Vice President Joe Biden kept a crowd of more than 1,000 people waiting at Ahavath Achim Synagogue on Thursday night, Sept. 3.
They had to wait for his arrival.
The 27th Fran Eizenstat and Eizenstat Family Annual Lecture was scheduled to start at 7:30, and despite having to battle bad traffic, park remotely, take shuttle buses and pass through several layers of security, most reached their seats by 7. An announcement at 7:35 that the program would begin shortly created excitement, but Biden didn’t walk onto the bimah until 8:15. Lecture sponsor Stuart Eizenstat blamed an emergency National Security Council meeting for altering Biden’s travel plans.
They had to wait for him to address the Iran nuclear deal.
Biden’s roughly one-hour speech focused on foreign policy, but he talked for half an hour before he reached the foreign policy issue that has dominated discussion in the Jewish community. The vice president said he had spent 2½ hours that day talking about the deal with Jewish leaders in Florida and could have talked all night about it, but instead he delivered what sounded a lot like a campaign speech.
Still, they had to wait to learn whether it was a stump speech for a presidential campaign.
Biden talked a lot about his vision for the United States for the rest of the 21st century, but he did not say anything about his personal plans until Eizenstat asked him after the speech.
The answer did not settle the question of whether the 72-year-old Democrat and former six-term senator from Delaware will challenge Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders for the presidential nomination, but it provided the most emotional moments of the night.
“The most relevant factor in my decision is whether my family and I have the emotional energy to run,” said Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer at age 46 on May 30. “Some might think that is not appropriate. But unless I can go to my party and the American people and say that I am able to devote my whole heart and my whole soul to this endeavor, it would not be appropriate.”
Biden said people have cited external factors in his decision whether to seek the presidency, something he first tried in 1988. But he said he will not decide based on the other people in the race, his ability to raise money and or his opportunity to build a campaign organization. “The factor is, can I do it? Can my family undertake what is an arduous commitment that we’d be proud to undertake under normal circumstances? But the honest-to-G-d answer is I just don’t know.”
Because there’s no timetable for the grieving process, Biden said he doesn’t know whether he can make a decision in time to run. Democratic debates start in October. The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 1.
Eizenstat, who introduced Biden as “the 47th president of the United States” (Barack Obama is the 44th president), said America needs his friend to remain involved regardless of his decision because of the knowledge and experience he displayed throughout his speech at AA.
Saying that W.B. Yeats’ phrase for the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, “a terrible beauty is born,” is more applicable to the world a century later, the Irish Catholic vice president said the world is at an inflection point full of more changes and more challenges than at any time since World War II.
“We are on the cusp of a genuine resurgence if we seize the opportunity,” Biden said.
He said North America has the resources to be the world’s energy epicenter for the rest of the 21st century, and the United States has the most capable fighting force in world history to go with the most skilled, most productive workforce in the world.
If the United States makes the necessary investments in education and infrastructure and earns the world’s respect by recommitting to being a “shining city on a hill” through moral initiatives such as banning torture, America will lead the world to new heights of peace and prosperity for the rest of the century, Biden said.
“You have given us a remarkable statement of the best of American values,” Eizenstat said later.
The vice president said the United States will never hesitate to use its power when necessary, but “not every problem in the world is about us.”
The United States will help friends in areas such as the Middle East but won’t do all the fighting for them. For example, he said, while the effort will not be fast or easy, “the scourge” of the Islamic State will be destroyed.
Amid the horrors of the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war, it’s easy to forget that the world is safer than it was during the Cold War, Biden said. He emphasized that the United States no longer faces an existential threat.
He acknowledged the same is not true for Israel, which could be destroyed by a nuclear-armed Iran. But he argued that the Iran deal is vital because it dramatically reduces the risk of Iran developing such weapons.
Biden said he takes a back seat to no one in his commitment to Israel, and he was the administration skeptic, “the skunk at the family picnic,” throughout the nuclear negotiations. But “there is no better deal that could be had.”
He said Iran’s nuclear program will be delayed at least a decade through strict, intrusive inspections, and if Iran ever moves toward a bomb, the United States will have better intelligence with which to apply all of the same options available now.
Biden said he understands the viewpoint that the Iranian regime is too vile and hateful for any deal. He just wishes opponents of the Iran deal were honest with themselves that they couldn’t accept any deal.
He also said he is confident that the U.S.-Israel relationship will not suffer lasting harm from the disagreement over Iran and that the allies will soon be working on enhancements to Israel’s defense.
Biden said Israel has no greater friend in the United States than Obama. “This president has done more to advance Israel’s security than any president in history.”
A Most Jewish Catholic
Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance at Ahavath Achim Synagogue wasn’t all about foreign policy and domestic politics. Wearing a kippah, he had time for some Judaism during his 90 minutes on the bimah.
When Biden asked him for a kippah, Stuart Eizenstat said, he answered, “You’ve been to synagogue so much, there must be one from your bar mitzvah.”
Eizenstat noted that Biden had been asked to speak at the funeral of Jewish New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who had called Biden “the only Catholic Jew.”
Biden appeared to sing along with “Hatikvah” when Mindy Margolis performed the Israeli national anthem.
After his question-and-answer session with Eizenstat, the vice president took a couple of minutes to explain that he’s the only Irish Catholic father to have his dream come true by seeing his daughter marry a Jewish surgeon. She signed her ketubah in a rectory, he said, and the wedding took place under a chuppah in a Catholic church with a priest and a rabbi.
Biden said he asked his daughter to use his favorite hymn for the recessional. Instead, he got the “Hora.”
Connecting the vice president’s appearance to the forthcoming High Holidays, Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal called Biden an ongoing example that people can make a difference in the world and secure their place in the Book of Life.
“It is in our hands to make a difference,” Rabbi Rosenthal said.
In presenting a mezuzah to Biden after his speech, Rabbi Neil Sandler said that despite disagreements within the Jewish community over the Iran deal and other issues, “all of us agree that you have been a tremendous exemplar to us.”
Eizenstat said: “Joe Biden, you are a mensch.”