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 Remarks of Secretary Lew before the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)



As prepared for delivery


WASHINGTON - Penny, Andrew, Henry, and everyone here, it is great to be with you this evening.  And it is a great privilege to receive the Morgenthau award from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. 

Tonight we mark your 100th year—and it has been 100 years of indispensable work to protect those across the generations who have suffered from the scourge of war, violence, bigotry, hunger, and natural disaster. 

It is a proud history.  A history of never standing idly by in silence—but one of taking action.  So thank you for this award, and thank you to Andrew and Henry for presenting it.  Andrew is a strong and effective leader, and his tireless commitment to public service makes him a role model.  He and his family have done so much to make our city of New York a better place, and it has been my honor to work with them in common cause and to count them as friends.

And having Henry here, the grandson of this award’s namesake, means a great deal.  Henry has done so much to sustain the legacies of both his grandfather and father, and I know I speak for everyone when I say your participation here this evening is truly an honor.

This evening is a time of celebration, and in a few moments I will talk about the extraordinary contributions of the Morgenthau family, and their legacy, which reaches across so many fields of public policy, both national and local.  But before I do, I want to say a few words about something that I know is on the minds of many here: Iran’s nuclear program.

Just the other day, my colleague and friend John Kerry told you in no uncertain terms the policy of the United States: “We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon—not now, not ever.  And I promise you that.”  From the outset, the goal of our sanctions program has been clear: 

Impose steadily increasing economic and financial pressure to sharpen the choice for Iran’s leaders—either they alter Iran’s nuclear policies and provide the international community the verifiable assurances it needs to have confidence that its program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, or face increasing economic pressure. 

The goal, of course, is not to hurt the Iranian people, and our sanctions have always allowed for the import of food, medicine and medical equipment. 

Our goal is to build pressure to change the policy of the Iranian government—and in this case, the only acceptable end result is an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons.

As someone who has sat with two presidents as they have weighed the heavy decision of whether to use force, I believe we have a moral obligation to use all diplomatic and economic means of achieving a change to the maximum extent possible, and reserve force as a last option when other means fail.

Last month, the United States and its allies accomplished something quite remarkable. 

After years of unprecedented international sanctions—sanctions primarily put in place under President Obama—Iran’s government came to the negotiating table and agreed to halt progress on its nuclear program and roll back key aspects of the program for the first time in nearly a decade.  But this is only a first step, designed to create the time and space to allow our negotiators to press for a long-term, comprehensive resolution with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.

The first step stops progress on Iran’s nuclear program.  It means Iran’s nuclear program will be subjected to intrusive international inspections and enhanced transparency.  It means Iran will get limited minor relief from some current sanctions.  And it means our negotiators have a six month window to pursue a comprehensive resolution.  

Let me be clear: In comparison with the costs that our sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, the relief package in this agreement is quite modest—totaling approximately $6 billion to $7 billion.  Working alongside our international partners, we have imposed the most comprehensive and sweeping sanctions in history and largely immobilized about $100 billion in Iranian foreign exchange holdings. 

The relief offered is a fraction of the mounting sanctions pressure the Iranian economy will continue to feel over the next six months. 

During the six month period of the interim agreement alone, Iran will continue to lose close to $30 billion in oil revenue.

At the same time, this agreement does nothing to undo or weaken the core architecture of our sanctions regime—in particular, the oil, financial and banking sanctions that have had such a biting impact.  This agreement does not prevent us from implementing our existing sanctions or imposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or its abuse of basic human rights.  All of our targeted sanctions related to Iran’s sponsorship of groups like Hizballah, Iran’s destabilizing role in the Syrian conflict, and its atrocious human rights record, will remain at full strength.

And our enforcement of the sanctions regime will be as unflinching as ever—so any CEO, general counsel, or business person who thinks now might be a time to test our resolve, better think again.  We are watching closely, and we are prepared to move against anyone, anywhere who violates, or attempts to violate, our sanctions.  Iran has now demonstrated its desire to break free of the economic hardship it is under, but Iran will only find a way out of its deep economic distress when it can guarantee the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program.  This is up to Iran, and the choices it makes.  

We know that our sanctions are working.  We can see that in the impact on Iran’s economy.  We can see that in the approach of its negotiators.

And sanctions will be essential going forward in our effort to achieve a diplomatic resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Now, as everyone here knows, the JDC traces its unique roots back to World War I when humanitarian efforts brought people of good conscience together to help Jews who were victims of mass hardship in the Middle East and Europe. 

This work, stretching across great distances, was rather astounding at the time.  And it was led by Henry Morgenthau, who saw for himself the searing destitution suffered by countless families and neighborhoods as Europe was caught in the grip of conflict. 

Morgenthau was our U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, and he made the request that sparked the creation of the JDC.  With a simple telegram to the right person, he galvanized a movement that rippled across the world.

Morgenthau sent an urgent Western Union Cablegram to Jacob Schiff in New York asking for $50,000—a sum equal to $1 million dollars today—to help save these communities.

This request was met with vigor.  And soon, American Jewish relief groups came together to form the JDC, and a global lifeline was born.  In the decades that followed, the JDC would assemble a world-wide support structure.

It would send streams of relief in the form of money, food, and medicine.  And it would become an institution that would give people a chance to live who might have perished otherwise.  And with the rise of Nazi Germany and the onset of World War II, the JDC became more instrumental than ever.

Now, commemorating the JDC’s origins and the work of Henry Morgenthau is more than just a powerful story for me.  It resonates on a deep level because it reminds me of my own family’s journey and how fortunate we were.

My father was born in Poland, and his family left their small town for the United States at the end of World War I.  My mother’s family made the journey just a few years earlier.

They were lucky.  They had the opportunity to leave before it was too late.  And they were especially lucky to come here to America—a country where you did not have to live under the menace of fear.  Where there were real ladders of economic opportunity.  And where even the son of an Eastern European immigrant could grow up to become Treasury Secretary of the United States.    

My parents made sure that I grew up with a full understanding for how fortunate I was.  And over the years, I have reflected a great deal about how the decision to come to America had such a profound impact both on the trajectory of their lives and on the generations that followed.  It is also why I have such admiration for the work of the JDC.  

During the darkest days of the 20th century, the JDC helped hundreds of thousands of Jews.  It helped them flee the horror that was swallowing Europe.  And by extension, this organization shaped the lives of millions of their children, grandchildren, and other descendants.

In a similar way, Henry Morgenthau’s son would not only bear his father’s name but also his father’s belief that individuals serving in government carry a special moral responsibility.  We know now that Ambassador Morgenthau’s son—who served as Treasury Secretary from 1934 to 1945—would use his position at Treasury to help those who fought the Nazis and those who simply fought to escape them.

Years before the United States entered the war, Morgenthau persuaded President Roosevelt to give the Treasury Department new purchasing powers to prepare America for war and help arm the Allies.

For example, through the Lend Lease program, he paved the way so the United Kingdom and France could purchase American aircraft—despite repeated objections from the War Department and isolationists in Congress. 

Later, when the war was well underway, Morgenthau would again secure new powers in the face of opposition.  For this, he would come under criticism from many corners. 

In fact, at one point when Morgenthau was told by an advisor that there were grave political risks around what he was doing, Morgenthau responded, “Don't worry about the publicity.  What I want is intelligence and courage.” 

For some time, the United States government’s response to the Holocaust was notably limited, and while no part of the government was beyond reproach, inaction at the State Department was particularly stark. 

It was delaying licenses that would have provided support for relief organizations across Europe and denying visas to Jewish refugees.  

And when Gerhart Riegner, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, informed the State Department of Hitler’s plan to exterminate as many as 4 million Jews—the “final solution”—the Department verified that the news was, in fact, accurate, but did nothing to act on it. 

But the currents shifted when a few men working at Treasury heard what was happening, heard that this evil was being ignored.  They delivered a haunting memo to Secretary Morgenthau on January 13, 1944.  It bore the title “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews.”  From there, Morgenthau wasted little time and took the matter directly to President Roosevelt. 

Within days the President issued Executive Order 9417, which established the War Refugee Board—an organization set up inside the Treasury Department to speed the rescue and relief of the victims of Nazi occupation.

The War Refugee Board could do things other departments and agencies of the United States could not.  For one thing, it could send representatives into foreign territory to accomplish its goals and save lives.

But as critical as the Board’s work was, it had to use private funding for the majority of its activities.  And so a partnership between the War Refugee Board and the JDC began in earnest.  The JDC was the Board’s primary source of funding. 

With those funds, the Board began issuing visas to Jews across Europe, arranging transport for thousands so they could find safety.

But the cooperation between these groups went beyond funding.  They worked together on actual operations. 

John Pehle, the industrious director of the Board, was able to coordinate with JDC actions through its Lisbon office.  Lines of communication stayed open between the two organizations, and they coordinated efforts to resettle Jewish refugees from across Europe.  Together they rescued roughly 200,000 Jews from near certain death. Among the War Refugee Board’s top priorities was the protection of thousands of Hungarian Jews. 

And it recruited help in neutral countries to assist with their evacuation.  A young Swedish diplomat named Raoul Wallenberg was one of the recruits. 

Wallenberg went into Hungary and rescued as many as 100,000 Jews alone by issuing fake Swedish passports. 

In just one example, Wallenberg was told of a Nazi plot to round up several thousand Jewish women, and he moved swiftly to engineer their rescue.  His staff stayed up all night and made nearly 2,000 passports before 6 a.m. 

They were all completed and personally delivered to the women in time to save them. 

And because of funds provided by the JDC, Wallenberg managed to purchase about 30 buildings in Hungary to use as hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, and safe houses for more than 8,000 children whose parents had already been deported or killed. 

As the war drew to a close, Wallenberg disappeared, and the details of his fate still remain a mystery.  But his legacy lives on in those he saved and their descendants.

Earlier this year, Wallenberg was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, and I had the honor of unveiling the Medal at the Treasury Department along with the King of Sweden. 

Etched on the Medal is the phrase: “One Person Can Make A Difference” – a phrase that is particularly significant this evening. 

Wallenberg; Pehle; Riegner; Schiff; the Morgenthaus—they each made a difference, and they showed us the way. 

And with the power of their example and through their achievements, they bent the curve of history.  The truth is, we know we live in a world where there are still many forms of injustice and persecution. 

But we also know that good people who make the dignity of human beings their cause do make a difference, and as long as there are organizations like the JDC, they will not have to act alone.

Thank you.  Thank you for your partnership all these decades.  And thank you for honoring me tonight with the Morganthau Award.  Congratulations on this centennial anniversary.




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