In the room when Israel’s President Herzog addressed Congress

by | Aug 10, 2023 | Other News

On Wednesday, June 19, I had the honor of joining leadership from our Jewish community, as well as leadership from Jewish communities and organizations around the country to hear Israeli President Isaac Herzog address a joint session of the United States Congress.

I had the opportunity to sit in the gallery of the House of Representatives, the “people’s house,” and really let it all resonate prior to the entrance of many legislators.  The history, the men and women who have represented our country, the speeches, the debates, and, yes, the violent desecration of the historic building all ran through my head.

It was somewhat uplifting to see our representatives and senators, from both parties, enter the House chamber, greet each other, and converse.  In the 24-hour news cycle in which we now live, we often only see or hear about and from the extreme members of both major political parties. It was even more uplifting to see a strong, bipartisan welcome for President Herzog.

Only the second Israeli president to be invited to speak before a joint session, Herzog immediately reflected on the first president to do so – his father, President Chaim Herzog, who addressed Congress 35 years ago in honor of the State of Israel’s 40th year of independence.

History and emotion resonated throughout the address as Herzog recounted that in 1949, U.S. President Harry Truman met with the Chief Rabbi of the newly established State of Israel in the Oval Office at the White House.  This was only a few years after each of them had pleaded and worked to rescue Europe’s Jews from being slaughtered by Nazis.  That Chief Rabbi was Herzog’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac HaLevi Herzog.

The reflection became even more emotional when Herzog recognized President Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, who was in the gallery.

It was clear throughout his speech that Herzog was tremendously honored to be invited to address Congress to celebrate the first 75 years of the State of Israel.  It was also clear how much Herzog, speaking with love and strength on behalf of his beloved country, values democracy, Israel’s right to self-determination, and its alliance with the United States, Israel’s “closest partner and friend, which is mutually beneficial to the security and future of both of our countries.”

Herzog invoked Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose daughter Professor Susannah Heschel also attended the speech, who wrote “To be is to stand for” in reminding us that “the principles we defend make us what we are.”

Both the U.S. and Israel have political and other challenges, but we also share common values and principles.  Herzog’s optimistic tone reminded us that “when the United States is strong, Israel is stronger.  And when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure.”

He concluded by referencing the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva…a song of hope. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote that in Judaism, hope is an active virtue, which requires a great deal of courage.”

Herzog’s strong, collaborative, and reflective remarks gave me hope for Israel today, her next 75 years, the U.S.-Israel relationship, our own country, and our community.

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Betty Ann Levin is executive vice president/CEO of United Jewish Federation of Tidewater/Simon Family JCC.

-Betty Ann Levin