Remarks at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's 100th Anniversary Celebration

By:  John Kerry
Date: Dec. 9, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very, very much. I much appreciate your welcome. I will inform you that Winston Churchill once said the only reason people give a standing ovation is they desperately need an excuse to shift their underwear. (Laughter.) But I will believe that you had a much more noble goal. (Laughter.)

Stuart, thank you. Stu, you are a marvel. And I tell you, I'm honored to be introduced by Stu Eizenstat. He is a great, really one of our sort of unsung heroes and treasures in our country for the remarkable work that he has always done and -- (applause). Absolutely. I got to know him pretty well. His pro bono work that he's done for years to help Holocaust victims and their families be able to recover the assets that were taken from them during the horrors of World War II is one mark. But I've seen him in his roles at the White House with the Carter Administration, the Clinton Administration.

And I will never forget when I was in Kyoto working on the global climate change treaty, Stu came flying in, literally, I think from Switzerland, where he'd been negotiating to pick up the negotiation responsibilities, which had, frankly, not been thoroughly and properly prepared in an appropriate way. And he kind of picked up this negotiation at half capacity, and I was stunned by his negotiating skill, his ability, and he put together an agreement -- it's now a matter of history that we had a difficult Senate that never did what it should have done, but this guy did what he was supposed to do and he did it brilliantly. And we are lucky to have public servants like him, so I thank him again for his great work. (Applause.)

President Penny Blumenstein, thank you very much. She was telling me back there that nobody gets her name right. I told her I will. (Laughter.) But she says she's called Bloomberg and Blumenthal and a whole bunch of things whenever she gets introduced. Alan Gill, thank you for your great stewardship as CEO. And to every single one of you, thank you for an extraordinary job as civic-minded, good citizens of our nation who recognize a global responsibility. It's an honor for me to be to be here to help you mark 100 years of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. And I said to Penny when I came in here, I said, "You don't look 100 years old." She said, "I feel it some days." (Laughter.) So we thank her for her commitment to this effort. I know what it takes to do this.

Some of you may know that the bond between the State Department -- and Stuart referred to this a little bit in his introduction of me. The bond between the State Department and the JDC has been a longtime association and it runs deep. Stu described to you how Henry Morgenthau had a profound impact on the startup and what happened, and it responded to the needs of Jews at that time who were locked in the struggle of the Ottoman Palestine and Eastern Europe. And ever since then, it has performed -- you have performed -- brilliantly.

Today, you work alongside the State Department, USAID, and Congress, and embassies on a worldwide basis -- the 70 nations that Stuart mentioned a minute ago -- is really quite extraordinary. We collaborate superbly on infrastructure programs that foster economic development and growth in communities in Africa, Europe, Middle East, and Latin America. We work side by side and provide humanitarian relief. And again, Stu talked for a moment about what happened. I am heading to the Philippines the day after tomorrow and to Vietnam, where we are engaged. But obviously, Typhoon Haiyan has left just stunning devastation across the Philippines, and your relief effort -- JDC effort -- in a short span of time has already contributed $1.4 million in aid to that effort.

We, the United States -- I speak for President Obama, who as you all know has gone off to Nelson Mandela's funeral -- I gather tomorrow you will hear from the Vice President and then later from Jack Lew, Secretary Lew. But all of us are deeply, deeply grateful for the incredible sense of responsibility that is manifested in your generosity and in your commitment in order to make a difference around the world. You have provided relief to millions of people from every corner of the globe, all of whom are in desperate need of a helping hand. And part of the mission -- and I should thank, actually, Chair Andrew Tisch, who -- where did Andrew go? He's sitting somewhere. Andrew, thank you for your great friendship to me and many years of involvement in this kind of thing.

But the ways in which all of you in the doing of this also support Jewish life around the world. Throughout history, of course, but particularly right now you are involved in ways that connect young Jewish men and women to their communities and that inspire them to address social challenges. The job training programs that you're creating to address unemployment, the steps that you're taking to alleviate hunger and poverty among the neediest Jews in the world, including in Israel, where despite the stunning growth and amazing prosperity that has been reached by so many, still sees about 25 percent of the country living under the poverty line. And the contributions that you continue to make to the Jewish community are changing lives everywhere.

I want to say a few words to you about another way in which hopefully we in the government are trying to also preserve and nurture Jewish life. And I'm talking about Jewish life in the state of Israel. I know this is not a political group in any way, but it would be a shameful omission if I didn't honor the fact that everybody here obviously comes here with a passion for the preservation of life in Israel, and more importantly for the long term, the possibility of peace and of stability.

We are deeply committed to the security of Israel and of the well-being of the Jewish people by virtue of that. (Applause.) From the support that we've provided as a nation before I was in government, shortly after I'd come back from Vietnam, from the support we provided during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, to the hundreds of millions that we have contributed to help develop weapons systems like the Iron Dome as well as the military technology that we provide the Israelis with today, the United States has long viewed Israel's security as absolutely fundamental to our own.

So when it comes to the range of issues that face the region today, there can be, in my judgment, no doubt -- there should be no doubt -- about where the United States stands. We stand squarely beside our Israeli friends and allies, and that bond is ironclad; it will never be broken. (Applause.)

This morning, I talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Bibi and I know each other really well now. We've known each other for about 25 years, maybe even 30. I knew him when he was in Cambridge, Massachusetts on an interval in politics that some of us have had occasionally. And I have visited with him many, many times, both when he was in office and out of office, and likewise for me. I just got back from what I think was my eighth trip to Israel since becoming Secretary of State, and I leave the day after tomorrow and I will be having dinner with Bibi again on Thursday night. So this is a commute, folks, nowadays. (Laughter.)

I want you to know that every single time that big blue and white plane that lugs me over there comes in for a landing at Ben Gurion Airport, I truly feel in my gut, for reasons of friendship as well as affiliation that Stu mentioned, how precious and how vulnerable and how real the security challenge of Israel is. It's an extraordinary nation which, when you fly over it and you see what has been blooming out of a desert and built in this short span of time, is absolutely stunning. And when you compare GDPs and per capita incomes and other things to other nations that were in the same place in 1948 and 1950 and '52 and see the differential today, it tells you a remarkable story of accomplishment and capacity.

I want to make it clear today that we are deeply committed going forward to honoring the bond and honoring those security needs. And I want to reiterate something that President Obama and I have said many times, and I underscored last week when I was in Israel and I underscored again two days ago when I spoke to the Saban Forum here in Washington. And that is: We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon -- not now, not ever. And I promise you that. (Applause.)

Now, I know that some people are apprehensive and wonder sort of have we somehow stumbled into something or created something where in fact the Iranians have pulled the wool over our eyes and we're going to not know what they're doing. Let me just say to you very simply: I've spent, as Stu said, almost 30 years in the Senate. I chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. I understand military and security issues. And I understand the fundamental basics of -- as does the President and most of the people around us -- what is necessary for a nation to prove it has a peaceful nuclear program. And I can't stand here today and tell you that the Iranians are going to do what they need to do. But I do know that Israel is actually safer today than it was the day before we made the deal, because in this deal they have to destroy all of their 20 percent enriched uranium; they have to hold their 3.5 percent low enriched at the current level; they are not allowed to install any new centrifuges; they have to allow us daily inspection inside that secret mountaintop, Fordow; they have to allow us daily inspection in Natanz in the nuclear plant; they have to allow us regular inspection in the heavy water reactor that has the potential of plutonium; they are not allowed to install any further nuclear components into that construction site; they cannot test additional fuel; and we are allowed to go into the storage sites and manufacturing facilities of all of their centrifuge production facilities -- all things we couldn't do before we made this first step agreement.

Because of what we've done while we negotiate the final comprehensive agreement, which is what Bibi wanted in the first place, we will actually be setting their program backwards, expanding the amount of time that it might take if they were to try to break out. That means we have more time to respond, more time to know what is going on. That is why I can say to you in good conscience I believe Israel is safer today than it was before. Now, does that mean this will be successful in the long run? I don't know. But here's what else I do know: If we aren't successful, if we get to the end of these six months and they don't do the simple things you need to do to prove your program is peaceful, then we will have kept united the P5+1, we will have shown the global community our bona fides to attempt to give them an opportunity through diplomacy to do what they need to do, and we will not have taken any sanction off the table. We can ratchet them up when we want. We will go back to Congress, we will ratchet them up, we will ask for additional sanctions. And if needs be, if we cannot get this done on time, we will take no other option, military or otherwise, off the table. So I am confident that we are going to approach this with a view to making Israel more secure.

Let me also say to all of you there are other issues that go to Israel's existential security, and none more so than the ticking time bomb of demographics in the region and the realities of the de-legitimization campaign that has been taking place for some period of time. I believe, as President Obama does, that Israel will be far more secure if we can also put to test the possibilities of the two-state solution. And so we will continue to attempt to do that despite the skepticism, despite the cynicism in some quarters, that that day can never come where you would actually achieve a two-state solution with two peoples living side by side in peace and security.

I believe, though, that it remains a possibility. And it seems to me that for all of you, for anyone who cares about the security of Israel -- and all of you do -- for anyone who cares about the future, as I know all of you do, and engaged in the activities you are here at the JDC, you must also believe that peace is possible. And as these tough but very critical negotiations continue, I hope that you will understand we will continue to consult, we will continue to work closely, we will do everything in our power to make sure that our friends in Israel are comfortable with the direction we're moving in and are part of it.

And I talk to Bibi at least two or three times a week. We are hand in hand and mind in mind trying to figure out how to do this in a way that protects the security of Israel, that establishes the sovereignty and dignity of an independent and viable Palestinian state. If it was easy, it would've done a long time ago. It isn't. But I think the effort is worth it.

And I know why it's worth it. I spent a lot of time -- when I first went to Israel in 1986, I spent an entire week, and I traveled everywhere. And this wonderful fellow by the name of Yadin Roman, who's the publisher of Eretz Israel magazine, was my guide and took me around. And he was brilliant, and he knew the history of everything and told me all the details of everything I was seeing. And I went up to Kiryat Shmona, and I went down into a bomb shelter where kids had to run and side from the Katyusha rockets. And I visited all the different religious sites -- Christian and Muslim and Jewish, obviously. Went to the Wailing Wall, left my note, which I'm still working on. And visited -- tried to swim in the Dead Sea, cloaked in black mud, everything else. And climbed Masada, which is one of the most stirring things I've ever done in my life, because we had this huge debate on top of Masada. And Yadin provoked us, purposefully. And he gave us the whole history of Josephus Flavius and told us all the writings in this great contentious debate about had these Jews really died there, had they in fact been there at this moment, or did they escape because they didn't find a whole lot of skeletons, and people were wondering what happened.

Well, we had this long debate. And I'll tell you, even before that, I had this marvelous experience of flying a jet out of (inaudible) air base. I'm a pilot. I love to fly. And I persuaded this ace colonel from the war to take me up in a jet, and he got it cleared in Tel Aviv. Somehow they let me do it. And they won't let me do it now, but it was fun then. And I remember taking off, and he said, "Okay, it's your airplane the minute you get up in the air." I went up above the air, and I remember he -- I was turning, and he said, "Senator, you better turn faster; you're going over Egypt." And so I turned the airplane and came back. And we did some aerobatics, and I was doing a loop, and I went up -- way up high and came down. And as you look, you put your head back and catch the horizon underneath you. And I looked, and I looked out and I could see all the way out in the Sinai, all the way down in the Gulf of Aqaba. I could see all the way over into Jordan. And I said to myself, "This is perfect. I'm looking at the Middle East the right way, upside down -- (laughter) -- and I can understand it now."

But after the debate on Masada, we took a vote, and we all voted unanimously that it happened exactly the way it is recorded, that they had fought and died. And at the end, Yadin took us to the edge of the precipice. And there, where a lot of the air force, I understand, and other military are sworn in and take the oath, we yelled across the chasm, "Am Yisrael chai." (Applause.) And the echo came back. And I will tell you, it was stunning to hear that echo. You sort of felt like you were listening to the souls of the past tell you Israel is going to survive. And that's why, my friends, you have a Secretary of State who gets it, who understands this mission. And with your help and your support, we'll get it done the right way.

Thank you. (Applause.)