President's speech

‘Israel has democracy in its DNA’: Full text of Isaac Herzog’s address to Congress

In speech honoring Israel at 75, president hails US as ‘our greatest partner and friend,’ calls overhaul tensions ‘the clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy’

The following is the full text of President Isaac Herzog’s address to a joint session of the US Congress in Washington DC on July 19, 2023, as provided by his office.

Mr. Speaker, Madam Vice President, on November 10th, 1987, I was sitting at home with my wife, Michal, expecting our first child. We were watching the first Israeli President invited to address a Joint Session of Congress, in honor of the State of Israel’s 40th year of independence. That president was my father. Standing here today, representing the Jewish, democratic State of Israel in its 75th year, at the very podium from which my late father, President Chaim Herzog spoke, is the honor of a lifetime.

I was born and raised in Israel. But my father’s diplomatic post at the United Nations, brought my family to New York in the 1970s. During high school I volunteered with the Legal Aid Society for the Elderly in Brooklyn, New York. I volunteered with the impoverished and underprivileged elderly, including War Veterans and Holocaust survivors, who gave their best years to the country they loved. My mentor at the organization was a subtle, reserved professional. She was strictly business. The moment she broke character has remained with me for nearly 50 years. It was the day she told me the love of her life died fighting for Israel. Her fiancé, a tall, bright- eyed American Jewish boy, was inspired by the Zionist dream and the Jewish people’s desire for independence. He voluntarily boarded a ship to Haifa, fought in the Israeli military, and fell in the battle for Israel’s Independence – just weeks before their wedding. Although decades had gone by, and she had rebuilt her life, the cracks in her heart remained.

That moment, in which I learned of the life he gave for the State of Israel spoke to the very core of the bond forged between the people of the United States and the people of Israel. How the nations we built overcame loss. How deeply our stories complement each other’s. How far we have all come, together.

Speaker McCarthy, I thank you for hosting this festive joint session of Congress celebrating the first 75 years of the State of Israel. Just a few weeks ago, during your first trip abroad as Speaker, you honored the Israeli people by addressing the Knesset in Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Your sincere expression of friendship on behalf of the United States of America truly resonated with the Israelis. Thank you.

Vice President Harris, it is such a pleasure to see you again. I vividly recall hosting you at the Knesset a few years back. Your stirring remarks at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day reception a few weeks ago, reflect both yours and President Biden’s decades- long, ironclad friendship with Israel.

A special thanks goes to Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi who first invited me less than a year ago, together with Senator Chuck Schumer.

Thank you to my dear friends, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Minority Leader Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, for this bipartisan, bicameral invitation.

My thanks also to the distinguished members of the escort committee, for greeting me so warmly.

President Isaac Herzog speaks to a joint session of US Congress, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Mr. Speaker, dear friends. In Jewish weddings, a glass is placed on the ground, intentionally stomped on. This ritual evokes the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. Only after the glass is broken, can the celebration truly begin. Amidst the most joyous occasion in the lives of two individuals who have come together to build something whole, we recall what was once broken in our nation. Thus, the bitter blends with the sweet. Today, the Hebrew calendar points to the 1st day of the month of Av. In Jewish tradition this is a somber period in which we mourn the loss of our sovereignty. Jewish communities all over the world lament the beginning of our national exile, where throughout two millennia, we continuously expressed a spiritual connection to our ancestral Holy Land and a longing to return home and regain our independence.

Yet today, at this moment in my people’s history, gathering on Capitol Hill to celebrate 75 years of Israeli independence with our greatest partner and friend, the United States of America, my soul is overflowing with pride and joy. The people of Israel are grateful to no end for the ancient promise fulfilled and for the friendship we have formed.

In 1949, the President of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman, met with the Chief Rabbi of the newly established State of Israel, my grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, in the Oval Office. This was just a few years after each of them had pleaded and campaigned for the rescue of Europe’s Jews being slaughtered in the Holocaust by the Nazis. In speaking to President Truman, Rabbi Herzog thanked him for being the first world leader to officially recognize the State of Israel, eleven minutes after its foundation. He spoke of the Divine Providence that destined President Truman to help bring about the rebirth of Israel, after two thousand years of exile. Witnesses of the encounter recalled tears running down President Truman’s cheeks. We are honored to have President Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel with us here today.

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the land which the Almighty promised to Abraham, to which Moses lead the Israelites, the land of the Bible, of milk and honey, evolved into an exquisite land of democracy. Against all odds, the Jewish people returned home and built a national home, which became a beautiful Israeli democracy, a mosaic of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians, secular, traditional and orthodox, of all denominations, and all possible views and lifestyles. A land which welcomed the ingathering of exiles from one hundred different countries. A land which became the Startup Nation – a bustling hub of innovation and creativity, social action and intellectual discovery, spiritual awakening and business ventures, scientific ingenuity and lifesaving medical breakthroughs.

We built a nation-state which has faced relentless war, terror, and delegitimization since its birth. A country fighting to defend itself from enemy and foe, yet whose citizens continue to greet each other with the word “peace”, Shalom.

A country which takes pride in its vibrant democracy, its protection of minorities, human rights, and civil liberties, as laid down by its parliament, the Knesset, and safeguarded by its strong Supreme Court and independent judiciary.

A state founded on complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender – as stipulated explicitly in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

A country which is ever evolving. A diverse amalgam of accents, beliefs, backgrounds and customs. Truly, a modern-day miracle.

This is the sweetness with which our country has been blessed. However, dear friends, the bitter casts a dark shadow on our country, on our region, on our world.

President Isaac Herzog is greeted by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as he arrives to speak to a joint meeting of US Congress, July 19, 2023, at the Capitol in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris look on. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Mr. Speaker, perhaps the greatest challenge Israel and the United States face at this time, is the Iranian nuclear program.

Let there be no doubt: Iran does not strive to attain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran is building nuclear capabilities, that pose a threat to the stability of the Middle East and beyond. Every country or region controlled or infiltrated by Iran has experienced utter havoc. We have seen this in Yemen, Gaza, in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In fact, we have seen this in Iran itself where the regime has lost its people and is suppressing them brutally.

Iran has spread hatred, terror and suffering throughout the Middle East and beyond, adding fuel to the disastrous fire and suffering in Ukraine.

Iran is the only nation on the planet publicly calling, plotting, and developing means to annihilate another nation, a member of the family of nations, the State of Israel.

Israel has no border with Iran. Israel has no resources contested by Iran. Israel has no conflict with the Iranian people. And yet, the Iranian regime – together with its proxies throughout the Middle East – is aiming and working towards destroying the State of Israel, killing the Jews and challenging the entire free world.

Allowing Iran to become a nuclear threshold state – whether by omission or by diplomatic commission – is unacceptable. The world cannot remain indifferent to the Iranian regime’s call to wipe Israel off the map. Tolerating this call and Iran’s measures to realize it, is an inexcusable moral collapse. Backed by the free world, Israel and the United States must act forcefully together to prevent Iran’s fundamental threat to international security. I am here to reiterate what every Israeli leader has declared for decades: the State of Israel is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities.

Mr. Speaker, we are proud to be the United States’ closest partner and friend. We are grateful to the United States for the necessary means you have provided us to keep our qualitative military edge, and to enable us to defend ourselves, by ourselves. This reflects your ongoing commitment to Israel’s security. We are also tremendously proud that ours is a two-way alliance, in which Israel has been making critical contributions to the national security and interests of the United States in numerous ways.

Thank you, dear members of Congress, for your support of Israel throughout history, and at this critical moment in time.

President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Mr. Speaker, there is no question that the peace which the United States brokered between Israel and its neighbors, has revolutionized the Middle East. The historic peace treaties with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan have demonstrated the many blessings of opting out of the cycle of war. Both Jordan and Egypt have contributed tremendously to solidifying the precious peace and enhancing our region’s stability and wellbeing.

Three years ago, the Abraham Accords realigned our imaginations and our region. Israel eagerly welcomed the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Kingdom of Morocco into an exclusive, warm peace between our peoples. Since signing the accords, over one million Israelis have visited the Abraham Nations – a clear expression of our will to become integrated in the region.

This is a peace anchored in trust, hope and prosperity. A true game changer. Each of these historic agreements, which have altered the trajectory of the Middle East, was facilitated by our greatest friend the United States of America.

Israel’s hand is extended, and our heart is open, to any partner in peace – near or far.

Israel thanks the United States for working towards establishing peaceful relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a leading nation in the region and in the Muslim world. We pray for this moment to come. This would be a huge sea change in the course of history in the Middle East and the world at large.

My deep yearning, Mr. Speaker, is for Israel to one day make peace with our Palestinian neighbors. Over the years, Israel has taken bold steps towards peace and made far reaching proposals to our Palestinian neighbors. Notwithstanding the deep political differences, and the numerous challenges that surround Israeli-Palestinian relations – and I do not ignore them -but it should be clear that one cannot talk about peace while condoning or legitimizing terror, implicitly or explicitly. True peace cannot be anchored in violence.

Palestinian terror against Israel or Israelis undermines any possibility for a future of peace between our peoples. Israelis are targeted while waiting for busses, while taking a stroll on the promenade, while spending time with their family. At the same time, successful terror attacks are celebrated, terrorists are glorified, and their families are financially rewarded for every Israeli they attack. This is inconceivable. It is a moral disgrace. Terror is not a bump in the road. Terror is hatred and bloodshed. It contradicts humanity’s most basic principles of peace. Israel cannot and will not tolerate terror, and we know that in this we are joined by the United States of America.

Clockwise from top left: Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu, Hadar Goldin and Hisham al-Sayed (Flash90/Courtesy)

Two Israeli officers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, and two civilians, Hisham al-sayed, and Avera Mengistu, are being held hostage by Hamas for years, for the sole purpose of torturing the families they left behind. Lieutenant Hadar Goldin was abducted in violation of a UN-sponsored humanitarian cease-fire, negotiated by the United States. His family has been fighting for nine years to bring him home. I asked Hadar Goldin’s mother, Leah, to be here with us today. We pray for her son’s return, as well as the three other Israelis.

We pray for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

The younger generation of Israelis and Palestinians deserve better. They are all worthy of a future to look towards, a future of peace and prosperity. A future of hope. I am wholeheartedly committed to this vision, a vision of hope and peace, true peace, without any terror.

Mr. Speaker, the sacred bond we share is unique in scope and quality because it is based on values that reach across generations and administrations, governments and coalitions, carrying us through times of turmoil and elation.

One hundred and sixty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln spoke of the dream to restore the Jews to their national home, as one shared by many Americans. The inscription on Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell articulates the Hebrew Bible’s code of ethics: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”. This verse from Leviticus, shining through the crack of the Liberty Bell, underscores the principles that fuel the American dream. These words have bound our nations through the ages. Coming together today, in this chamber of liberty and freedom, we are all realizing the hopes of our founding fathers and mothers. We are so very proud of the true friendship we have forged. A mutually beneficial partnership that has withstood challenges and weathered great disagreements, because it is based not on uniformity of approach, but on the ultimate currency of trust. It is not dependent upon operating in harmony, but on the history we share, on the truths we cherish, on the values we embody. This partnership is based also on the similarities and the affinity between our peoples, the courageous immigrants, and the trailblazing pioneers. It is rooted deep in our respective declarations of independence. In the American Declaration of Independence, the founders appealed to the “Supreme Judge of the World”. In the Israeli Declaration of Independence, influenced by America’s, our founders placed their trust in “the Rock of Israel.”

The revered American Jewish spiritual leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, embodied the bridge between our peoples and the story of American Jewry. After escaping from the Holocaust, Rabbi Heschel publicly advocated interfaith dialogue. He fought for civil liberties in America and marched alongside Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, in March of 1965.

Rabbi Heschel wrote: “To be is to stand for”. I am so pleased to have his daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel of Dartmouth, join us here today. Susannah, your father reminds us that the principles we defend make us what we are.

Ultimately, Israel and the United States stand — and indeed, have always stood for the same values. Our two nations are both diverse, life- affirming societies that stand for liberty, equality, and freedom. At our core, both our peoples seek to repair the cracks in our world. Having said this, I am well aware that our world is changing. A new generation of Israelis and Americans are assuming leadership roles. A generation that was not privy to the hardship of Israel’s formative years. A generation that is less engaged in the roots that connect our peoples. A generation that, perhaps, takes for granted the US-Israel relationship. Yet, at this moment I choose optimism. Because to me it is clear that the shift in generations does not reflect changing values. Nor does it indicate changes in our interests. When the United States is strong, Israel is stronger. And when Israel is strong, the United States is more secure.

Today, dear friends, we are provided the opportunity to reaffirm and redefine the future of our relationship. Each of us here has a decisive role in the future we are building. Many of the challenges Israel and the United States face are similar. We are all experiencing a tumultuous shift in balance, evident in countless areas: geopolitical unrest, big power competition, catastrophic war in Ukraine, pandemics, climate crisis, the unknown of artificial intelligence, energy shortages, food insecurity, scarcity of water and desertification, global terror, social polarization, and the attempts to destabilize democracy. Each of these challenges present an opportunity to seek out solutions together, which will benefit the global community. Israel has the ability to contribute in a unique, significant fashion to addressing these challenges. Israel and the United States are world leaders in aiding countries whose people have suffered. Our collaborative capabilities, coupled with our mutually beneficial partnership are the key to the future of our children. To us, it is clear that America is irreplaceable to Israel, and Israel is irreplaceable to America. It is time to design the next stage of our evolving friendship and our growing partnership together.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s do it together. Let’s elevate our partnership to new levels.

Mr. Speaker, I am not oblivious to criticism among friends, including some expressed by respected members of this House. I respect criticism, especially from friends, although one does not always have to accept it. But criticism of Israel must not cross the line into negation of the State of Israel’s right to exist. Questioning the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, is not legitimate diplomacy, it is antisemitism. Vilifying and attacking Jews, whether in Israel, in the United States, or anywhere in the world is antisemitism. Antisemitism is a disgrace in every form, and I commend President Joe Biden for laying out the United States’ first ever National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism.

President Joe Biden and Israel’s President Isaac Herzog speak in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. (Chris Kleponis)

Dear friends, it’s no secret that over the past few months, the Israeli people have engaged in a heated and painful debate. We have been immersed in voicing our differences and revisiting and renegotiating the balance of our institutional powers in the absence of a written constitution. In practice, the intense debate going on back home, even as we speak, is the clearest tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy. Israel’s democracy has always been based on free and fair elections, on honoring the people’s choice, on safeguarding minority rights, on protection of human and civil liberties, and on a strong and independent judiciary. Our democracy is also one-hundred-and-twenty Members of Knesset, comprised of Jews, Muslims, Christians or Druze, representing every opinion under the Israeli sun, working and debating side by side. Our democracy is also late Friday afternoon, when the sound of the Muezzin calling to prayer, blends with the siren announcing the Sabbath in Jerusalem, while one of the largest and most impressive LGBTQ Pride Parades in the world is going on in Tel Aviv.

Demonstrators at a ‘day of resistance’ to protest the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul bill, in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2023 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Our democracy is also reflected in protesters taking to the streets all across the country, to emphatically raise their voices and fervently demonstrate their point of view. Our democracy is the blue and white Israeli flag waved and loved by all Israelis taking part in the debate. I am well aware of the imperfections of Israeli democracy, and I am conscious of the questions posed by our greatest of friends. The momentous debate in Israel is painful, and deeply unnerving, because it highlights the cracks within the whole.

As President of Israel, I am here to tell the American people, and each of you, that I have great confidence in Israeli democracy. Although we are working through sore issues, just like you, I know our democracy is strong and resilient. Israel has democracy in its DNA.

I am deeply mindful of the challenge which this moment presents to Israeli society, and I have made it the priority of my presidency to play a leading role in this critical and emotional public discussion. I will say to you, our friends, in English, what I have said to my people, to my sisters and brothers, in Hebrew: as a nation, we must find the way to talk to each other no matter how long it takes. As head of state, I will continue doing everything to reach a broad public consensus, and to preserve, protect and defend the State of Israel’s democracy.

Mr. Speaker, for so many Israelis this very public debate is also very personal. It is now a little after 6 p.m. in Israel. They will soon sit down to dinner, together, beside family or friends, with whom they may severely disagree. But they are, and they will always remain, family.

Israel and the United States will inevitably disagree on many matters. But we will always remain family. Our evolutionary societies have so much to give to the world, and so much to learn from each other. Our bond may be challenged at times, but it is absolutely unbreakable. The Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva”, is 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. Hope is the belief that together we can make the world better, that we can overcome any setbacks, and heal the fractures in our world.

President Isaac Herzog addresses a Joint Session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, July 19, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Israel’s first seventy-five years were rooted in an ancient dream. Let us base our next seventy-five years on hope. Our shared hope, that we can heal our fractured world, as the closest of allies and friends.

Thank you, members of both houses, for celebrating Israel’s independence. Am Yisrael Chai (The people of Israel lives.) God Bless the State of Israel God Bless the United States of America!

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