supporting the state of Israel. Indeed, my personal feeling for both nations is what brings about the best in what is in me. Just as support for Israel brings out the best in America. There is no issue of dual loyalties, but shared destinies.
*The tragic history of the Holocaust and its continued threat of recurrence was symbolized by the attendance of Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel who sat behind the family of Daniel Wultz, a 16 year old American boy murdered by the most recent homicide bombing in Israel.
Ed Lasky is News Editor of The American Thinker.