Consul General Michael Ratney’s Independence Day Remarks

Good evening everyone, and welcome to our celebration of the 239th anniversary of America’s independence. As you may know, this event is something of a farewell for me. In a few weeks, I’ll finish my tour as Consul General and return to Washington after three years in Jerusalem, three years that have easily been the most challenging, and yet the most energizing, of my professional life. So this may be my last speech here, my last opportunity to say what a remarkable experience it’s been, and to tell you all a little bit about what I’ve learned.

To see the sheer number of guests here is a personal honor. I’ve met so many wonderful people, so many of you, over the past three years. It’s a big part of what made this job so special, and I want to welcome not only those from Jerusalem, but everyone who braved the traffic – and the Qalandiya checkpoint – to join us from Nablus and Jenin, from Ramallah and Jericho, from Hebron and Bethlehem, from Salfeet and Tulkarem and Tubas and Qalqilya. And of course from Gaza.

It’s an honor to welcome the Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah. Mr. Prime Minister, Dr. Rami, we’ve known each other from your first days as Prime Minister – and even before then at Al-Najah University – and it’s always been a pleasure and a privilege to work with you, even through some very difficult days for the Palestinian Authority and for your people.

I want to thank our wonderful sponsors who made this celebration possible. You’ll see their names on the posters throughout the garden. Suffice to say that without the generosity of our sponsors, this event would be a shadow of what you see today.

Let me recognize Gunnery Sargent Kevin Cain and the Marine Security Guard Detachment Jerusalem. Seeing them today is a welcome reminder that where we’re all now standing is our own little oasis of the United States of America.

I want to extend my deepest gratitude to my amazing colleagues, the nearly 600 men and women of the American Consulate General. These are the Americans, Palestinians, and Israelis who have been my family for the past three years. No words can adequately convey my profound gratitude for their support and for their friendship. In good times and bad – and, no kidding, we’ve lived through some difficult moments here – our team at the Consulate General has kept us moving forward and kept us safe. They’ve built lasting relationships throughout Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza – from the political leadership to the grass roots of civil society, in government, the media, the private sector, and among the many communities of faith whose entangled roots run through this land so deeply.

Our team looks after the well-being of the many thousands of Americans who live and visit here. And they help many thousands more Palestinians and Israelis – and hopefully don’t disappoint too many – who hope to visit and live and work in the United States.

Our colleagues in USAID together with their partners in the West Bank and Gaza touch so many aspects of Palestinian life – reforming education, improving healthcare, building roads and water infrastructure, and energizing a private sector that must function even in the face of astonishing challenges. Likewise, our American and multinational colleagues with the U.S. Security Coordinator work with their partners to bring security and safety to the daily lives of millions.

There’s also one important colleague who doesn’t work at this mission who I’d like to recognize, and that’s the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro. I was warned before I arrived here that the relationship between the Consul General in Jerusalem and the Ambassador in Tel Aviv has been over the years, occasionally, shall we say, complicated. But if there were complications on our watch – and I’ll confide in you that there may have been a few – I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had a partner and a friend to work with who is as wise, and as committed, as Dan Shapiro.

This may be the most complicated, the most impassioned, place I’ve ever lived. This land stokes the strongest emotions, drives some to the brink of insanity, even to violence, and moves others simply to leave. But of course it also inspires a great many – the great majority, really – to stay, to make their lives here, to make the fabric of this land so rich, to make this a real place, and not some sterile antiquity.

And of course we should be grateful that it inspires some, and my boss Secretary of State John Kerry is probably chief among them, to search relentlessly for a way forward – to help find a way that all the people for whom this land lives so close to their heart can co-exist, if not in love, then at least in mutual respect and in recognition of their shared destiny and their common humanity. That phrase – common humanity – is one to which I constantly return. If there’s a single lesson I’ve drawn from my time here, it’s that mutual respect and recognition of our shared humanity is the key to the peaceful future all of us crave. And yet, the deeply felt politics, the zero-sum geography, the separation – partly imposed by others and partly imposed upon ourselves – all too often robs us of our ability to appreciate the humanity of the other.

As I was contemplating what I might say today, I ran across the words of the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, and thought he captured beautifully a sentiment that I think about here often. In a poem called “Revenge,” he imagined meeting the man who killed his father and destroyed his home, and he fantasized about challenging that man to a duel and finally settling the score. “But if it came to light,” he wrote, “when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him, then I wouldn’t kill him even if I could. If it were made clear that he had a brother or sisters…or if he had a wife to greet him and children who couldn’t bear his absence…” Reading those lines brought to mind what we’ve all seen happen when we fail to regard each other as humans, when we forget about the mothers and the children, the brothers and sisters. We’ve all seen what happens when the other is dehumanized, and when hatred is indulged.

I’ve seen it for myself – what that hatred, that rejection of humanity – of human-ness – can spawn. In just a few days span last year, I visited a mosque in the West Bank village of Jabaa and a Christian seminary on Mt. Zion – two places of holy worship that were torched by price tag vandals, by morally bankrupt cowards in the dead of night. I visited the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives where graves have been desecrated, as though in some sick sport – nihilism masquerading as political protest. I sat shiva with the families of four rabbis murdered as they prayed in their synagogue in Har Nof. I visited the wake tent in Shuafat for Mohammad Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped and burned alive by soulless criminals in the Jerusalem Forest.

For the monsters, the terrorists, who perpetrated these attacks, politics and religion intersect in a very dark place, in the lowest depths of hate and ignorance and inhumanity. These perpetrators were so filled with hate, so drained of wisdom, so morally vacant, so unable or unwilling to see the humanity of the other, that they become in every sense empty of humanity themselves.

And yet, I take comfort in knowing that they are the minority. And I derive great optimism from having met so many other Israelis and Palestinians who may just hold enough humanity for all of us. Who not only recognize the humanity in others, but embrace it, celebrate it, protect it.

Ask what gives me hope – and lately I’ve been asked that question a great deal – and I’ll tell you about the young Palestinians and Israelis I met with Kids 4 Peace, who even in the darkest, most heart-breakingly violent days of the Gaza conflict last summer, insisted on talking, and rejected the absurd notion that shunning each other will somehow lead to justice or equality. They stood together and said words I’ll always remember – words that I wrote down even as they spoke them: “We are the kids of Jerusalem, and the violence stops with us.”

I met young entrepreneurs from Jerusalem, from Ramallah, from Nablus, and even from Gaza who think and talk just like young entrepreneurs in San Francisco or London or Hong Kong – or Tel Aviv. They’re no less patriotic, they have no more modest ambitions for the future of their people and their country. But the political slogans leave them cold. Their future is in innovation, in the self-respect and mutual respect that innovation and participation as equals in the global economy begets.

I visited the Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem days after it was vandalized by racist hoodlums. I went there out of solidarity, and expected to leave dejected. But you know what? I left more optimistic, far more optimistic in fact, than I had felt in a very long time. I saw young Israelis and Palestinians, inspired by their teachers, supported by their parents, insistent on a different model of coexistence that rejects the notion that the people of this land can’t find a way to live together, understand one another, speak the language of the other, or walk in the other’s shoes.

The truth is there are many examples like those, and I do a disservice to a great many Israelis and Palestinians by mentioning only a few. You just heard the beautiful music of the Jerusalem Youth Choir. Walk up the street a few blocks and you’ll see the Jerusalem International YMCA, the living embodiment of our common humanity. Look up to the ridge line of the Mount of Olives and reflect on the humanity and the vision of Dr. Tawfiq Nasser, a great Palestinian and a great American. His untimely death a few weeks ago left everyone whose life he ever touched deeply despondent. But the legacy of compassion and competence he left behind him at Augusta Victoria Hospital should leave all of us inspired for generations to come.

Do people like these represent the majorities of their societies? Probably not. Are they naïve? I don’t think so. It’s true, they may sometimes feel like naked idealists swimming in a vast ocean of cynicism. But these men and women, boys and girls, mothers and fathers all know that no future of genuine peace and prosperity and mutual respect will ever be forged by cynics.

I don’t have the answer to all the troubles that plague this land – I wish I did. Without a doubt, part of the answer is negotiations – good faith, face-to-face negotiations. And of course we’ll need leadership. But I also know that part of the answer lies in knowing each other, and respecting each other, as people, in recognizing our common humanity, in accepting that as people, as human beings, not as political symbols, there’s an attachment to this land that sometimes transcends reason, that cuts to the heart of faith and identity and history. There’s no monopoly on any of those concepts, and only when all those with a claim to this land recognize and respect the faith, and the identity, and the history of the other, will we all know that we’re finally on the road to something better.

Thank you very much for coming this afternoon. Despite the challenges and the complexities – or perhaps because of them – I know that I’ll miss this place – and all of you – very much.