We Are Grateful to the Jewish People

The following is an excerpt from the speech President Bush gave on Sept. 14 at the national dinner celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

….I’m honored to accept this medal commemorating three and a half centuries of Jewish life in America. I consider it a high honor to have been invited to celebrate with you.

Back in 1790, the Jewish congregation of Newport, R.I., wrote to congratulate George Washington on his election as the country’s first president. Some say he was the first George W. In his reply, President Washington thanked the congregation and pledged to defend vigorously the principle of religious liberty for all.

Here’s what he said. He said, the United States “gives bigotry no sanction; to persecution, no assistance.” And he expressed his hope that the “stock of Abraham” would thrive in America.

In the centuries that followed, the stock of Abraham has thrived here like nowhere else. We’re better and stronger — and we’re a better and stronger and freer nation, because so many Jews from countries all over the world have chosen to become American citizens.

The story of the Jewish people in America is a story of America itself. The pilgrims considered this nation a new Israel, a refuge from persecution in Europe…. And when the first Jews arrived here, the children of Israel saw America as the land of promise, a golden land where they could practice their faith in freedom and live in liberty.

When the first Jewish settlers came to our shores 350 years ago, they were not immediately welcomed. Yet, from the onset, the Jews who arrived here demonstrated a deep commitment to their new land.

An immigrant named Asser Levy volunteered to serve in the New Amsterdam Citizens Guard, which, unfortunately, had a policy of refusing to admit Jews. That didn’t bother Levy. He was determined, like many others who have followed him, to break down the barriers of discrimination.

Within two years, he took his rightful spot alongside his fellow citizens in the guard. He was the first of many Jewish Americans who have proudly worn the uniform of the United States.

And one of the greatest Jewish soldiers America has ever known is Tibor Rubin. After surviving the Holocaust and the Nazi death camp, this young man came to America. He enlisted in the United States Army and fought in the Korean War. He was severely wounded and was later captured by the enemy.

For two-and-a-half years, he survived in a POW camp. He risked his life for his fellow soldiers nearly every night by smuggling extra food for those who were ill — it was a skill he had learned in the Nazi camps — and because of his daring, as many as 40 American lives were saved….

Jewish Americans have made countless contributions to our land. The prophet Jeremiah once called out this — to his nation, “… Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”

For 350 years, American Jews have heeded these words, and you’ve prayed and worked for peace and freedom in America. Freedom to worship is why Jews came to America three-and-a-half centuries ago; it’s why the Jews settled in Israel over five decades ago.

Our two nations have a lot in common, when you think about it. We were both founded by immigrants escaping religious persecution in other lands. We both have built vibrant democracies.

Both our countries are founded on certain basic beliefs that there is an almighty God who watches over the affairs of men and values every life. These ties have made us natural allies, and these ties will never be broken.

Earlier today, I met in New York with Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and the ambassador. I admire Prime Minister Sharon. He’s a man of courage; he’s a man of peace.

Once again, I expressed this nation’s commitment to defending the security and well-being of Israel. I also assured him that I will not waver when it comes to spreading freedom around the world.

I understand — I understand this, that freedom is not America’s gift to the world; freedom is an almighty God’s gift to each man and woman and child in this world.

Religious freedom is a foundation of fundamental human and civil rights. And when the United States promotes religious freedom, it is promoting the spread of democracy. And when we promote the spread of democracy, we are promoting the cause of peace.

Religious freedom is more than the freedom to practice one’s faith. It is also the obligation to respect the faith of others.

So to stand for religious freedom, we must expose and confront the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism wherever it is found. When we find anti-Semitism at home, we will confront it. When we find anti-Semitism abroad, we will condemn it. And we condemn the desecration of synagogues in Gaza that followed Israel’s withdrawal.

Under America’s system of religious freedom, church and state are separate. Still, we have learned that faith is not solely a private matter. Men and women throughout our history have acted on the words of Scripture, and they have made America a better, more hopeful place.

When Rabbi Abraham Heschel marched with Martin Luther King, we saw modern-day prophets calling on America to honor its promises. We must allow people of faith to act on their convictions without facing discrimination. And that’s why my administration has started a faith-based and community initiative to call on the armies of compassion to help heal broken hearts. A few years ago in New York, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was discouraged from even applying for federal funds, because it had the word “Jewish” in its name. We must end this kind of discrimination if we want America to be a hopeful place.

At this moment, volunteers from all walks of life across our great land are helping the good folks of Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana recover from one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history. The outpouring of compassion is phenomenal. American Jewish organizations have already raised over $10 million, plus the $50,000 tonight, for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

About half of the 10,000 Jewish Americans who call New Orleans home found refuge in Houston. Rabbi Barry Gelman of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston immediately helped organize a task force to aid the evacuees. Five major Israeli universities with study abroad programs are opening their doors to college students whose schools have been shut down by the storm.

These are the good works of good people relying on the wisdom of the Good Book, a book that tells us how God rescued life from the floodwaters. And like Noah and his family, we have faith that as the waters recede, we will see life begin again.

I want to thank you for your patriotism. I want to thank you for compassion. I want to thank you for your love for the United States of America. All of America is grateful to the Jewish people for the treasures you have given us over the past 350 years. May God bless you, and may God continue to bless our country.


Partners With God

“For the Sake of Heaven and Earth,” by Irving Greenberg (JPS, 2004).


In a passage from the Talmud (Makkoth 24a), Moses' blessing in Deuteronomy is cited: “And Israel dwells in safety alone.” The Prophet Amos arose to revoke that dubious blessing: “Oh God, cease, I beseech you! How shall Israel dwell all alone.”

Then the Lord repented concerning Moses' questionable blessing and declared, “That shall not be.”

Like Amos, Irvng Greenberg, in his compelling book, “For the Sake of Heaven and Earth,” knows that it is no blessing for Judaism or any religion to be alone. Religions need each other and are called to find each other in the imitation of godliness.

Greenberg's “partnership theology” transcends the theologically correct acceptance of the legitimacy of each faith. With imaginative foresight, he calls for a covenantal coalition of faiths to help fulfill God's dream of a universe created in God's image.

After the Holocaust, Greenberg expects more from religion than a polite tolerance toward other faiths and more than a begrudging acceptance of religious pluralism. He calls all religions to jointly see themselves as “shutafim lakodosh baruch hu b'maaseh bereshit” — joining each other in sacred partnership with the Holy One in creating and sustaining the universe.

The uniqueness of each religion Greenberg holds inviolate, but our times call all religions to transcend their individual particularity and join together in the repair of this broken world.

Greenberg steps in where only prophets dare to tread. He thus finds himself in the position of the prophet, the man “between.” His position leads him to stand between his institutional home base and his call for transcendent conscience. He knows full well that Holocaustal wounds and scars make it painful to extend the hand to the “other” and difficult to look into the eyes of the “other.”

Greenberg has written extensively of the long, sad history of contempt, the theological inquisitions that mock interfaith theological conversation as betrayal and dismiss dialogue as naively utopian. But he knows that to continue the status quo ante vitiates the possibilities of Christian, Jewish and Islamic solidarity.

He fears perpetuating the precarious polarization that only immortalizes the perennial rupture between “them” and “us,” the “chosen” and the “rejected,” the “elected” and the “superseded,” the “triumphant” and the “defeated.” Such split-thinking and believing leaves in its wake anger and suspicion.

With characteristic moral courage, Greenberg confronts “the failed Messiah” with empathic respect and refuses to dismiss the sacred intuitions of non-Jewish spirituality. Attention to the family resemblance of all monotheistic faiths may help them to overcome the parochialism that destabilizes globalization.

For such an approach, the man between will be held suspect. He will have to struggle against the threats of excommunication and even the charges of heresy. But the reader will find heart in Greenberg's confessional witness to the trajectory of his theological evolution.

While reading Greenberg's book, I was reminded of a passage from Rabbi Abraham Kook in his “Orot HaKodesh.” Kook had a profound influence on the spiritual life of Greenberg. The passage from Kook reads: “It is forbidden for religious behavior to compromise a person's natural moral sensibility. If it does, our fear of heaven is no longer ours. An indication of this purity is that our natural moral sense becomes more exalted as a consequence of religious inspiration. If the opposite occurs, and the moral character of the individual or group is diminished by a religious observance, than we are certainly mistaken in our faith.”

Throughout his essays, Greenberg is sustained by his natural moral sensibility and his fear of heaven.

The author makes a significant contribution to authentic inter-religious dialogue. His vision is rooted in the awareness that Judaism is a world religion that must engage other world religions in a quest for global unity.

Theological conscience cannot accept the segregation of God from His world and from His children.

This book I place on the shelf in my library that is most easily accessible. I know it will be consulted often, for God's sake and my own.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino