Speech by Admiral James Stavridis, Commander of U.S. European Command, upon receiving JINSA’s Henry M. Jackson Distinguished Service Award, November 7, 2011, Washington, DC

To JINSA, thank you so much for putting together such a magical evening with so many wonderful people; so many supporters of Israel, so many who care about freedom in the world.

To JINSA, thank you so much for putting together such a magical evening with so many wonderful people; so many supporters of Israel, so many who care about freedom in the world.

I do want to particularly, if I may, recognize the senior naval officer in the group, who is Admiral Bud Edney, longtime mensch and a great friend to many here. (Applause.) It’s fabulous to have you in the house, sir. Too many other wonderful admirals and generals and distinguished persons and excellencies and many, many wonderful people here. And I would simply say I would thank the young men who stood up here who represent what all of us aspire to be in our lives — men and women of courage. And I particularly want to say my heart is with the families of the fallen who are here tonight. You honor us and I hope in some small way that this gathering honors you and the sacrifices you have made upon the altar of freedom. (Applause.)

I must say, Sid, talking about your grandmother in heaven, I’m going to guess that she’s a Jewish grandmother. My Greek grandmother is up there and I’m sure they’re comparing notes on us. And I hope we can both live up to the standards that our grandmothers set for us. What everybody told me was I should speak for about two hours. What I would like to do is very, very quickly talk a little about Israel – a subject that is close, I think, to everyone in this hall tonight.

I want to begin with something that President Shimon Peres said to me in Israel two or three months ago when I had an opportunity to visit with him. I think everyone here knows President Peres, a Noble Prize laureate, a prime minister, and a president of Israel; a director of the defense ministry and a minister of defense of Israel. And he said — and I was very struck by this — in all of those jobs that he undertook for Israel, he said, “I was always learning as I did. I never knew. I was learning as I did.”

And if there is anything that personifies my feeling in accepting an award like this, it is simply to say throughout the course of my career, I never knew. I was learning as I did. And so I thank all who have part of my learning experience, but above all, the young men and women who were so represented tonight, from whom I learned every step of the way. And I accept this award only on their behalf. And I thank you for it. (Applause.) Thank you. Thank you.

I think it’s important as well to say a word about Senator Jackson, about Scoop Jackson. And the best quote I could find about Senator Jackson actually came from a contemporary of his in the Senate whom many of you know or knew, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of the great intellectuals who walked the halls of the Senate decades ago. And he said, Henry Jackson is proof of the old belief in the Judaic tradition, that in any moment in history goodness in the world is preserved only by the deeds of 36 just men who do not know that this is the role the Lord has given them. Senator Moynihan said Henry Jackson was one of those 36 men. We honor his [inaudible] and his name tonight. (Applause.)

So what I would like to do is say a word about the state of Israel. I went for the first time to Israel in 1980; many, many years ago, decades ago. I was a very young junior officer in the United States Navy. I went on an aircraft carrier and we pulled into port and I had a chance to explore the state of Israel. And I came away with a series of impressions that remain with me today. When I think of Israel, I think of courage; I think of Masada. Even today, Israeli soldiers swear an oath that Masada shall not fall again. The defenders of Masada, like the Israel Defense Forces of today, take that oath, that stand, and they personify courage.

Secondly, when I think of Israel, I think of sacrifice. I think of the life of the kibbutz; of those first kibbutzniks, what their lives were like as they came to Israel. They overcame hardship. They succeeded in developing these thriving communities, and they played a fundamental and a key role in the delivery of Israel into the modern world. So when I think of Israel, I think of sacrifice. When I think of Israel, I think of memory. I remember when my wife Laura and I went together two years ago to Yad Vashem and how moving that was. It is, of course, the living memorial to the Holocaust. It is what safeguards the memory of all who were lost in that time. And when Laura and I walked Yad Vashem, we understood Israel and the importance of memory, courage and sacrifice.

When I think of Israel, I think of innovation. I think of a people who are smart; who have brought forth intelligent ideas to make their state safe. I’ll give you a very practical example. Three weeks ago I was in Israel and I saw the new Iron Dome system. It’s an air defense system. It is state of the art. It was built as part of a project between Israel, with support and help, I’m proud to say, from the United States of America, from the Department of Defense, providing funding that matched up with this innovation, this Iron Dome idea.

Today, the Iron Dome was developed rapidly. It is protecting the population of Israel from rocket attack. And it is an example of what is the lifeblood of Israel, which is innovation. So when I think of Israel, I think of courage. I think of memory. I think of sacrifice. And I think of innovation. That’s an extraordinary portfolio for a nation in today’s world.

The history of Israel as a state is both ancient and new. The United States was the first nation to recognize the state of Israel in 1948; 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the state. Today, the United States continues to stand with Israel, and Israel stands with the United States. One of the great benefits of my job, as the commander of the U.S. European Command, is that I am charged with military-to-military relations between the United States and Israel. I’m fortunate to travel there often. I am friends with Gabi Ashkenazi, the previous [chief of staff]. I’m good friends with Benny Gantz, the current [chief of staff].

I’m good friends with the Israeli defense attaché, who’s right here with us tonight. I have come to learn. As I said, I don’t know; I learn in every job and I learn more about Israel with every visit, with every interaction, with every event like this; where I can come to this JINSA-sponsored event and have a chance to talk about Israel. What does the future hold? I am confident that the United States and Israel will continue to work closely together across the spectrum of national activity; certainly in the military-to-military venue.

But I believe as we continue into this turbulent 21st century, we will work across an even wider spectrum — one that will focus on cyber, on trafficking, on piracy, on smuggling, as well as the traditional threats that we face. I believe the future is bright in every sense — in the context of cooperation and friendship and dedication between the United States and the state of Israel.

Let me close, if I may, and touch on two elements of my life and my background that I think, in a sense, resonate in the context of Israel. As was mentioned by my good friend who did such a nice job with that introduction — [speaks in Greek] – I’m Greek-American and I’m proud of it. And I’m also a sailor who has spent a good deal of my life at sea, and I’m proud of that. So let me reach deep into history; let me go back 2,500 years ago to a famous battle in Greek history, a naval battle — the battle of Salamis, which is a bay, a body of water outside of Athens.

2,500 years ago there was a Persian invasion of Greece. And the Persians were very successful and they were continuing to drive south. And it was clear that the pivotal battle would be fought at sea, between the Persian fleet and the Greek fleet. The Persian fleet was massive. They outnumbered the Greek fleet by five to one. The Greek admiral was named Themistocles. And knowing that he would be so dramatically outnumbered in the battle the next day, he gathered all his ship captains together the night before the battle.

And of course in those days, everything depended on rowing — on rowing these massive triremes, these galleys that would fight the battle the next day. And knowing that the Greeks were completely outnumbered, Themistocles knew he had one great advantage over the Persians. The Persian fleet was manned almost entirely by slaves. The Greek fleet was manned entirely by free men. The night before the battle, Themistocles gathered the captains and the lieutenants of his fleet, and he said, tomorrow you must row for your wives and your children. Tomorrow you must row for your parents. Tomorrow you must row for your city. And tomorrow you must row for freedom.

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I give you Israel and the United States — two nations that row for freedom. Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much. (Applause.)