Abe, thank you. I am grateful for an opportunity to spend a special evening with all of you, each of you. It’s a privilege. It is a room – as I sat and listened and had an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and make new friends – it is a room full of warmth, of friendship, of love, and purpose.
And I want to thank this institution for what you have done for this country and the world the last 100 years. It is a unique, special, courageous institution, in a world that not often is about – it’s about courage, and it’s about character. Each individual’s life is guided by those two indispensable elements, character and courage, and so I thank you, for what you are doing, what you’ve done, and what you will continue to do.
And thank you for also honoring my friend and my predecessor, Leon Panetta. I told – you can clap for Leon again – I told Leon that I would be up on the stage soon, showering him with praise and glory. It’s just a regular Thursday night occurrence for Panetta. Just another Thursday night, he gets another award and another recognition.
But in Panetta’s case, it’s well deserved. It is well deserved. That career that he has built, and the service he has provided for our country, is among the most unique and distinguished careers of modern public service. And I really mean that. And so, this is an appropriate recognition.
Now, I want to share with you – and I promised Leon and Jane Harman and other members, former members of Congress, that it is brief. I know for a former Senator, you hear that all the time. And I recognize I still have some bad habits that I picked up during those days, but this will be some comments that I want to share with all of you, that I spent some time on. Not that anything I say is profound. I’m incapable of that. But nonetheless, I tried. But these are comments I do feel. And I strongly believe.
And as I begin my comments that I want to share with you tonight, I want to acknowledge so many special people in the room. I know we won’t be able to get to everyone tonight. But one in particular who taught me about the ADL, what it was doing, why it was important, and that’s Bob Wolfson, who is here tonight.
As I think most of you know, Bob directed the ADL office in Omaha for a number of years, and when I ran for the United States Senate, I began my campaign in 1995, in Nebraska, no one knew me. Bob was one of the first to come to see me, to take a measure of me – is this a serious fellow, what does he believe, what’s he about. On more than one occasion, I was a guest in his home, as he would gather different people, and I would try and convince them that I was the right person to support for United States Senate.
But I would never forget the hours I spent with Bob, and his generosity and thoughtfulness, and his tutoring this fellow who wanted to be a United States Senator, who didn’t really understand so much of the things that you have done over the years and why you’re so important. So to Bob, tonight, thank you, my friend. I am grateful.
As I have noted, your selection of Leon Panetta is, I think, very appropriate for 100 years, as you celebrate what you’ve done. And I can’t think of a more appropriate public servant.
Throughout his career, he’s embodied the ADL’s fight – continued fight – for justice, equality, and security. And the ADL has been about that.
Your theme tonight, for your 100th anniversary, “Imagine a World Without Hate,” that theme captures the hope and the possibilities of mankind. That hope, and that sense of possibility, is overflowing in this room tonight. You know that. But you also understand the realities that will always temper a certain amount of hope. But if we don’t have hope, there’s not much left.
And there is no goal more worthy or more noble than world peace, which you do, and you’re about. A world of respect – respect and dignity for all people, all mankind, as noted on this stage by other speakers tonight.
And although that may seem impossible, we must never ever quit trying. No organization has done more in pursuing this dream than the ADL. It is who you are, it’s your very fiber. Year after year, decade after decade, you have fought against intolerance, prejudice, and injustice all over the world – including in America’s armed forces.
The Department of Defense is proud – very proud – to have worked with the ADL to make our military more open, and more equal, and more just. One example of this historic partnership is at the Air Force Academy, where only a few years ago there were troubling accusations of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism. That began to change when the local ADL worked with leaders at the Academy to create a special course on respect for religious freedom, which is now required for all cadets.
Going forward, we will continue to build on this relationship. We’ll build on the relationship because there is so much more we have to learn from each other. Both of our institutions are committed to strong national security, and both are committed to combatting hatred and bigotry. The ADL has never separated the two, for they are interconnected. You’ve shown that the strength of civil rights underpins strong national security.
This balance has been the essence of Leon Panetta’s career. As strong as Leon Panetta is on security, he’s always been just as strong on civil rights and equality.
As the Director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, one of his first jobs in government, he pushed for equal education across the South. As a leading member of Congress, chairman of the Budget Committee, and a White House Chief of Staff, he worked to advance civil rights everywhere. And as Secretary of Defense, he oversaw the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and opened combat positions for women.
The balance between security and civil rights sends an important message to the world. And Leon Panetta has lived that message. At the Department of Defense, we work to preserve America’s individual liberties as well as defend our national freedom.
When the Supreme Court issued its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act this summer, the Department of Defense immediately began working on providing the same benefits to all eligible spouses, regardless of sexual orientation. We did it because everyone who serves our country in uniform, everyone in this country, should receive all the benefits they deserve, and they’ve earned, and in accordance with the law. Everyone’s rights must be protected.
This means that all spouses of service members are entitled to DoD ID cards, and the benefits that come with them. But several states today are refusing to issue these IDs to same-sex spouses at National Guard facilities. Not only does this violate the states’ obligations under federal law, but their actions have created hardship and inequality by forcing couples to travel long distances to federal military bases to obtain the ID cards they’re entitled to.
This is wrong. It causes division among our ranks, and it furthers prejudice, which DoD has fought to extinguish, as has the ADL.
Today, I directed the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Frank Grass, to take immediate action to remedy this situation. At my direction, he will meet with the Adjutants General from the states where these ID cards are being declined and denied. The Adjutants General will be expected to comply with both lawful direction and DoD policy, in line with the practices of 45 other states and jurisdictions.
Whether they are responding to natural disasters here at home, in their states, or fighting in Afghanistan, our National Guardsmen all wear the uniform of the United States of America. They are serving this country. They – and their families – are entitled to all the benefits and respect accorded to all of our military men and women.
Our people are the foundation of a ready and capable force. And that will always be. Leon Panetta knows this very, very well. He knows it as well as anyone in this room, that the core responsibility of any job of authority or accountability, is people. This business is about people. Hope, possibilities, peace, is about people. The ADL is about people.
The United States military is deeply respected by the American people because of the character, the determination, resilience, and courage of our men and women in uniform. These men and women in uniform, as we know, have borne a heavy and constant burden since 9/11, along with their families. And their families often get forgotten in this business.
Families should never be forgotten. They are the anchor, they’re the substance, they are the soul, they’re the core, of who each of us are and what we each represent.
Yet as we wind down the second of two of America’s longest wars, we continue to face a complicated and volatile and dangerous world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, where the United States and our allies are facing an unprecedented set of complex challenges.
For Israel, this shifting landscape has brought new threats and new dynamics. Even as Israel takes important steps toward peace and the two-state solution, these challenges remain on its borders. There are no margins for Israel.
Egypt’s future remains uncertain. There is a humanitarian crisis in Syria, along with disease and hunger compounding the scourge of sectarian violence and civil war. These challenges demand unprecedented cooperation between the United States and Israel.
Israel’s self-defense capabilities and its qualitative military edge are central to both Israel and U.S. security interests. The United States has provided important support for Israel’s Iron Dome system, which has proven very successful in protecting Israeli citizens.
And earlier this year, the United States reached a historic agreement, an agreement to open up even more advanced military capabilities to Israel. One of these capabilities is the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft that will greatly enhance the range and effectiveness of Israeli special forces.
Tonight, I am pleased to announce that we are working with the Israeli government to provide them with six new V-22s. I have directed the Marine Corps to make sure that this order is expedited. That means Israel will get six V-22s out of the next order to go on the assembly line, and they will be compatible with other IDF capabilities.
The Israeli and American defense relationship is stronger than ever. That isn’t due just to where I am at my time. That’s due to previous secretaries of defense., Panetta, Gates, all the previous secretaries, this organization, the American people, our Congress, past presidents – we’ve all worked together to strengthen this relationship.
Another area of our common security interests is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The United States is presently testing Iranian intentions for a diplomatic solution. As we engage Iran along with our partners, we are very clear-eyed about the reality in the Middle East. Iran is a state sponsor of terror, responsible for spreading hatred and extremism throughout the region.
But foreign policy is not a zero-sum game. If we can find ways to resolve disputes peacefully, we are wise to explore them.
Engagement is not appeasement, nor is it containment. We know what those are, we know where they lead, and we will not pursue them.
And President Obama has repeatedly made clear that words are not enough. Action must match words.
We understand why this is so important to so many people. Because we’ve all been to Yad Vashem.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to revisit Yad Vashem. I had been there before, but this time was special for, because I brought my son, Ziller, with me. I wanted him to see the harsh realities of the depths of evil, and the beautiful tribute to the victims of the past. Yad Vashem is an instruction for future generations – like all great memorials. A warning to never ever again stand idly by in the face of hatred and bigotry.
We know that ridding our world of hatred takes more than just work, imagination, and so on. It will always demand commitment, sacrifice, and courage. It demands that we must continue to march our armies of tolerance, equality, and justice around the globe.
And it demands that we remember the timeless questions of Rabbi Hillel – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
As Leon Panetta often says, our “future is not guaranteed.” You’ve got work to do. You’ve got to work for your future, and your freedoms. And you have to fight for it. With the continued help and leadership of the ADL, the people in this room, all across the world, I know our country always will.
Thank you very much.