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Toasts of the President and Prime Minister Menahem Begin of Israel at the State Dinner

September 09, 1981

The President. Ladies and gentlemen: Prime Minister Begin, it's a genuine pleasure to welcome you to the White House this evening—I should say, welcome you back, because the Prime Minister is no stranger to this room. As a matter of fact, I have a funny feeling that he may have dined here more often than I have. [Laughter]

Be that as it may, once again, he's an honored guest. But this time Nancy and I have the privilege, and we're delighted. I'm not sure whether you saw it or not, Mr. Prime Minister, but in the play "Fiddler on the Roof," one of the townspeople asked the rabbi if he had a proper blessing for the czar. The rabbi answered, "Why, of course. May God bless and keep the czar—far away from us." [Laughter]

Prime Minister Begin, as you know, the Jewish people have never been far away from sorrow and depression during their long and troubled history. And now—I don't believe your own influence on Jewish history goes as far back as the time of the czars. Now, you understand that there wouldn't be anything wrong with that; you will hear no criticism of age tolerated in this house. [Laughter] Lately, I've been heartened to remember that Moses was 80 when God commissioned him for public service, and he lived to be 120. [Laughter] And Abraham was 100 and his wife, Sarah, 90, when they did something truly amazing. [Laughter] He survived to be 175. So, Mr. Prime Minister, we haven't even hit our full stride yet. [Laughter]

But to be serious a moment: After our conversations today, very warm and productive, I'm convinced that we're on the way to the right road, that we really can draw closer to that golden age of peace, prosperity, and brotherhood and reason. And I think this is clear: Providence has blessed us at this critical time with two leaders—one in Israel and one in Egypt-uniquely capable of the great decisions that are required.

Prime Minister Begin, I remember reading in your book, "White Nights," how as a young man being held inside Soviet prisons, you longed to return with your people to the Middle East. And even then, you told your captors there would be plenty of room for the Arabs, for millions of Jews, and for peace. And you've been working ever since to make that dream come true. Though trained as a lawyer, you passed up the quiet life of a private attorney. From your earliest days, the spirit of freedom burned within you, leading you to make great personal sacrifices for the Jewish people.

As a political inmate in those Soviet dungeons, you learned the horrors of totalitarian abuse. You fought against Hitler, and you spent your early adult years helping create a haven for your people in a new Israel. Devoted to democratic traditions, you served as leader of your country's loyal opposition for nearly 30 years. Consistent in your views and skillful in presenting them, you were elected leader of a free people who recently reaffirmed their esteem for you. Called as a peacemaker, you boldly seized the opportunity for peace with Egypt and skillfully pursued it to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Prime Minister, the commitment you're making is a commitment to future generations. In the Talmud, there is a story about a man—and I should have asked you whether the pronunciation was "Ho-nee" or "Ho-ni," but one of the two—and one day he was walking along and he saw an old man planting carob trees. It's said that the carob tree doesn't produce fruit for 70 years. And Honei commented to the old man, "Certainly, you don't expect to see the fruit from this tree." And the old man answered, "I came into this world and people had planted trees for me. I am planting for those who will come after me."

Well, thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for planting these seeds of peace.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask all of you to join me in a toast to Prime Minister Begin and his friends and the Israeli people. And, if I may refer to that rabbi from "Fiddler on the Roof' once again, "May the good Lord bless and keep you always close to us."

The Prime Minister. Mr. President, may I be allowed first of all to thank you for a good day. Our lives were harsh; the difficult days were many. The few ones, we remember them, we count them. You gave us today a good day, one of the few, through the warmth of your heart, your deep humanity, your friendship, understanding. And I believe all my friends and colleagues here assembled join me in the expression of that gratitude to you for a good day in our lives.

Both our nations, Mr. President, are built on vision. Vision is no utopia; it is the prerequisite for changing reality. Your Founding Fathers expressed their vision in the Declaration of Independence, mainly written by Jefferson, proclaiming self-evident truths. But if they are self-evident, why proclaim? But that proclamation called upon people to go into battle, poorly armed against professional soldiers, and after great suffering, win the day and create the greatest republic ever known in history.

Your Founding Fathers wrote a constitution—original, unknown in those days, and it works for more than 200 years. There are some crises from time to time, but out of every crisis democracy comes out stronger, deeper in the United States. And the Constitution works, with some amendments.

Then you had the vision of building real democracy. Perhaps this is the greatest achievement of the American people, proving in the 18th century, that it is not so that one man should inherit a throne and a crown and rule millions of people at his will. The people should decide who should form the government, and they should accept the government willingly. This, all nations learned from you. And perhaps the greatest vision of all was the acceptance of so many people of various origins from many countries. Here I would like to stress, because I believe in Divine Providence with all my heart, that as far as the Jewish people are concerned, a real miracle happened to them. In 25 years, at the turn of the two centuries, 2 1/2 million Jews crossed the ocean and came to the hospitable shores of this country. If they hadn't done that, they would have been lost—their children and their grandchildren. Not a third of the Jewish people would have been wiped out, perhaps two-thirds of them would have been destroyed. Who knows whether we would have been able to recreate our statehood.

This is one of the great miracles in human history—those 25 years, 100,000 people every year coming to these shores. There is no wonder that Emma Lazarus wrote from her heart, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." They came here without knowing one word of English. They worked in sweatshops, and they were peddlers. But the second generation learned perfect English. And the third, together with all the other nationalities—or ethnic groups as you call them in America—built up this great country. A miracle, indeed. And I want now after so many years to express, may I say morally, historically, our deep gratitude that this great country made it possible for 2 1/2 million of my brethren to come here and save their lives and the lives of three other generations.

We also build on vision, Mr. President-on a smaller scale, of course, because we are a New Hampshire more or less, no more, a small country. But when we won our freedom in the same way you did, fighting for it, not getting it as a gift, we were only 600,000. Now we are 3 1/2 million. Relatively, proportionately perhaps, it is very close. And so that was the vision—to bring people from the four corners of the world as the prophet really foresaw in his vision in the ancient times, from the four corners of the world back to the land of the forefathers, back, return, old and young and limping and sick and everyone, so as the prophets wrote exactly. And of course we still keep the gates open for everyone who feels that he is persecuted, like in Russia, or humiliated, like in any other country which may happen, for everyone, as you did for so many years, actually for nearly two centuries.

We also had the vision of democracy. As we are a small country, ours is a parliamentary regime. I am not ashamed to say we copied it from the British. The British built up a beautiful home in their own country-real democracy. And we adopted this system, but it is also real democracy.

Mr. President, the election day in Israel-it was only 2 months ago—was one of the most beautiful days in our lives. Everybody a free citizen, went to the polls, put in the ballots. No pressure was asserted; it was impossible. The campaign was perhaps to some extent lively. [Laughter] But the day of the election, the quiet—it's the most beautiful day of the year. But of 4 years-real democracy.

And out of those ballots came a government. Not everybody is happy. Well, that is human nature. And therefore, believe it when we say we are your stable ally. We mean it completely, because only through the inherent stability of democracy you can keep that stability.

All the other regimes—something happens and there is upheaval. Not in a democracy. We still have division of peace, Mr. President. Yes, we made peace with Egypt, with our southern neighbor, the largest, the strongest Arab nation. But we want peace with all our neighbors.

Why isn't it so simple to achieve? Because for us, security is not a word, it's not even a concept. It is life itself. With our experience, surrounded on the northern, on the eastern front, still, after the peace, after the sacrifices we gave, we must be so careful. We bear so grave a responsibility, not only a great one in our generation in the wake of the Holocaust, to make sure that our children and our children's children will first of all live, and then live freely.

Security to us is so unique that we cannot only proclaim. Peace without security is hollow for us. Peace must be based on security. And we still bear in our hearts the prophets' vision of eternal peace, of complete disarmament, "neither will they learn or teach war."

It is difficult now to believe that it is realistic. All the world is arming to the teeth. Every disarmament conference brings more arms to the world. But our faith is unshakeable. This vision of the prophets will be realized, perhaps exactly as a result of that danger, which is looming over all mankind, of complete destruction. Out of that evil will come real peace and disarmament, and people will live together in good neighborhood—all of them.

We didn't have one day of peace. Nations fought. There was a war of 100 years between England and France. Ultimately, there was entente cordiale—a union or alliance-unwritten, that played so great a role in the years of 1914 and 1918. There was a 30-years war in Europe. In Europe, the saying went around about "eternal enemies," and the eternal enemies are now friends. War can be avoided. Peace is inevitable. But we didn't deviate even one day of peace. What my colleagues and I would like to do for our people is to give them an historic period of peace—two or three generations at least. Let them have peace and let there be no bereavements. That is our vision, and I believe it will bring us nearer a different reality.

Mr. President, today we achieved much in Washington, thanks to you. I shall leave town knowing that our cooperation in the field of security and strategy—in the face of a world danger to lose all the values we believe in, which make life worthwhile to live—will be concrete and close. This is a real achievement, again, thanks to you, Mr. President, to your wisdom and the warmth of your heart.

Now, before I raise my glass, I would like to tell a story. I cannot but tell at least one story after hearing your speech, Mr. President. At least one story. But I must caution my respected listeners that detect a chauvinistic Israeli undertone. [Laughter] I don't like it, and I don't mean it, and I apologize in advance; but the story is interesting, so I will tell it.

It goes like this: The President brought me into the Oval Office, and he showed me on the table three phones—one white and one blue. And he explained to me: "The white is the direct line to Mrs. Thatcher; the blue to President Mitterrand." And then I asked him, "What is the red phone?" "That is a direct line to God." So, I asked the President, "Mr. President, do you use it often?" And the President said, "Oh, no, very rarely. It's very expensive. Long distance-so long a distance. And I cannot afford it. I have to cut the budget and " [Laughter]

So, then the President visited Jerusalem, and I showed him my office, and there are three phones. One was white, one was blue. And I said, "The white is a direct line to President Sadat." By the by, I have such a line, and he has such a line. "And the other, well, to Mrs. Thatcher." And there is a red phone. And the President asked, "What is the red phone for?" And I said, "This is a direct line to God." So, the President asked me, "Do you use it often?" I say, "Every day." "How can you afford it?" And I said, "Here, in Jerusalem, it is being considered a local call." [Laughter]

Now, Mr. President, neither of us has direct lines to God. I only believe that God listens to the prayer of a Jew and a Christian and of a Moslem—of every human being. But, if I have to continue with the story, then I will say that when you come, as I do believe, to Jerusalem, I will immediately put at your disposal the red phone. [Laughter] On the house. [Laughter] A local call.

I raise my glass to the President of the United States—a man of principle, a wonderful man whom we respect and love, the first day we met. [Referring to Mrs. Reagan:] Madam, the first sight. And to a great, devoted friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and to the defender of freedom throughout the world.

To the President.

Note: The President spoke at 9:36 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Toasts of the President and Prime Minister Menahem Begin of Israel at the State Dinner Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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