U.S. President Barack Obama told a gathering at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC on Wednesday that America has an obligation to lead the fight against rising anti-Semitism.
“We are all Jews,” Obama said. “All of us have a responsibility.”Obama’s presence at the embassy signaled a thaw in relations between the White House and Jerusalem. Or at least, an effort by the president to win back Jewish voters before they go to the polls in November.
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Speaking at a ceremony to present Righteous Among the Nations awards marking International Holocaust Day, Obama said the rise in anti-Semitism is “undeniable.” It is the first time that this event has ever been held at the Israeli embassy as well.
The families of Walery and Maryla Zbijewski of Poland, teacher Lois Gunden and Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds came to accept the honors for their deceased, heroic loved ones. They were presented with the “Righteous Among the Nations” awards by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center in Israel on behalf of the Jewish People for risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazis.
Without fanfare, the U.S. president entered the room together with Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, who was clearly, deeply appreciative of the honor granted him. “This is the first time a sitting president has ever spoken to our embassy,” Dermer said in his introduction.
Obama himself turned to the issue of the rising anti-Semitism around the globe, and in the United States as well.
“We must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it,” the president said. “When we see some Jews leaving major European cities where their families have lived for generations, because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kansas; when swastikas appear on college campuses – when we see all that and more, we must not be silent,” he continued.
“As president, I’ve made sure that the United States is leading the global fight against anti-Semitism. And it’s why, with Israel and countries around the world, we organized the first United Nations General Assembly meeting on anti-Semitism. It’s why we’ve urged other nations to dedicate a special envoy this threat, as we have.”
Obama also spoke of his own family experience with the Holocaust, a memory of his grandmother’s narration. He spoke of how his great uncle returned home from helping to liberate Buchenwald so shaken by what he had seen that “he did not speak to anyone for six months, just went up in his attic, couldn’t fully absorb the horror that he had witnessed.”
The U.S. president also took his own family to Buchenwald, to see for himself the place where his great uncle had been so traumatized, and where he had helped save so many lives. He also brought his two daughters to the Holocaust Museum “because our children must know this chapter of our history and must never repeat it.”
He underlined the difference between criticizing Israeli policies, and denying Israel’s right to exist, and said “when Israel faces terrorism we stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish State of Israel.
“America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakeable,” Obama said. “It would be a fundamental moral failing if America broke that bond.”
Hana Levi Julian