Past Speakers of the: LANDON LECTURES

Landon Lecture by Michael Oren,

Israeli Ambassador
January 29, 2013

MICHAEL OREN: Thank you all for honoring me to be part of the Landon Series. To be part of a lecture series that has included former presidents of the United States, legislators, and colleagues from the diplomatic community, thinkers, and philosophers. What a great privilege this is. I'm here to talk about the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel. We're going to begin.

Let me begin with three short vignettes - scenes from an ambassador's life, if you will. Indulge me for a second. The first scene actually took place before I became an ambassador, it's in 2008. 2008 was Israel's sixtieth birthday. I was a professor in Israel, an historian, and one day I get a call from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, from the Naval Attaché. Would I be interested in flying out to the U.S.S. Truman - an aircraft carrier patrolling somewhere out in the eastern Mediterranean - and giving a lecture on a history of the U.S.-Israel relationship? So I thought about this for about a quarter of a second. Are you kidding? Would I like to fly out to an aircraft carrier? Of course I'd like to fly out to an aircraft carrier. I said okay, made a date. I go out to some obscure airfield near Ben Gurion Airport and get onto a naval propeller plane. Nobody here from the Navy? I see a few men in uniform from the Army. I don't know if you guys have ever landed on an aircraft carrier - you did? Did they tell you what it was going to be like before you landed? Obviously this is like a naval thing - it's a big joke. They strap you on, you fly two hours - the U.S.S. Truman was out in the middle of the Mediterranean between of the island of Rhodes and Turkey - and they don't tell you that this plane is going to go from 180 miles an hour to zero in about less than a second. So you land. You're here and your eyeballs are somewhere out there - they think it's very funny. I don't. I get out and here's the most extraordinary thing: there are 5,200 crewmembers of the U.S.S. Truman - this is an American city floating out in the middle of the ocean - and they're all standing and waiting for me, an Israeli professor, to talk to them about the history of the U.S. and Israel relationship. Why? Then I became ambassador and I visit various cities - Kansas City this morning. A couple months ago I was in Denver, Colorado. Colorado has a fairly large Jewish community - a big state. I was a guest of the two houses of the Assembly of Colorado. While I was there both houses of the Congress of Colorado passed a resolution in support of the State of Israel - unequivocally in support of the State of Israel, love for the State of Israel - in my presence. Both of these resolutions passed unanimously. No opposition. Zero. Why?

Several months later I'm visiting Cincinnati. Great City, Cincinnati. Usually when I go to an American city I'll try to speak to local leaderships. I'll speak to Latino leadership, I'll speak to the African-American leadership, the Jewish leadership. On Sundays I try to go to church because we have a very important relationship with Christians in this country - more on that later. On this particular Sunday I went to an unusual church. I went to an African-American Baptist church in a downtown part of Cincinnati. And I walk into this church and for a person who comes from a background like I do, actually seeing one of these churches with the choir and the music - it was so thrilling. This entire church embraced me. The reception I received there was simply - it was a type of rapturous reception. I was enveloped with love as the Ambassador of Israel to the United States. Why?

What is it about the crew members on the Truman, or the houses of Assembly in Denver, or this African-American church in downtown Cincinnati on a rainy Sunday morning? What do they have in common with me? I'm coming from a country that's tiny, seven thousand miles away. What's the connection here? Why is this relationship so special? To understand it we've got to go back.

Israel was founded in 1948 but we've got to go back way beyond that. You have to go back four hundred years to the beginning of the seventeenth century when the first buckled shoe alit upon a certain stone off the coast of Massachusetts and the owner of that shoe, a gentleman by the name of William Bradford, said: "Come let us proclaim the word of the Zion in the new Promised Land." The word of the Lord in Zion. William Bradford was a member of the one hundred and one Pilgrims who had come aboard the Mayflower and he had conflated Massachusetts with Zion. Massachusetts is a very nice state I want you to know, but how did Massachusetts become the Promised Land in the mind of the Puritans? Puritanism, you may know, was a dissenting Protestant sect in seventeenth century England. They suffered terribly at the hands of the national church. In an effort to find a model that enabled them to better cope with their suffering they looked into the Bible - quite naturally - looked into the New Testament. They didn't find the model they wanted, but they looked further back into the books that they called the Old Testament. There they found something very unusual. They found a God who spoke to his people in their own language. God in the Bible speaks one language, he speaks Hebrew, and he made them a promise. He promised to rescue them from exile, to restore them to the Promised Land. The Puritans read this story and they loved this story. They embraced this story; it became their story. They became the new Israel - the new Jews. England became the new Egypt. The Atlantic Ocean became the new Sinai that they had to cross - the desert - and they landed in a new Promised Land of America. They immediately imposed the map of the old Promised Land on the new Promised Land. So if you go to the East Coast you have about a thousand place names - towns, cities - that are Hebrew names. You have your Jerichos and your Bethlahems and your Bethanys and your Bethels. These are all Hebrew names. They gave Hebrew names to their children - they called them David and Rebecca and Isaac and Leah. They made Hebrew a required language at all of their universities. James Madison was a Hebrew major at Princeton and he failed. I know the feeling. He had to do an extra year at Princeton because of his Hebrew.

So deeply ingrained was the Hebrew Biblical narrative in the minds of the Founding Fathers and Mothers of this country that at the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, there was a debate among the American leadership over what was going to be the great seal of the United States of America. There were some American leaders who thought it should be the American bald eagle. But there was another group of American leaders who said no, the image of the United States should show Moses leading the children of Israel out of the Promised Land - out of bondage and into the Promised Land. There was a very intense debate about this over the seal, and America came this close to having Moses as its national symbol. Moses lost out, alas, to the follicly-challenged bird. But you should know that the designers of the Moses seal were none other than Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. That's how deeply they had internalized the Biblical Hebrew narrative.

For many of the Puritans and their descendants, the fact that they were the new Jews meant that they had a kindred relationship - a kinship - with the old Jews. The fact that they were now the heirs to a new Promised Land meant that they had a strong connection with the old Promised Land, known in the Bible as the Land of Israel. They concluded that to be good Christians - to be good Americans - it was their divinely-ordained duty to help those old Jews get back to the land of Israel and restore their ancient statehood. The notion of restorationism. It wasn't a peripheral idea in Colonial and post-Colonial America, it was very mainstream.

John Adams, the second President of the United States, said that it was his greatest dream that 100,000 Jewish soldiers would march back into Judea, as he called it, and reclaim it as a Jewish kingdom. Abraham Lincoln, 1863, said it was his dream to help the Jews go back to their land and to restore their sovereignty once he had restored unity in the United States after the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson, the grandson and son of Presbyterian ministers, when asked by the British whether they should issue a declaration supporting the creation of a Jewish national home in what was then known as Palestine, and the British were debating this, Woodrow Wilson came out and gave his full support that that declaration. Asked why he did it - because his own Secretary of State said don't do it - there will be an oil boycott of Israel - of the United States - he said: "I did it because to think that the son of Presbyterian ministers would have the honor of restoring the Jews to their holy land." Woodrow Wilson.

The British issued that declaration - it was known as the Balfour Declaration - and in 1947 that became the basis of the U.N. Partition Resolution creating a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine. The Jewish state was set to come into being on May 14th, 1948, a Friday. And again, all of the foreign policy establishment in Washington - the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Pentagon - advised the President of the United States not to recognize that Jewish state. It will be terrible, there will be an oil boycott of the United States. Europe would fall to the Communists. The Jews of that country don't know how to defend themselves, they've never had an Army before. The United States Army is going to have to go in there to defend them - don't recognize the Jewish state. The President at the time was a gentleman by the name of Harry Truman. Harry Truman had grown up a strict Baptist. He claimed to have memorized the Old Testament by age fourteen. After listening to the counsel of all of his senior advisors he locked himself into the White House for forty-eight hours and at 6:11 pm on May 14th, 1948, eleven minutes after the State of Israel declared its independence, Harry Truman made the United States the first nation on Earth to recognize the newly-created Jewish state. He too was asked, "Why did you do this? Everybody told you it was going to be a disaster, why did you do it?" Harry Truman had one answer. He said: "I'm Cyrus." I see some of you are nodding your heads - some of you know your Bible. In the Old Testament, of course, Cyrus is the ancient Persian king who fulfills the promise. He rescued the Jews from exile and restored them to their holy land. "I'm Cyrus."

Now America remains today the most religiously-observant country in the industrialized world. More people - more Americans attend a house of worship of one type or another - be it a church, a mosque, a synagogue - in this country than in any other industrialized country. People are still reading their Bible, still reading God's promises to the Jewish people to restore them to their Promised Land, and they take that promise very seriously. Support for Israel in this country is at a near all-time high. Roughly three-quarters of Americans define themselves as pro-Israel and the spiritual connection here is absolutely essential. It's an essential component of that three-quarters support. But Israel comes into being in 1948 not only as a Jewish state, it comes into being as a democratic state. It's the only functioning democracy in the Middle East for many, many years. It's a country which, like the United States, has representative government. It has a rule of law and has full equality for all of its citizens. Our Declaration of Independence is drawn directly from the American Declaration of Independence, promising full equality not only for religion and creed and race, but also for sex. In 1948 already recognizing the equality between the sexes. We are a country in which nobody is above the law, including former Presidents of the country who have been found guilty of various offenses. Nobody is above the law. We are part of a very small club in the world. A very select club of countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, that have never known a second of non-democratic rule. Think about that. Very few countries - most countries go through periods when they haven't had democracy and in spite of the tremendous pressures that Israel has endured since its creation - not a moment of peace - we have never succumbed to non-democratic rule.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has a memorial for 9/11 outside of Jerusalem. We're the only country in the Middle East that has a memorial for Martin Luther King - we actually observe Martin Luther King Day. We have a memorial for John F. Kennedy outside Jerusalem in the Jerusalem Forest. We're the only country in the Middle East that has not one, but two replicas of the Liberty Bell. One of them is right down the street from my home in Jerusalem at Liberty Bell Park, inscribed with the words from Leviticus from the Bible: "May freedom ring throughout the land" from the Bible.

So you have these strong spiritual connections, you have the democratic shared values. What you didn't have was a strategic alliance. If someone says that Israel and the United States have been allied strategically and militarily since 1948, it's not true. In 1967 there was a war - the Six Day War - in which Israel defeated several Soviet-backed Arab armies. We fought that battle entirely with French arms, we didn't use a single American bullet in that battle. On the seventh day as it were, American policymakers woke up and said whoa - there's this anti-Soviet powerhouse in the Middle East, we should be aligned with that country. And thus was born the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance, which has flourished and burgeoned manifoldly ever since.

Where to begin? In joint training between U.S. forces and Israeli forces, whether it be an anti-missile companies or Special Forces: we just had our largest-ever joint maneuver in the fall between the U.S. Army and the Israeli Defense Forces. In the development of anti-missile technology: Israel and the United States have developed together the most advanced multi-layered anti-missile systems in the world, beginning with the Iron Dome system - which is for short-range missiles - has proven to be the first and only anti-missile system to work in combat conditions. During the recent fighting in November, the Iron Dome system took down 85% of the short-range missiles that were fired at Israeli cities. That's an historic record. American Naval vessels pay ports-of-call visits at Haifa - they love Haifa, the sailors love Haifa. American military planes land in Israel en route to other stations eastward. The United States pre-positions about a $1 billion in military equipment in the State of Israel for use by American forces. We have probably the best intelligence-sharing relationship anywhere - that the United States has with any other foreign country in the world. We hear it all the time from the intelligence committees in the Senate and the Congress that there's nothing approaching the U.S.-Israel intelligence cooperation.

We are involved in armoring American vehicles. There's a little kibbutz - a kibbutz is a communal farm - in northern Israel in the Galilee. It was actually founded by Americans back in 1949. That little kibbutz has provided armor for 20,000 American military vehicles serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I get the letters from the parents and the grandparents: "Thank you for saving our kids." Because the armoring is so effective. We provide anti-ballistic mechanisms for American armored vehicles, for Stryker vehicles, for Bradley vehicles. All that made by the State of Israel. We provide drone aircraft. Every American military vehicle - whether it be fixed-wing or helicopters - incorporates Israeli components and Israeli concepts. Israel is in every single one of those aircraft.

Israel is not only involved in the battlefield and in promoting American defenses, Israel also saves lives. There's a small startup company in Jerusalem that developed a high-tech bandage that applies pressure from the inside to a wound. You may remember this terrible incident in Arizona several years ago when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot. Well the SWAT team present at that horrible incident had one of these Israeli bandages in its medical kit and they applied it to her wound immediately and saved her life. Israel has provided a million of those bandages to American fighting forces. So there's really nothing like this relationship between the United States and Israel on the battlefield, or in medical hospitals, or in the intelligence-sharing community - there's nothing like it.

So you have this spiritual connections, the democratic shared values, the military alliance, but now there's a fourth pillar in the U.S.-Israel relationship. I spent about thirty years studying this relationship and I thought before I got into the job as Ambassador that I pretty much knew it all. And then I got into the job and I found out - very humbling - that I knew relatively little. That the fact that the U.S. relationship with Israel was more multi-faceted and deeper than anything I had contemplated.

One of the areas where it is deep and growing increasingly deeper, is the area of commercial connections. Israel today is America's twentieth-largest customer in the world. We're the twelfth-largest export destination for the United States. We've surpassed Russia, Ireland, Spain, and Argentina as an American customer. At a time when American companies are many of them outsourcing to Asia, Israeli companies are outsourcing to the United States. Tens of thousands of Americans are employed by Israeli companies, whether it be making high-tech products or hummus. Hummus comes from a great little factory in Virginia, it's an Israeli company. Teva, the world's largest generic drug company, is an Israeli company. Teva means "nature". You should never have to take too many pills, but one out of every five pills you take in this country is a Teva pill. Tens of thousands of people are employed by Teva. Amazing. I was the first Israeli Ambassador ever to go to Puerto Rico because it's in my district because Teva employs thousands of people in Puerto Rico. Fascinating. Israel is the third-most represented country on the NASDAQ high-tech exchange, after small little companies like China and the United States. We're only eight million people and we're the third-most represented country on the NASDAQ exchange because we're a high-tech giant. And in fact, the United States and Israel - Silicon Valley and Israel - are viewed as one body by the world high-tech community. Why is that? After the United States we have the highest number of startup companies in the world - about five thousand startup companies. We devote about half of our national income to R&D - to research in high-tech. Israel developed - we're actually in all of your computers, we're in all of your cell phones. Everything from the intuitive browser - you know when you type in "university of" or you type in "Kansas State" and it comes up as Kansas State University on your browser? That's an Israeli invention. Your USB flash drive is an Israeli invention. All of that comes from the State of Israel and all of the major American high-tech companies, whether it be Microsoft, Motorola, Intel, have their R&D centers in Israel. Intel has two R&D centers in Israel and now Apple is opening its first overseas research and development center in the State of Israel so your Apple products will also be developed in Israel as well. It's extraordinary, extraordinary development that's occurred really over the last twenty years. Trade between the United States and Israel over the last two decades has increased by 350%.

Folks, we're living through turbulent times through the Middle East. The entire region is roiling. Look at the papers today at what is occurring in North Africa, Egypt, Syria. Everywhere you look, we are engaged in change. The United States and Israel are together meeting these challenges. Do we agree on everything? At times we have not agreed on everything. We've had disagreements over the status of Jerusalem. It's very interesting - with this close relationship it's one of the few alliances in history where one member in the alliance doesn't recognize the capital of the other. For the record, Israel does recognize Washington, D.C. as the capital of the United States. We've had differences on matters relating to the peace process, we've had differences relating to the Iranian nuclear challenge. But the fact of the matter is today, on both these issues, our positions are almost identical. We both call for the direct and immediate resumption of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership leading to a two-state solution for the two peoples. We've both committed to preventing Iran from developing and acquiring nuclear weapons. The great litmus of any alliance is not whether the two partners to the alliance agree on everything. The great test is how you can overcome those differences and how you can move forward and find common ground. And on every test, every crucible, the U.S.-Israel alliance has proven to be one of the great and unbreakable friendships in history.

Looking forward to the Middle East - two years from now, two weeks from now, two hours from now - nobody can tell you what's going to happen in this region. I come from the field of history. As an historian I had enough problems predicting the past. I'm not going to tell you what's going to happen in the Middle East in the next two hours. There's one thing that you can count on, one certainty about our region - and again whether it's two hours, two weeks, two years, twenty years - there's going to be one country in this region which is stable, which is economically robust, which has a citizen's army which is larger than the British and French armies combined, which has never known a nanosecond of non-democratic governance, and which is unabashedly, unreservedly, unequivocally pro-American. You will never find an anti-American demonstration in the State of Israel. American flags are never burned in the streets of Israel - they're waved in the streets of Israel. Come on our Independence Day, when Israelis wave Israeli flags and American flags together. There's no substitute for that, just as there's no substitute for Israel for the United States of America, for the United States of America there's no substitute for the State of Israel.

Israel is not only America's ally, Israel is America's ultimate ally. And I thank you.

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