Last year Jews in America celebrated their 350th year in America; the first Jews in America arrived in New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654. Earlier this week President Bush joined in the celebration with a visit to the restored Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington (above, I believe with a Torah scroll rescued from the Holocaust) followed by his attendance at a dinner organized to commemorate 350 years of Jewish life in America (below).
The president gave a memorable speech at the dinner. After the introductory remarks, President Bush noted the contribution of Jews to America through service in the armed forces, singling out Tibor Rubin:
[O]ne 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.
This evening, I’m happy to announce that next week, I will bestow upon this great patriot our nation’s highest award for bravery, the Medal of Honor.
He also invoked the bonds between America and Israel:
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. (Applause.)
Earlier today, I met in New York with Prime Minister Sharon and the Ambassador. I admire Prime Minister Sharon. He’s a man of courage; he’s a man of peace. (Applause.) Once again, I expressed this nation’s commitment to defending the security and well-being of Israel. (Applause.) I also assured him that I will not waver when it comes to spreading freedom around the world. I understand — (applause) — 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. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
Religious freedom is more than the freedom to practice one’s faith. It is also the obligation to respect the faith of others. (Applause.) So to stand for religious freedom, we must expose and confront the ancient hatred of anti-Semitism, wherever it is found. (Applause.) When we find anti-Semitism at home, we will confront it. When we find anti-Semitism abroad, we will condemn it. (Applause.) And we condemn the desecration of synagogues in Gaza that followed Israel’s withdrawal. (Applause.)
Smarter folks than I may be able to reconcile the president’s remarks with Paul’s post last night; I can’t. The president then closed his speech on a note that tied his defense of the faithful to recovery from the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina:
Under America’s system of religious freedom, church and state are separate. (Applause.) 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. (Applause.)
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. (Applause.)
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 flood waters. And like Noah and his family, we have faith that as the waters recede, we will see life begin again.
Even though the president gave this speech last Wednesday, I’m pretty sure you haven’t read about it elsewhere. As far as I can tell, the only coverage it received was a brief reference in an AP story by Barry Schweid: “Bush looks to Palestinians to make next move.” (Thanks to Barry Kelner.)