WASHINGTON -- Three days before Israel's embassy in Washington was set to host its first-ever address by a sitting American president, its staff faced a tall order: Digging out from an historic blizzard that buried the complex under 30 inches of snow.
The plan had been to erect a heated tent outside of Jerusalem Hall, the embassy's main event space, where US President Barack Obama was to speak in honor of four Americans posthumously declared Righteous Among the Nations: Non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Not only would this be the first time a president has addressed the embassy (former president Bill Clinton visited, but did not speak). It also would be the first time this distinction– the highest honor offered to non-Jews by the Jewish state– was to be awarded on American soil.
So ten able-bodied staffers– including Israel's ambassador himself, Ron Dermer– shoveled the square to prepare for the event, attended by the families of those honored, and by some of those they saved; by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, and by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Senator Bob Corker of New Jersey; and by several Jewish community leaders from Israel and the US.
Dermer also wrote his own remarks himself, delivered at the event on Wednesday night, touched by the stories of the four recipients: Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, Lois Gunden, Walery and Maryla Zbijewski.
"After Adam and Eve disobey God in the Garden of Eden, we read that they hide in shame as they hear God’s voice. Ayeka
, 'where are you?' God asks," Dermer said, noting the question is the first God asks in the Hebrew Bible. "The sages of the Jewish people teach us that 'Where are you' is not a question God is asking for His sake. It is a question God is asking for our sake."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were not the victims of an earthquake, a hurricane or some other random natural disaster that would understandably turn our eyes to the heavens for answers," he said. "The six million Jews killed in the Holocaust were murdered by other human beings– by human beings who had a choice. So perhaps the question, 'where are you?,' Ayeka– a question that so many asked God during the holocaust and which so many of us have been asking God ever since– is not a question for us to ask God, but a question for God to ask us."
"Where was man during the Holocaust?," Dermer continued. "Where was the moral compass of the millions who simply looked the other way as the Nazis and their army of willing executioners perpetrated such monstrous evil? Rather than honestly confront this damning question, people instead tried to excuse their inaction."
The packed hall was then told of the deeds of each recipient: An American teacher who convinced French Jewish parents to give up their children to save their lives; A couple which put their lives at risk in occupied Warsaw to house Jewish children whose names they never knew; And a US sergeant who, in German captivity, refused to allow his captors to separate out Jews from non-Jewish prisoners.
"We are all Jews," Edmonds told his captors.
Over the spring and summer of 2015– both before and after reaching a landmark nuclear deal with Iran in July– Obama engaged in extensive outreach to the American Jewish community. Visiting Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, he declared himself an "honorary member of the tribe." He offered interviews with American Jewish outlets. The message was political: That the president understood, and indeed empathized with the Jewish community and its international concerns, despite his administration's public differences with the Israeli government.
Already he had visited Yad Vashem twice, the camp at Buchenwald once, and the Holocaust Museum recently to show his daughters the horror– "because our children must know this chapter of our history, and that we must never repeat it," he said on Wednesday.
At Israel's embassy, Obama offered a deeper, less political, truly gallant explanation of the imperative democracies prescribe to protect Jewish peoples worldwide. "We are all Jews," he declared, "because anti-Semitism is a distillation, an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history– and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil."
"We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act?," the president said.
Diverging from his prepared remarks, echoing the ambassador, he asked: "How would we answer God’s question, 'where are you?'"
"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."
Obama was offered to speak at the event during President Reuven Rivlin's visit in November, according to senior administration officials. "The president wanted to participate given his strong belief that we must never forget the lessons of the Holocaust and always stand up against anti-Semitism, intolerance and hatred in all of its forms," said one official. "He was happy to be part of an event that honors those who lived these values."
Another, acknowledging the president's storied history with the American Jewish community, said the president's poignant speech reflects where he has always stood.
"What the president said tonight is what he has always believed," another senior administration official said. "In the midst of the Iran debate, some of our critics attempted to conflate policy disagreements over the Iran deal with this Administration's– and this president's– support for Israel. His remarks at the Israeli Embassy were a stark reminder that, despite narrow disagreements, this president's attachment and commitment to Israel and its people is unshakeable."
Indeed, the speech largely veered from politics– delivered on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the president did not specifically call out one nation or another for its denial of the historic event. But he did categorically condemn double standards Israel endures in the international community.
"When voices around the world veer from criticism of a particular Israeli policy to an unjust denial of Israel’s right to exist, when Israel faces terrorism, we stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish State of Israel," he said. "It would be a fundamental moral failing if America broke that bond."
Regardless of their own politics, those in attendance roundly expressed satisfaction with the president's speech. "I thought his remarks could not have been better. They were very good, and they were heartfelt," Corker said after the event.
"It was a very important message," Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of Yad Vashem, said, "not only to the state of Israel, but to the Jewish people."
Dermer offered Obama a gift upon receiving him at the embassy: A book titled, "And Every Single One Was Someone," in which "Jew" is written 6,000,000 times. And each recipient's family was awarded a framed certificate of honor, from Yad Vashem, as well as a complementary medal.
Introducing the president was famed director Steven Spielberg, credited for his work in memorializing the story of one Righteous Among the Nations honoree– Oskar Schindler– in the 1993 film bearing his name.
"The president's support is needed and appreciated more than ever," Spielberg said, thanking his "good friend" for his administration's efforts in the fight against rising anti-Semitism worldwide.
The director– who has long said the Shoah was the story he was born to tell– called on the audience to listen closely to the stories of those honored.
"They can help us find our voices," he said.