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Remarks at the B'nai B'rith 150th Anniversary Havdalah Service

October 23, 1993

Thank you very much. Mr. Schiner, Mr. Spitzer, distinguished platform guests, ladies and gentlemen. Hillary and I are delighted to be with you tonight, honored to be a part of your 150th anniversary.

When I appeared before your international convention a year ago, I said I would be honored to help you celebrate this anniversary if you would help me get into a position so that you would want me to help celebrate it. So tonight I thank you on two counts.

I am deeply honored to have been a part of your Havdalah service. It is always a great honor for me as a person of faith to be able to share the spirituality of other Americans. Far from being separate from the rest of your life, the spirituality that is renewed by you on every Sabbath infuses everything that you do.

This ceremony has been observed in captivity and exile and in freedom, on every continent and in virtually every country, and yet essentially it remains the same. And it is especially appropriate that we observe it here this evening on the occasion of your 150th anniversary on the steps of this memorial dedicated to the father of religious freedom in America, Thomas Jefferson, on the occasion of the year in which we celebrate his 250th birthday and the 50th anniversary of this Jefferson Memorial.

Jefferson attained a great deal of glory in his life. He was known and revered around the world. And yet when he died, he asked that on his tombstone it be printed only that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, and perhaps most of all, the author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. In other words, Jefferson understood that in the end, the deepest power of all in human affairs, the power of ideas and ideals. In words inscribed just up these steps on this memorial, he said, "Almighty God hath created the mind free . . . No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinion or belief, but all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion."

That simple premise on which our first amendment is based is, I believe, the major reason why here in America more people believe in God, more people go to church or synagogue, more people put religion at the center of their lives than in any other advanced society on Earth. Our Government is the protector of freedom of every faith because it is the exclusive property of none. Just as you keep the Sabbath separate to keep it holy, we all keep our faiths free from Government coercion so that they can always be voluntary offerings of free and joyous spirits. And just as the Sabbath spirit illuminates every day of your lives, Americans of every faith try to take the values we learn from our religions and put them to work in our communities. No one has done that better than the Americans who do the work of B'nai B'rith.

From your founding a century and a half ago—you may clap for yourselves; I think that's fine—[applause]—from your founding a century and a half ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, you've been dedicated to community service, to individual responsibility, to the struggle against every form of bigotry and injustice by investing in education and health care and helping the less fortunate, by tearing down barriers to achievement and weaving a fabric of mutuality and social responsibility. You have helped people from every faith and background to live lives of genuine accomplishment.

Even when I was growing up in Arkansas, I knew of the efforts of this wonderful organization. Back in 1914, you opened the Levi Hospital in my hometown of Hot Springs. And after all these years it still serves hundreds and hundreds every year without regard to their ability to pay. Today, the B'nai B'rith has also opened a senior citizens housing complex in my hometown. And believe it or not, those acts that help individuals are the things that I try hardest to keep in mind as President when making laws and making policies so that the spirit which animates people in their daily lives, helping each other one on one, can drive the Presidency and the Government of this great land.

It was that spirit which led me to propose and Congress to enact a new program for national service to offer tens of thousands of our young people the chance to earn their way through college by serving their communities and rebuilding this country and giving something to one another and thinking about someone besides themselves in those important and formative years of their youth. And I want to thank a distinguished member of the American-Jewish community, Eli Segal, my good friend, for being the real father of national service, for shepherding it through its creation and its enactment and now leading it along its way.

I want to thank you, too, for being there for America when tragedy strikes at home or abroad: flood victims in the Midwest; hurricane victims in Florida; earthquake victims not simply in northern California but in Mexico City, Iran, and Armenia, they are all in your debt. You helped to address the crisis in Somalia, launching your own drive to raise funds to stave off starvation when 1,000 people a day were dying there. In the cause of our common efforts, nearly a million lives have been saved.

The spirit you bring to your work explains the sense of kinship Americans of every faith have always felt for the state of Israel. It explains our yearning for peace in that land, sacred to three great religions. It explains the joy every American felt when the promise of peace for Israelis, for Palestinians, for all the peoples of the Middle East was made tangible on September the 13th in a single, stunning handshake.

I say to you tonight what you already know, that even in the joy of that moment, we must all remember that a lasting peace requires hard work, that enmity, stretching back to the founding of the state of Israel and before, cannot be made to vanish simply with the stroke of a pen. But let us not forget how far we have come. It would have been unimaginable just 2 months ago to think that between now and September 13th, the leaders of Israel have actually sat down with the leaders of Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Qatar. And there is more to come. Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in intense negotiations to implement their agreements. Israel and Arab business people are meeting to lay the foundations of economic cooperation. And I am very proud of the cooperation I have seen in the United States between American Jews and Arab-Americans, working on what they can do together to make the peace agreement work.

Clearly, more must be done, and we have not a moment to waste. Just yesterday, we were reminded anew with the tragic killing of a moderate Arab leader that there are those who have a greater stake in the continuing misery of the Palestinians than in the hope of peace for all the Middle East. We have not a moment to waste.

I am committed to building on the momentum we have created to achieve nothing less than a comprehensive settlement, one in which Israel secures real lasting peace with all her neighbors. To do that we have to be able to demonstrate that when Israel takes genuine risks for peace, the Arab world responds with a similar commitment to build a new era of peace and prosperity with Israel as a partner, not pariah.

The future for Israel and for the Jewish people is bright and full of promise tonight. For the first time we have the chance to achieve peace, and I am determined to see that it is real, secure, and enduring. We live in a time when ancient enmities are fading. We saw it not just in the handshake of Rabin and Arafat but in the remarkable partnership of Mandela and de Klerk, people who are giving hope that tomorrow can really be different from and better than today.

I ask all of you to think about what these times mean for us as Americans and for us as individuals. At prayer this morning many of you read the passages from the Torah where God asks Abraham not only to leave his father's house but to go forward to a new land and a new way of living and thinking.

Tonight, as we stand 7 years from a new century and a new millennium, our world is being transformed dramatically by political change, technological developments, dramatic global economic changes. We stand here tonight following the footsteps of wise men and women who faced the future with confidence, who offered a helping hand, who opened their hearts to God and asked to be led so that future generations might have better lives. That is what we, too, must do. As Thomas Jefferson did, as the founders of B'nai B'rith did, as Americans have done at every moment of change and challenge, I ask you on this occasion of your 150th anniversary to joy in the progress for peace in the Middle East, to take great pride in your own accomplishments and the givings but to resolve today that we will lay the foundation of progress and peace here at home: with health care that is always there; with an economy that serves the poor as well as those who aren't, that gives every man and woman a chance; with an end to hatred and bigotry, a commitment to make our diversity in this country a strength and not a weakness; with a commitment to engage one another in serious, moral conversations but to slow down the rhetoric of screaming and condemnation so that we can appreciate we are all the children of God.

In the end, I ask that we dedicate ourselves anew to the timeless promise of American life first proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson in whose large shadow we stand tonight, the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." For all that B'nai B'rith has done to make that promise real and for all you will do in the tomorrows to come, on behalf of all the people of the United States, I say a profound thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 8:45 p.m. at the Jefferson Memorial. In his remarks, he referred to Kent Schiner, international president, and Jack J. Spitzer, former international president, B'nai B'rith.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the B'nai B'rith 150th Anniversary Havdalah Service Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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