June 13, 2024

Remarks by President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff at a Celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month

Remarks by President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff at a Celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month

East Room

4:46 P.M. EDT

THE FIRST LADY:  Now everyb- — everybody gets quiet.  It’s like the first day of class.  (Laughter.)

So, hello, everyone, and welcome to the White House.  (Applause.)  And we are honored to have you here for this administration’s first Jewish American Heritage Month Reception.  (Applause.)

Every morning as the sun illuminates the eastern shores of the United States, the Statue of Liberty glows with welcome for the new day.  It’s a beacon of friendship, of possibility, of freedom that lives in our hearts as well.  And emblazoned on its base are the words of Emma Lazarus.  Quote — you kno- — you probably all know this.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

It’s a declaration that Jewish Americans — your wisdom, your hope, your light, and your love — are a part of this country’s foundation and its future.

The history lives on in all of you.  And as you share it, the world becomes stronger and more beautiful: When you fight for your community and stand against injustice, following the legacy of this freedom and the freedom fighters who came before.  When you share memories of your parents and grandparents, each story coming to life with more details than a picture could ever convey.  When you make your favorite recipe with exacting care, savoring the taste of traditions passed from mother to daughter, father to son.

And as you forge your futures, these legacies guide your path with meaning and love, creating something new and bold and bright.

History lives inside the White House, too, hammered into the beams of these walls and swirling in the marble of each fireplace.  It tells the stories of where we’ve come from and who we’ve been.

And yet, looking around today, we know that it, too, can grow and evolve and begin something new.  With our unique traditions and talents, with our love and our laughter, with our faith in the future we want, we breathe new life into these halls.

This is an historic house, but you make it home, alive with purpose and possibility.

Today, let us remember the past with wisdom and turn toward the future with joy.  Let us continue honoring the people who helped get us here.  And together, we will shape this country we call home, meeting each new day with faith, hope, and hard work.

Thank you.  (Applause.)

And now we have a special performance by the stars of “Parade” on Broadway, Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond.  (Applause.)

“Parade” tells the story of Leo Frank, who at 31 years old was wrongfully convicted of murder, kidnapped, and lynched because he was Jewish. 

We are proud to bring his story to the biggest stage we could: the White House.  (Applause.)
(Musical performance by Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond begins.)

(Musical performance by Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond concludes.)

THE FIRST LADY:  That was so beautiful.  Can we give another round of applause, please, to Ben and Micaela and Jason?  (Applause.)

Thank you so much for coming to the White House and for sharing really your passion and really a piece of history with us.  So, I appreciate your coming.  Thank — we — we all love that are you here.  (Laughs.)  Thank you.  Thank you so much. 

And now you have to run and go back to New York, right?

MR. PLATT:  That’s right.  We have an eight o’clock show.

THE FIRST LADY:  Oh, my God.  (Laughter.)  Isn’t that amazing?

Well, thank you.

MR. PLATT:  Thank you for having us.

THE FIRST LADY:  Aww, thanks.  (Applause.) 

I love how he offered her some of his water when he was up here.  (Laughs.) 

We’re good?  Okay.  Because I didn’t know whether I had to, like, do my own performance myself.  (Laughter.) 

But apparently Joe made it, so — there was — there’s a little bit going on today.  (Laughter.)  So, I guess is the voice of God going to announce him out?  Yes.  (Laughter.)  Okay.  I’m done. 

THE SECOND GENTLEMAN:  Okay.  Good afternoon, everyone. 

AUDIENCE:  Good afternoon!

THE SECOND GENTLEMAN:  President Biden.  First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden.  My wife, Kamala Harris, the Vice President.  Hello, Vice President!  (Laughter and applause.)  And all of our esteemed guests.  It is so great to join you for a Jewish American Heritage Month celebration at the White House!  (Applause.)

We have come together to celebrate our heritage and honor the achievements of Jewish Americans throughout history.  And that history goes all the way back to our founding, when Jewish American patriots fought to help secure independence and later helped save our union during the Civil War and have fought so valiantly in all subsequent wars.

And throughout the eras, there have been outstanding Jewish Americans who have achieved so much in their fields — legendary activists, artists, entertainers, athletes, businesspeople, those in politics, and so many more.  And we especially pay tribute to all of those who struggled and persevered and who fought for equality, for justice, for fairness so that all of us could be here today.

And I look around this room, I see a lot of friends, but I also see so many leaders that are continuing this fight for justice, for equality.  I see educators, my fellow lawyers, artists, chefs, community leaders, advocates, leaders in our military, leaders in our government — Jewish Americans achieving at the highest levels of success. 

And how proud our ancestors would be — (applause) — to see us all here today, after many fled persecution, including my own ancestors, to live their dreams in the United States of America. 

And that is what makes America special.  That is the promise of America.  It’s a place where everyone can live freely and proudly as they are.  But now it’s up to us, in our time, right now, to build on that legacy.
Because right now, we are experiencing a marked rise in antisemitism not only in our country but throughout the world.  And it’s unfortunately part of an overall epidemic of hate. 

But I know that I’m doing everything I can to fight back — (applause) — fighting lies with truth, educating others about the truth of the Holocaust and who we are as Jews, and building coalitions — because we can’t do this alone — and allyship with people of different faiths and backgrounds, because we all need to be in this fight together so we can all live openly and proudly and without fear.  (Applause.)

And there’s no one who is fighting harder to push back against hatred and bigotry and to unite our country than President Biden and Vice President Harris.  (Applause.)
My wife, the Vice President, encouraged me — (laughter) — she did.  She did.  She encouraged me to lean into this fight.  And she told me, “Dougie…” — (laughter) — she calls me “Dougie” — but she said, “This issue found you.  Now lean into it.”

And right before I left for my trip to Poland and Germany, in part to recognize International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this man right here, President Biden, pulled me into the Oval Office, and he told me how important the fight against antisemitism was to him.

And, Mr. President, I’ll never forget how you shared your personal memories and stories with me about how you visited Dachau concentration camp, how important it was to go with your own children and grandchildren. 

And you told me about your father, how he felt the anger he had about what was going on and how the Allies had not bombed the train tracks leading to the concentration camps.  So I took that with me to Europe, and I’ll be forever grateful.

And I’m so grateful that we have a President and a Vice President who are tireless advocates for our Jewish community — (applause) — both as they combat hatred but also as they celebrate our heritage.

So please join me in welcoming the President of the United States, Joe Biden.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you, thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you.  Thank you.  Please.  Please.

I’m Joe Biden.  I’m Jill Biden’s husband.  (Laughter.) 

And I look around this room and, as they say in southern Delaware, there’s a lot of — you’ve brung me to the dance, man.  (Laughter.)  I’m serious.  Thank you all for all you do every day, not just in fighting antisemitism but being engaged in your country’s business.

Before I begin, I just finished a — because the press will want to hear this before they hear me say anything, and it’s just to keep them quiet for a — (laughter) — I’m only kidding.  But is that we just finished another good, productive meeting with our congressional leadership about a path forward to make sure that America does not default on its debt for the first time in its history.  (Applause.)

There is still — there’s still work to do, but I made it clear to the Speaker and others that we’ll speak regularly over the next several days, and the staff is going to continue meeting daily to make sure we do not default.

I’m scheduled to travel tomorrow to the G7 Summit in Japan.  And America’s role in the world is vital, especially right now as we work together with other countries to support Ukraine and take on all the challenges that demand international cooperation, from tackling climate change to strengthening global econo- — the global economy.

And the nature of the presidency is addressing many of the critical matters all at once, so I’m confident we’re going to continue to make progress toward avoiding default and fulfilling America’s responsibility as a leader on the world stage.

However, I’m cutting my trip short.  I’m postponing the Australia portion of the trip and my trip — my stop in Papua New Guinea in order to be back for the final negotiations with the congressional leaders.

And I spoke today with Prime Minister Albanese of Australia and — a short time ago — and let him know what was going on.  There was an overwhelming consensus, I think, in today’s meeting with the congressional leaders that defaulting on the debt is simply not an option.

Our economy would fall into recession.  It would devastate retirement accounts, increase borrowing costs.  And according to Moody’s, nearly 8 million Americans would lose their jobs.  And our international reputation would be damaged in the extreme if we were to let that happen.

It’s disappointing that in our discussions the congressional Republicans have not been willing to discuss raising revenues.  But the policy differences between the parties should not stop Congress from avoiding default.

I made clear again in today’s meeting that default is not an option.  America pays its debt, pays its bills, and there’ll be plenty of time to debate the policy differences.  But the country is never — we’ve never defaulted on our debt, and we never will. 

Now — (applause) — for the reasons why we’re here this evening.

Thank you, Doug.  (Laughs.)  Thank you very much.  It’s always an honor to be introduced by the first-ever Jewish spouse of an American Vice President.  (Applause.)

Kamala is here as well.  She was at these meetings with me as well. 

And it’s always great to be with Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz — where are you, Debbie? — there you are — (applause) — who many call the mother of the Jewish American Heritage Month — you’re too young, Mom — (applause) — for working for nearly two decades to make it a reality.

And I also want to thank our special guest, Michel [Michael], who is sure that today’s — today is both delicious and glatt kosher.  (Laughter.)  Where — I don’t know where the chef is.  There you are.  Well, stand up, man.  (Applause.)  And I’m honored he’s on my Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.  So, I know it’s going to be good.

And, finally, I thank all of you for joining us as we celebrate Jewish Americans, whose values, culture, and contributions have shaped who we are as a nation.  And that’s not hyperbole.

Over generations, the story of resilience, hope, faith of the Jewish people and the adversity, prejudice, and persecution and the promise of a better tomorrow has inspired people everywhere — everywhere around the world.

Back in 1600, even before the founding of the American — a small band of 23 Jews — Jewish refugees fleeing persecution abroad sailed to the port of modern-day New York City.  They came seeking religious freedom, helping define one of the bedrock principles on which this nation was built.

And in the years since, Jewish artists, entertainers, and poets like Emma Lazarus, who Jill mentioned, helped me define — helped us define America’s vision of liberty for millions of people who came to our shores.  Jewish suffragettes and advocates who fought for women’s rights, voting rights, workers’ rights.  Jewish activists who marched, petitioned, and b- — and boarded buses to demand civil rights for all.  Jewish scientists, doctors, and — who led to breakthrough science — scientific breakthroughs in science and medicine.

And across the public service, Jewish Americans have proudly served the nation in uniform, in elected office, in embassies, in civil service, and on our nation’s highest courts.

And fearless American journalists, like Evan, who’s being held — of Wall Street Journal — being held in a — shed — because he shed some light on the darkness in Russia.

My administration is working every day for Evan’s release, along with Paul Whelan, who’s also been wrongfully detained in Russia.  (Applause.)

We also know the contributions of Jewish Americans are shadowed by a long and painful history of the oldest and most sinister forces, hate and antisemitism — like the story of Leo Frank you just heard from the — for our performers on Broadway in the show “Parade.”  I thank them for telling the truth about what happened so it cannot be buried — buried or erased.  It matters that the truth be made public.

My dad first taught me about the horrors of the Shoah in our — at our family dinner table.  Our dinner table was a place you got together to have conversation and, incidentally, eat.  I’ve taken — and my dad talked about how outraged he was about why we didn’t bomb the railroad tracks into the concentration camps, why we didn’t let the ship in with Jew- — and just go on and on.  And he talked about the need to make sure every generation understood.

And since then, I’ve taken my children — every child, when they turned 14, I put them on a plane — the first trip they’ve ever taken abroad.  We fly directly to Dachau because I want them to see — I want them to see how no one could pretend they didn’t know, how you walk through that gate — and all my colleagues went through that gate — walk through that gate and you see, along the fence line of the entire area, beautiful homes with sa- — with beautiful roofs and windows and — I mean, just — and the idea they didn’t know what was going on there is just bizarre.  Just bizarre.  And so I wanted them to bear witness to the perils of indifference. 

I was reminded of the importance of that remembrance when I visited Israel again last year — I’ve been there many, many times — where I met two Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem.

You know — and there, I reaffirmed America’s unshakable commitment to Israel’s security and its right to exist as an independent Jewish state, a commitment I reaffirm today with — as rockets are launched indiscriminately into Israel from the terrorists in Gaza, forcing terrified families to hide with their children in bunkers to seek safety.

My support for Israel’s security remains longstanding and unwavering, including the right of Israel to defend itself against attacks.  And I’m proud — I’m proud of our support — and my colleagues that are here today as well — for Israel’s Iron Dome, which has intercepted thousands of rockets and saved countless lives in Israel.  (Applause.)

But sadly, security for the Jewish people isn’t just an issue abroad.

I decided to run in 2017 when Jill and I were deciding we weren’t going to run.  We had just lost our son.  We weren’t going to back in.  I was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  We weren’t going to run.

We turned on that television — you all remember the night — when you saw those people walking out of the fields in Charlottesville, carrying torches and Nazi insignias and literally singing the same — chanting the same antisemitic bile that was all — heard all through Germany in the early ‘30s.

And a young woman — I got to talk to her mom.  An innocent bystander was killed.  She was killed by that mob.  And what did we hear when asked?  We heard, quote, “There were very fine people on both sides.”  That was the response that we got when asked about what — what he — what the person thought.

That’s when I knew we had to stay engaged in the work of our time.

Hate never goes away.  I came out of the Civil Rights Movement — I used to think you could defeat it — you could defeat hate, wipe it out.  But you can’t.  It just hides under the rocks until someone breathes oxygen under those rocks and it comes roaring back out. 

In the past several years, it’s been given too much oxygen.

You know, the reports have shown that antisemitic incidents are at a record high — this is hard to believe — at a record high in our history, at a record high in the United States of America.

Violent attacks on synagogues and Jewish businesses.  Jewish institutions are under armed guard.  Jews wearing religious attire beaten on the street.  Jewish students harassed and excluded on college campuses.  Swastikas on cars, in cemeteries, and in schools.  Antisemitism flyer — antisemitic flyers in driveways and banners on bridges.  Antisemitic conspiracy theories rampant online.

It’s unconscionable.  It’s almost unbelievable.  It’s despicable.

These acts are a threat to other minority communities as well.  But more importantly, it’s the — literally the stain on the soul of America.

We have to be clear.  That expression is true: Silence is complicity.  Silence is complicity.  We can’t remain silent.

I will not remain silent, nor will any of you. 

Under my presidency, we’re going to continue to condemn and combat antisemitism at every turn.

That’s why I signed the bipartisan COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act to help enforce better — and help enforce — law enforcement better address these hate crimes.

Appointed America’s first ambassador-level Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.  Denora- — excuse me.  Deborah.  Is Deborah here?  (Applause.)  Stand up.  Deborah Lipstadt, thank you.  She’s worked closely with the Setl- — the Second Gentleman, who is a leading voice on this issue as well. 

I convened the first-ev- — first-of-its-kind White House summit on combating hate-fueled violence.

And the Department of Justice — and the Attorney General is here — has made prosecuting hate crimes a top priority.  And the Attorney General is going to stick with that as long as he’s there.  We’re also — (applause) —

We also helped secure the largest increase in federal funding ever for the physical security of non-profits, including synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish — and Jewish day schools, because nobody should have to fear going to a religious school or in a school or walking down a street with symbols of your faith. 

But all — but that’s not all.  We’ll soon be releasing the first-ever U.S. national strategy to counter antisemitism. 

This strategy reflects input from over thousands of — a thousand Jewish community members and other stakeholders, including Jews from diverse backgrounds and all denominations.  It also includes members of Congress, businesses — businesses and civil society leaders, state and local officials, and so many more.

Many of you are in this room, and I wanted to thank you for your partnership.  All of you who were involved in this, stand up.  Come on.  (Applause.)  Come on.  You’re being too humble.  (Applause.)

It matters.  It’s the most ambitious, comprehensive effort in our history to combat antisemitism in America.

This strategy includes over 100 meaningful actions that government agencies are going to take to counter antisemitism.  It also includes calls to action for Congress, state and local governments, technology, and other companies, civil society, faith leaders to counter antisemitism.

My strategy consists of four key pillars. 

First, we must increase awareness and understanding of both antisemitism and Jewish American heritage.

Second, we have to improve safety and security of Jewish — for Jewish communities.

Thirdly, we must reverse the normalization in an- — of antisemitism and address antisemitic discrimination now and loudly. 

And finally, we have to continue — we must continue to build coalitions all across communities to fight the hate.

You know, as we work together to implement this report, we’re sending a clear and forceful message: In America, evil will not win.  Hate will not prevail.  The venom and violence of antisemitism will not be the story of our time.

Let me close with this.  We’re the only country in the world founded on an idea — an idea — not on geography, not on religion, not on an et- — on ethnicity, but an idea.

A sacred proposition rooted in faith and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that we’re all created equal in the image of God and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.

We have never fully lived up to that idea, but we have never, never walked away from it, even though we have leaders who try to get us to walk away from it.

This is the work of our democracy.  In a literal sense, it’s the work of our democracy.  The Talmud says, quote, “It’s not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

You know, the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.  And that’s the American story.  It’s been written in part by Jewish Americans who have turned their pain and purpose into bringing us closer to realizing the promise for all Americans.

That was the message when we hosted the first Jewish High Holiday reception ever in the White House.  It was our message on Hanukkah, when we lit the first permanent White House menorah, which is the first Jewish artifact in the entire White House collection. 

And that’s our message today for the Jewish American Heritage Month: celebrating and connecting, feeling the pride and heritage and community, remembering we are the United States of America.  There’s nothing — nothing, nothing, nothing — beyond our capacity if we do it together.

I believe that from the bottom of my heart.  And the reason I’m so optimistic: this new generation of young people — the best educated, least prejudiced, most engaged generation in American history.  We’re counting on them, but we got to help them.  We got to help them get this right, finally.

God bless you all.  And may God bless America.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

5:32 P.M. EDT

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/05/16/remarks-by-president-biden-first-lady-jill-biden-and-second-gentleman-douglas-emhoff-at-a-celebration-of-jewish-american-heritage-month/