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Presentation of the Light unto the Nations Award to President Bill Clinton
Presentation of the Light unto the Nations Award to President Bill Clinton
By David A. Harris
AJC 99th Annual Meeting
Washington, D.C.
May 6, 2005

Mr. President, I think there is no one on the face of this earth who knows how to read an audience better than you do. I think it's fair to say that the nearly one thousand people here (don't tell that to the fire marshal) who come from fifty-one Jewish communities around the world; who represent an outstanding delegation from the National Defense College of Israel; who represent universities in the United States, Europe and elsewhere; and who hail from across the United States are grateful to you beyond words for being here today—and even more, for everything that you have done on behalf of our shared ideals.

Now I want to tell you, the audience, that, unlike Ambassador [Alfred] Moses, who did the introduction, the president did not appoint me to any position. So you will judge for yourself whether, from here on in, I'm telling the truth.

I believe it was Eleanor Roosevelt who once said that we as societies will be judged not by how we treat the most fortunate among us, but rather by how we treat the least fortunate among us. And that, consistent with the prophetic vision of which we are the heirs and trustees, has been the guiding principle of the American Jewish Committee now for 99 years. It helps explain, for example, why, while Bill Clinton was president of the United States and there was a spate of arson attacks against African American churches in the South, the American Jewish Committee believed an attack on a church was an attack on the kind of society we wish to build. So we rushed in with our funds and with our own hands to rebuild churches across the South, and to adopt the Gay's Hill Baptist Church in Millen, Georgia, as our own.

It also helps explain why, while Bill Clinton was President and Slobodan Milosevic unleashed another round of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, we went to the refugee camps in the neighboring countries and saw what was taking place on the ground. We were particularly impressed, Mr. President, by what the German armed forces and humanitarian groups were doing. And we said as an NGO, yes, we can give funds, but we can give even more to the people of the Balkans; we can give them a message of hope. Our action can become a metaphor for hope, and what better metaphor than Jews and Germans working together in 1999 and 2000 to alleviate suffering and the consequences of ethnic hatred.

This also explains why we responded immediately, as you and President Bush so generously said, to the crisis in Asia. I especially wish to recognize Priya Tandon, our representative in India, who worked so tirelessly in both India and Sri Lanka on our behalf to aid the victims of this catastrophe.

And in the same spirit, we were so proud to partner with Israel in its humanitarian efforts, symbolized by IsraAID. We all heard a few moments ago from the representative of IsraAID. We are proud of how Israel responded. And we are proud that Israel flew the Star of David in the region, even when there were those who wished it would be hidden.

And it is why, Mr. President, just before you came, we adopted a statement on Darfur. We refuse to remain silent. Surely the history of the twentieth century has taught us this one clear lesson: We must be responsive to the least fortunate in the world at all times, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity.

There are many things for which to thank President Bill Clinton on this occasion. Ambassador Moses set the stage. Let me complete it, if I may, before presenting the president our award.

We wish to pay tribute to Bill Clinton for his global leadership, together with former President Bush, in the worldwide recovery and reconstruction effort following the devastating tsunami.

We wish to recognize him for his distinguished record as statesman and leader of our nation for eight years.

We wish to recognize him for his abiding friendship for the State of Israel and his relentless pursuit of peace in the Middle East.

We wish to recognize him for his remarkable and steadfast commitment to strengthening the bonds of pluralism and intergroup understanding here at home.

We wish to recognize him for giving hope to those who have been at risk of losing that hope.

We wish to recognize the president for his memorable speech to the American Jewish Committee at our Annual Meeting in 1996.

In sum, we wish to recognize President Bill Clinton for his lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice and compassion, to democracy and the rule of law, to fairness and inclusion, to the prophetic ideals of a world at peace and a world in harmony—a world where, as Isaiah said, "The lion and the lamb will lie down together." Though, as Woody Allen added, "The lion and the lamb shall lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep."

And there's one more thing that I need to thank the president for. Please indulge me this note of personal privilege. You see, my family and I got to Chappaqua before he and his family did. And for years my wife and I were faced with the inevitable reaction—"Oh, I know that place. I used to spend summers in Chautauqua." Or else the even more devilish reaction, "Well, ah, how does it feel to live on that, ah, island, ah, Chappaquiddick?" Or, at the very least, the simple question, "How do you spell it?"

But since President Clinton and his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, chose to move to Chappaqua, and became, in my wife's memorable coining, fellow Chappaquainians, I get no more questions of this sort, except possibly one. And that is, "Is the best sighting in town of the president at Lange's Delicatessen or Starbucks?" I'll let him answer if he chooses to.

So, Mr. President, thank you for lightening my load by removing all doubt about the town of Chappaqua. And thank you to you and your wife for being such committed and enthusiastic community residents.

The moral of the story is that if any institution is name-challenged, get this man involved.

He is, as everyone in this audience knows, a truly unique individual. Who is more deserving of our Light unto the Nations Award than Bill Clinton? It is a thrill for the American Jewish Committee to honor him today with a menorah, the symbol of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which represents light and liberty and religious freedom.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in expressing our collective appreciation to President Clinton for a lifetime of service to the nation and the world.