“We don’t just celebrate all that American Jews have done for our country; we also look toward the future,” Obama said. “And as we do, I know that those of you in this room, but folks all across this country will continue to help perfect our union, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful.”
Obama spent much of his speech criticizing the action taken by Former President Ulysses Grant to dismiss Jews “as a class” from Tennessee’s military department 150 years ago, the anniversary of which was commemorated on the day Obama spoke.
“It was wrong,” Obama commented on Grant’s move. “Even if it was 1862, even if official acts of anti-Semitism were all too common around the world, it was wrong and indicative of an ugly strain of thought.”
Using Grant as an example, Obama went on to illustrate the petitioning power unique to citizens of the U.S.
After Grant expelled the Jews, “what happened next could have only taken place in America,” the president said. “Groups of American Jews protested General Grant’s decision.”
“Like so many groups, Jews have had to fight for their piece of the American dream,” Obama continued. “But this country holds a special promise: That if we stand up for the traditions we believe in and in the values we share, then our wrongs can be made right, our union can be made more perfect, and our world can be repaired.”
Ultimately, a Kentucky Jew protested Grant’s edict to President Abe Lincoln, who acquiesced to the Jewish demand and revoked Grant’s order. Grant himself would later apologize for the order while serving in office as president.
Obama used the celebratory occasion to reaffirm his support for Israel. In an election year, the Jewish vote has taken on a critical degree of importance.
“Beyond our borders, we have to stand alongside our friends who share our commitment to freedom and democracy and universal rights; and that includes, of course, our unwavering commitment to the State of Israel and its security and the pursuit of a just and lasting peace,” he said.
“It’s no secret that we’ve got a lot of work to do. But as your [Jewish] traditions teach us, while we are not obligated to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from that work,” the president concluded.
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