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Bill Clinton Administration:
Speech Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Israel

(April 27, 1998)


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Thank you very much. Mr. President, Rector, all the officials of Hebrew University; Mr. Vice President, members of the Cabinet, the administration, Members of the Congress. I'd like to especially thank Dr. Dunn, Dr. Nyang, Dr. Schorsch, and Richard Dreyfuss and Linda Lavin for their wonderful contributions to this day. To Ambassador and Mrs. Ben-Elissar, thank you for being here. To all of our former Ambassadors to the United States and other distinguished guests from Israel, and my fellow Americans.

I'd also like to ask that we give a special word of appreciation to the people who provided all that wonderful music which got us in the right frame of mind, Esta band. [Applause] Thank you very much. If you could hang around here for a month or two, I think we might get some things done; you'd keep us all in a very positive frame of mind.

I am very honored to receive this degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, honored because its founders include Chaim Weizmann, Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein; honored because it is now one of the world's leading centers of learning and research.

I must say, I never expected to be doing this here. Many American universities have satellite campuses where working people like me can obtain degrees at locations near their homes and offices. [Laughter] This is more than I ever could have anticipated. [Laughter]

President Magidor, thank you for bringing this ceremony here so that those of us who cannot go to Israel in a couple of days may share in the celebration of this magnificent 50th birthday.

I accept this honor today on behalf of my predecessors, beginning with Harry Truman, nine American Presidents all devoted to Israel's security and freedom, all committed to peace in the Middle East. I accept it on behalf of the American people who have formed not just an alliance but a profound friendship with the people of Israel over these last 50 years.

Today we celebrate that extraordinary 50 years. In 1948 Israel arose from the seeds of the Diaspora and the ashes of the Holocaust. The children of Abraham and Sarah, survivors of 2,000 years of exile and persecution, were home at last and free at last. For its founders, the Israeli State was, however, about even more than securing a haven for the Jewish people after centuries of suffering and wandering. Isaiah prophesied that Israel would become "a light unto the nations," and David Ben-Gurion and his allies set out to make that prophecy come true by establishing a society of light, embracing what Ben-Gurion called the higher virtues of truth, justice, and compassion.

Ben-Gurion believed Israel could lead the world to a better future by marrying the ethical teachings of the ancients with the discoveries of modern science. "It is only by the integration of the two," he wrote, "that the blessings of both can flourish." Of course, he also envisioned a third great achievement for Israel that, with strength and wisdom and skill, Israel would build a lasting peace with its Arab neighbors.

As we have heard today, relations between our two nations were born of another leader's courage and vision. Harry Truman brushed aside the urgings of his advisers, as he often did, when they said go slow, wait and see, before offering Israel recognition. For him, supporting a Jewish homeland was a moral imperative rooted in his understanding of the suffering and dreams of the Jews from Biblical times. And as we learned from Richard's wonderful reading, it occurred just 11 minutes after Israel proclaimed independence. We, in becoming the first country to recognize Israel, had one of our proudest moments. Not only that, 50 years later, old Harry Truman looks pretty smart. [Laughter]

Look what Israel has done. Under a brilliant blue sky, the Israelis have built prosperous farms and kibbutzes, planted forests, turned streets of sand into shining boulevards, raised families, and welcomed the arrival of brothers and sisters from Europe and North Africa, from Russia and Ethiopia and America. Israelis have dazzled the world with achievements in science and scholarship, in literature and the art. They have built a thriving democracy.

And despite the passage of 50 years, Israelis seem to love and practice their freedom as if they had only just gained it. They never seem to cease challenging themselves about their history, their relationship with their neighbors, the hard choices for the future. If anyone ever wonders whether there is a place in the world where you can have freedom and honest, vigorous, 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year argument, go to Israel. [Laughter]

It is truly one of the most pulsating, vibrant places on Earth, alive with thousands of sounds, prayers in dozens of languages in the Old City, young people gathered on the avenues of Tel Aviv, computer keyboards tapping, new ventures launched on the Internet, school children now conversing in Hebrew, once the language only of sacred text now the voice of an Israeli renaissance. And the economy has been propelled by all this energy and activity into being one of the most advanced and diversified in the world, per capita income now matching nations in Europe; exports last year were $32 billion dollars, 1,000 times their level in 1948. Hi-tech companies, hi-tech people, you go to Israel; it looks as if you can't be a citizen of Israel unless you have a cell phone glued to your hand. [Laughter]

Yes, Israelis have gone a very long way toward fulfilling the first two pieces of Ben-Gurion's vision. Surely they have built an ethical, democratic society, and a modern science and technology-based economy. It has endured against great odds by prevailing again and again in battle. The valor of citizen soldiers and military and political leaders like Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yonni Netanyahu.

But in the battle for the third piece of Ben-Gurion's vision, a just, secure, and lasting peace, is still being waged and still in blood and tears. Camp David brought peace between Israel and Egypt, but it cost Anwar Sadat his life. Here on this very spot, on a brilliant day in September of 1993, Yitzhak Rabin committed himself not only to an agreement with Mr. Arafat but to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. How bravely he pursued it. But it cost him his life.

Jews and Arabs who have wanted nothing more than to live quiet, normal lives are still denied that simple pleasure. Still, as the new century dawns, the world is filled with the promise and hope that we can overcome ancient hatreds to build a modern peace for our children.

From Guatemala to Mozambique to Bosnia, and now even to the land of my ancestors in Ireland, longtime antagonists have left the battleground to find common ground. They are weary of war. They long for peace for their children. They move beyond hatred to hope.

This is a time of reconciliation around the world. It must be a time to deepen freedom and raise up life in the Middle East. The 21st century can and must be a century of democracy, prosperity, and justice and, of course, of peace. But it can be only if we learn not only to respect but to honor our differences. The Middle East can build on the momentous achievements of its Nobel Prize winners, Begin and Sadat, Arafat, Peres, and Rabin, so that all its children may grow up without fear.

In a land holy to three great religions, sacred sites for Islam, Judaism, and Christianity exist side by side. If there is so much history there, the children of all that history should be able to live together.

Again and again, extremists have sought to derail peace with bullets and bombs. Again and again, they demonstrate the real divisions today are not between Jews and Arabs but between those stuck in the past and those who long for a better future, between those paralyzed by hatred and those energized by hope, those who stand with clenched fists and those who reach out with open hands. We cannot let the extremists prevail. Israel can fulfill its full promise by drawing on the courage and vision of its founders to achieve peace with security. Never has the opportunity been more real, and it must not be lost.

You know, I was sitting here on the stage today listening to everything that was said and thinking of all the great gifts that Israel has given the United States. In 1963, 35 years ago this year, when Israel was still a young nation and President Kennedy was killed, your then-United Nations Ambassador, Mr. Eban, gave an enormous gift to the American people in all of our pain by putting in one short, terse sentence how we all felt when he said, "Tragedy is the difference between what is and what might have been." As we look ahead to tomorrow, let us define triumph by turning his formula on its head. Triumph is when there is no difference between what might have been and what is.

Let us in the United States say that we will stand by Israel, always foursquare for its security, always together in friendship, but we want this debate to continue until there is no difference between what might have been and what is.

We look at Hebrew University and see all three pieces of David Ben-Gurion's dream coming to life. We see biologists developing techniques to locate a single cancer cell among millions of healthy ones; we see the moral commitment to keeping people's health among the scientists there; we see Hebrew University researchers undertaking efforts in cooperation with Palestinian researchers in East Jerusalem. One of the participants in the project said, "It's science and peace together." We know that much more is possible. We must understand that much more is essential.

Fifty years from now the 21st century will near its midpoint and Israel will have a 100th birthday celebration. Sure as the world, our grandchildren will be hanging around here on this lawn. What do you think they'll be able to say? And what will they be celebrating? It is my dream that on that 100th anniversary, people from every country in the Middle East will gather in the Holy Land, and all the land will be holy to all of them.

As a Christian, I do not know how God, if He were to come to Earth, would divide the land over which there is dispute now. I suspect neither does anyone else in this audience. But I know that if we all pray for the wisdom to do God's will, chances are we will find a way to close the gap in the next couple of years between what might be and what is. I think that is what we owe the founders of Israel, to finish Ben-Gurion's dream.

Thank you, and God bless you all.


Sources: Public Papers of the President

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