Standing in line outside the Rayburn Building in Washington DC at 9 in the morning, waiting in the frigid cold with my wife to go inside to see Prime Minister Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress, I hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of the day. After picking up our tickets on the second floor in a Congressman’s office, we were escorted through the long halls and tunnels that connect the Rayburn office building to the Capitol. Once we passed another two security checkpoints, we were finally herded into our seats at around 10:40 a.m. I looked around the room and saw the upper gallery fill up with giants of the Jewish community: Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, Sheldon Adelson, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Senator Joe Lieberman, and many more. The pressure and excitement were palpable. Twenty minutes until start time.
How was our Prime Minister going to be received? What would he say in his speech? As an American Jew with many strong opinions on the current matters involving Israel and Iran, I thought: will he say all the things I would want to say if I had the opportunity to address this body? Everyone in the gallery was equally excited and nervous. The nerves were compounded with the fact that there were over 50 seats open, as many Democrats decided that their politics trumped their obligations as members of Congress and boycotted this important speech.
Then, the Sergeant-at-Arms marched in and announced, “THE PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL, MR. BENJAMIN NETANYAHU.” The place literally went wild. The room jumped to its feet with a thunderous applause, which lasted minutes. Bibi walked into the room welcomed just as the President himself is when he walks in to give his State of the Union address. Members of Congress rushed to greet him to show him their support publicly. The upper gallery, where I was sitting, was clapping, waving, hooting, screaming, and letting out some of the energy we were all harboring inside.
After the crowd settled down, Prime Minister Netanyahu began delivering what was billed as the biggest speech of the time by an Israeli leader. Once he gave the administration the appropriate respect, the Prime Minister began his speech in earnest, as any great Jewish leader should, with a biblical story.
We’re an ancient people. In our nearly 4,000 years of history, many have tried repeatedly to destroy the Jewish people. Tomorrow night, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, we’ll read the Book of Esther. We’ll read of a powerful Persian viceroy named Haman, who plotted to destroy the Jewish people some 2,500 years ago. But a courageous Jewish woman, Queen Esther, exposed the plot and gave for the Jewish people the right to defend themselves against their enemies. The plot was foiled. Our people were saved.
The room once again exploded with a standing ovation. Suddenly, the story we all learned as children came to life. Making the obvious, yet scary, connection between the ancient Persian viceroy, Haman, and the modern day Persian viceroy, the Ayatollah Khamenei. The dots were surely being connected.
Next, Netanyahu laid out the level of threat which Iran and extremist Islam pose to the free world, and primarily to Israel. And then, he got to the meat of his speech: the pending deal between the U.S. and Iran. The reason he was here. To plead on behalf of the Jewish people. To be the voice for the Jewish people. The voice that we didn’t have before the terrors of the Holocaust. The voice that we didn’t have before the inquisitions or the pogroms. The voice that the reestablishment of the State of Israel has given back to us.
The substance of Netanyahu’s opposition to the deal was summed up in his speech by detailing the unacceptable concessions offered to Iran in the proposed deal:
So you see, my friends, this deal has two major concessions: one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade. That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.
Incredibly, President Obama said he didn’t have time to watch the speech. Apparently, this is not an important enough issue for him. Or, more likely, his ego was too bruised after being reminded that there are two other branches of government, both of which are entitled to operate independently from the executive. President Obama said “Netanyahu didn’t offer any solutions.” But, he did.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve come here today to tell you we don’t have to bet the security of the world on the hope that Iran will change for the better. We don’t have to gamble with our future and with our children’s future. We can insist that restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program not be lifted for as long as Iran continues its aggression in the region and in the world.
Before lifting those restrictions, the world should demand that Iran do three things. First, stop its aggression against its neighbors in the Middle East. Second, stop supporting terrorism around the world. And third, stop threatening to annihilate my country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state.
If the world powers are not prepared to insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal is signed, at the very least they should insist that Iran change its behavior before a deal expires. If Iran changes its behavior, the restrictions would be lifted. If Iran doesn’t change its behavior, the restrictions should not be lifted.
President Obama did not hear this part of the speech. Fortunately, having been in the room, I can tell you that every member of Congress surely did.
Then, the Prime Minister gave the well-deserved respect to one of the most important guests in the room, and the individual who symbolizes Jewish survival after the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel. The applause for Mr. Wiesel was louder and stronger than any throughout the speech. Netanyahu turned to Wiesel and said “Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words ‘never again.’ And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.” Tears welled up in my eyes, as the room once again erupted in applause.
However, I felt at that moment that the Jewish people were looking weak, as we were pleading for the United States to help us tackle this enemy. But then, as if Netanyahu read my mind, the proud, strong, confident leader that is our Prime Minister of Israel turned the tables and made sure the world knew that the Jewish people are no longer the people who are marched into gas chambers like sheep. He announced with particular force and strength:
But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.
We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.
This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.
Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand. That line played over and over in my head, as tears of pride trickled down my cheeks. Israel will stand. Netanyahu then brought the house down by saying: “But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know America stands with Israel.”
I walked out of the hall with an immense sense of pride and gratitude. Gratitude that Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a speech for the ages. A speech that needed to be given. A speech that needed to be heard. As an American Jew, I was proud of our system of government. Congress wanted to hear from our ally on the front lines regarding an issue which they deem existential, on the heels of a deal which our President seems to be pushing through, so they invited that ally’s leader to speak. Even if the President did not want Congress to hear from him. Congress gave him an opportunity to be heard. They gave themselves an opportunity to listen. As a Jew, I was proud to have been represented by Mr. Netanyahu this morning. He said all that I would have wanted to say. He spoke for me. He spoke for my family. And I am certain, history will prove, he spoke for all the Jewish people.
Today, I was lucky enough to have witnesses history first hand.
Am Israel Chai. Thank you Bibi.