President Barack Obama delivered a historic address last week at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Speaking on International Holocaust Remembrance Day as medals were given to families declared righteous gentiles by Yad Vashem, Obama spoke passionately about “the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise,” even going so far as to repeat the defiant words of imprisoned U.S. Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, who, when his Nazi captors sought to separate the Jews from non-Jewish prisoners, replied, “We are all Jews.”
“When we see some Jews leaving major European cities, where their families have lived for generations, because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kan.; when swastikas appear on college campuses; when we see all that and more, we must not be silent,” Obama said. And he spoke, as well, about the need for heightened support of aging Holocaust survivors: “Meanwhile, governments have an obligation to care for the survivors of the Shoah — because no one who endured that horror should have to scrape by in their golden years. So, with our White House initiative, we’re working to improve care for Holocaust survivors in need here in the United States.”
Obama is the first president to deliver an address at the Israeli Embassy, although then-President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, visited the compound in 1995. In his speech, Obama highlighted that the Holocaust’s first and foremost goal was the genocidal elimination of the Jews. But without watering down that message, he also spoke of the Holocaust’s universal lesson.
“We’re called to live in a way that shows that we’ve actually learned from our past,” Obama said. “And that means rejecting indifference. It means cultivating a habit of empathy and recognizing ourselves in one another; to make common cause with the outsider, the minority, whether that minority is Christian or Jew, whether it is Hindu or Muslim or a nonbeliever; whether that minority is native born or immigrant; whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian.
“It means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms,” he added, “and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.”
Yes, we are all Jews, and proudly so. But our memory of the millions of Jewish lives lost is not diminished by also saying — particularly in this election year of scapegoating and fear mongering — we are all Muslims, all Latinos, all African-Americans, all immigrants. Doing so will help us recognize ourselves in one another and might just forestall future genocides.