Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following speech today at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) Annual Policy Conference, reiterating Democrats’ strong commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity and criticizing those who politicize for political gain the issue of that support. “Every Democratic President from Truman to Clinton has strengthened that bond by providing for Israel’s security and brokering peace,” Reid said. “And with the Democratic nominee, that bond – that ironclad commitment – will remain as strong as ever. Don’t let anyone looking to politicize the issue of Israel tell you otherwise.”
Below is the text of his remarks, as prepared for delivery:
“This, the 54th annual Washington AIPAC conference, provides a forum for those concerned with the survival and flourishing of the State of Israel. For members of AIPAC – 7,000 strong at this conference alone – as well as government leaders of all political persuasions – conservatives, moderates and progressives – for Harriet Zimmerman, President David Victor, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, and the more than 100 Nevadans here today, we come together as we do each year to reaffirm our support for the State of Israel.
“At a time when the President of Iran is once again threatening Israel’s existence, our words of support for Israel are as, if not more, important than ever. Just weeks ago, every single United States Senator stood to unanimously pass a resolution celebrating the 60th anniversary of the modern State of Israel. The Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, traveled to Israel last week to represent the United States Senate in presenting this resolution to the Israeli Knesset and congratulating the Israeli people.
“We sent a clear message to the world that the resolve of the United States in support of Israel is as strong as it’s ever been. That unwavering commitment is not a Democratic or Republican value. It is an American value.
“Last year when I came before you, I spoke of the journey that my wife Landra and I shared in exploring her Jewish heritage – both here in America and in our travels to Israel. Today, I tell you the story of a young Presbyterian woman from Virginia and a Rabbi from rural Mississippi, and how their uncommon courage helped move forward the universal fight for justice during the civil rights movement.
“For six years, I chaired the Democratic Policy Committee – the educational arm of the Senate Democrats. And I have attended Democratic policy lunches for 25 years. Among our guests at a recent Thursday Policy Committee lunch was a woman named Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
“Today, Joan is a public school teacher in the Washington, DC area. Back in 1961, this courageous 19-year-old risked her life as a Freedom Rider. She believed that segregation was unfair, immoral and wrong. Joan saw a disconnect between her faith – which taught that ‘what you do unto the least of my brethren you do unto me’ – and the world in which she lived that codified injustice in society and law.
“And so, in early June 1961, she flew from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to join other Freedom Riders on a train headed straight into the eye of the storm: Jackson, Mississippi. In the coded words that the Freedom Riders spoke, one ‘package’ was those on trains to Jackson; the other “package” was those who took Greyhound buses to Jackson.
“Just as expected, a violent mob was waiting when their train pulled into the station. Joan and her fellow Freedom Riders were beaten and arrested and sent to one of the most infamous prisons in America – a penitentiary in the State of Mississippi called Parchman. The prison guards made life a living hell for Joan and the Freedom Riders. They were not permitted to see friends or family. Local lawyers and clergymen rarely visited for fear of retribution.
“But a Rabbi named Perry Nussbaum traveled several hours from Jackson to Parchman every week. Most of the Freedom Riders were not Jewish, but Rabbi Nussbaum offered prayers to Joan and the others. When he began to chant in Hebrew, he discovered that the prison guards would start to move away, not wanting to be near as he spoke those foreign words, which the guards called ‘that gibberish.’
“During his Hebrew chants, the prisoners learned to join with him. It is here he made a difference. He began his prayers all in Hebrew, but interspersed messages in English: ‘your sister had the baby,’ ‘Your father is out of the hospital,’ ‘Your friends are home safely.’ That was how, encoded in Hebrew prayer, the Freedom Riders of Jackson, Mississippi, kept in touch with their loved ones and the progress of their movement for equality.
“Joan Mulholland – the Presbyterian daughter of a staunch segregationist volunteered to face hatred and violence. A Rabbi from a far-off town traveled for hours every week to help those of other religious persuasions in their time of need. When called upon to make a choice between what was easy and what was right, both Joan and Rabbi Nussbaum rejected the easy and chose the right.
“In my 25 years of attending these policy lunches, I have never seen the entire Democratic caucus stand and applaud the presenters as they did after listening to Joan. Rabbi Nussbaum, loved by Joan and the others, was a religious leader not only in name, but in action. Because they and countless others made the selfless choice, in just one generation, discrimination gave way to justice, oppression gave way to opportunity and distrust gave way to faith.
“It took many Joan Mulhollands and Rabbi Nussbaums to make the difference, but together it was done. They took action when it counted and made a difference.
“The United States of America and the Democratic Party have done the same for Israel – literally from the hour of its birth.
“Many of you, my friends assembled here, have visited me in the historic office of the Senate Majority Leader. As you walk through the doorway just six paces off the floor of the Senate and look to the left, you will see a portrait of our 33rd President. Harry Truman is a hero of mine. He was an outstanding Democrat and a great American. He was one of our most visionary Presidents. And he, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for the unwavering friendship between the United States and the State of Israel.
“When the modern State of Israel was born in 1948, many if not most of President Truman’s advisors urged delay in recognizing the new Jewish state. Truman’s own Secretary of State, the decorated general, the father of the Marshall Plan, George Marshall, went so far as to threaten to vote against him in the next election if he acted too quickly.
“Harry Truman listened intently to all of his advisors, but not for long. He made his own choice – a choice he knew might cost him politically. A choice he knew was difficult but right.
“Just 11 minutes after the State of Israel was formally announced at 6:00 p.m. on May 14th, 1948, Harry S Truman declared the United States the first country to officially recognize the new state of the Jewish people.
“The decision came so quickly that in the official typed announcement, the new name for the Jewish state – the State of Israel – had to be penciled in.
“Years later, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, met with Truman in New York. Ben Gurion recounted: ‘I told him that as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our new State so quickly and his steadfast support since then had given him an immortal place in Jewish history.’
“Sixty years have passed since Harry Truman and David Ben Gurion formed that timeless bond, and the fraternity of our nations has steadily grown. Every Democratic President from Truman to Clinton has strengthened that bond by providing for Israel’s security and brokering peace. And with the Democratic nominee, that bond that ironclad commitment will remain as strong as ever. Don’t let anyone looking to politicize the issue of Israel tell you otherwise.
“Democrats and Republicans – all of us together – speak with one voice in our commitment to Israel’s security and quest for peace. That commitment to Israel has always been honored beyond politics or partisanship, and that must not change.
“The United States and Israel are linked not just by our long history and shared commitment to democratic government, but by our common adversaries. Those who threaten Israel and the peace and stability of the region threaten us as well, and so, often when we make the tough diplomatic choices – to stand against tyranny and extremism – we make them together.
“Today, Israel regrettably continues to face grave challenges from terrorists and extreme regimes. From Hamas, which launches daily missile attacks against Israeli citizens. From Hezbollah, which has rearmed itself since the 2006 war. And perhaps most significantly, from Iran and its ongoing pursuit of nuclear technology and support for terrorism.
“The actions of the Iranian regime are destabilizing, reckless, and a challenge to the peaceful aspirations of the United States, Israel and our allies. Just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran is still withholding critical information that could determine its nuclear intentions. In the last several years, Iran has built its uranium enrichment capability from just a few centrifuges to dozens, then hundreds, now thousands, with aspirations for even tens of thousands of centrifuges able to produce material suitable for nuclear weapons.
“We must use every effective tool at our disposal to thwart Iran’s evil intent – just as we changed the Soviet Union’s conduct and ended the Cold War.
“Some have argued that we need to tie one hand behind our backs and take our most powerful tool – aggressive diplomacy – off the table. I believe that is a weak, ineffective and unwise path. We need a more effective and robust diplomacy. To be sure, diplomacy alone may not succeed. If Iran’s stubbornness continues, tougher and more effective sanctions by a united international community are necessary.
“Last year, Senator Obama introduced a smart, tough divestment plan, cosponsored by 33 other Democratic and Republican Senators that would place severe costs on Iran for its reckless choices. More Senators should join that and other efforts to increase sanctions on Iran.
“The United States must continue to provide robust military aid to Israel so that Israel can further enhance its qualitative military advantage in the region. I fully support that military aid and the new ’10-year plan,’ and I will urge my Senate colleagues to do the same.
“These steps will send a clear message: America will never permit Israel’s existence to be threatened. Israel has the right to exist peacefully, and Israel’s partnership these past 60 years with the United States will continue.
“That pursuit of peace requires all in the region to recommit to a peace process that works – a peace process that moves toward a two-state solution and provides the security to which Israel is entitled. The constant rocket fire from Gaza must end. Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce terrorism, give up its weapons and abide by previous agreements. And the work of Syria to undermine democracy in Lebanon and to enable Hezbollah must cease.
“My solidarity with Israel dates well before my public career began, when as a high school student I started attending Bonds for Israel drives with Landra and my future in-laws in Las Vegas. Menachem Begin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the legendary actor Edward G. Robinson were among those who spoke there. From those days of my youth onward, I have always been a friend to Israel – and that will never change.
“As the leader of the United States Senate, I commit on behalf of the Democratic majority, and all Senators, that we will continue to defend the security and prosperity of Israel – as we always have since Harry S Truman took those first bold steps.
“And you can be just as sure where the Democratic nominee stands: four-square with Israel. That is certain.
“We are in this together. Just as the civil rights movement relied upon Joan Mulholland, Rabbi Nussbaum and thousands of others – black, white, Jewish and Christian – and just as the founding of the State of Israel 60 years ago relied upon the foot soldiers of a generation of Jews from all corners of the globe who sought a home of their own, now it is our turn to take part in the great challenge of forging a peaceful and prosperous future for Israel.
“No one believes the years ahead will be easy. They may prove to be among the most difficult Israel has ever faced. But my faith in God is strong, my faith in Israel is strong, and I know that together, we will achieve the promise of never again – and the promise of a secure and prosperous Israel that we all know is possible.”