Consul General Ratney tells Independence Day Celebration guests: “Peace is what all of us are working towards”

JERUSALEM – American Consul General Michael A. Ratney hosted the 238th anniversary celebration of America’s independence at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem today, where he spoke about the United States’ historic diplomatic mission in the Holy Land, noting some of the Consulate General’s significant milestones since its establishment in 1857.  Ratney told an audience of more than 500 Palestinian, Israeli, and American dignitaries that while America’s early diplomatic efforts in Jerusalem centered on serving American citizens on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, by 2014 working towards a peaceful resolution of the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict had become the U.S. Consulate General’s main goal.  “Peace is what all of us are working towards,” remarked Consul General Ratney, “[U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s] determination to find a resolution to this conflict… should be an inspiration for anyone, and remain a goal for everyone.”

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The full text of Consul General Ratney’s speech is below:

Remarks by American Consul General Michael A. Ratney
238th Anniversary of American Independence
Wednesday, June 25, 2014
(As Prepared)

Good evening everyone.

It is one of my greatest pleasures of the year to welcome you all here, as I finish my second year as the American Consul General in Jerusalem, and as we celebrate the 238th anniversary of American independence.

It’s a privilege and an honor to welcome Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah and to see so many distinguished guests here on this beautiful Jerusalem evening.

This event has a reputation, well-deserved I think, as one of the most diverse gatherings of the year in Jerusalem, and I assure you tonight is no exception.

I’d like to start by thanking our many sponsors who made this celebration possible.  There are too many to mention them all, but you’ll find their names listed on the posters around the garden.  I would just mention that one of them is also our new neighbor – the beautiful Waldorf-Astoria right next door.  And another is a very famous American name that has now come to Ramallah – Chrysler automobiles.  We’re very grateful to you, and to all our generous sponsors for their support.

I’d like to recognize Gunnery Sargent Kevin Cain and the Marine Security Guard Detachment Jerusalem.  Your detachment is part of a long and proud tradition of U.S. Marines at our embassies and consulates abroad, including over six decades years here in Jerusalem.

I want to extend my deepest gratitude to my colleagues, the nearly 600 men and women of the American Consulate General who make this place tick.  They are here every day working to build bridges between America and the people of the West Bank, Gaza, and this remarkable city of Jerusalem.

I have to mention one of those colleagues in particular.  Yael Lempert is about to finish her three year tour in Jerusalem, and she’s served as my deputy for the last two.  Yael has helped me understand this very complicated place, and manage this very complicated mission, and when she returns to Washington in August, my colleagues and I – and a great many Palestinians and Israelis – will miss her very much.  I’ll never be able to thank her enough for her strength and judgment and patience and friendship.

The American Consulate General is a special place because this city is a special place, and that includes this very special spot where all of us are standing.  So many Jerusalemites have told me that they have walked by our walls on Agron Road for years, curious about what mysteries lurk inside.  I love nothing more than inviting people inside, showing them this home, built in 1868, and telling them a little bit about America’s diplomatic history in Jerusalem.

This house was built by a German missionary named Ferdinand Vester, whose family built many 19th century houses in Jerusalem, including the famous American Colony.  I met the Vester descendants a few months ago and learned that Ferdinand’s son, Frederick, was born in this room right above us.

By 1912, Frederick had grown up, married Bertha Spafford, daughter of the founder of the American Colony, and moved out of this house.  That’s when the American Consul moved in – 102 years ago – and American diplomats have been living here, and hosting receptions more or less like this one ever since.

Our official American presence actually began six decades before we moved into this house, in 1857.  You might wonder, whyjust a few years before America’s Civil War, did the U.S. Government start sending diplomats to Jerusalem?  Well, much like today, in the middle of the 19th century, there were a lot of Americans coming to the Holy Land.  And despite what you may think about the intrigues of the Consulate General in politics and diplomacy, our chief concern was then, and remains today, the welfare of our fellow citizens.

And who were these American citizens?

Again, much like today, these visitors, these tourists, these American pilgrims, were out to discover a Holy Land that they had only read about in the Bible.  Many were actually responding to an urge far more profound than discovery.  In fact many were not coming to discover the world in which they lived, but because they believed it was here in Jerusalem that they would witness the world’s end.

In fact, our actual first Consul was among those who came here to experience the end of the world.  More than a decade before the arrival John Gorham of Massachusetts, the man we think of as America’s first diplomat here, President John Tyler appointed Warder Cresson of Pennsylvania as the first U.S. Consul in Jerusalem.

Almost immediately after his appointment, letters were pouring in to the Secretary of State warning against his decision.  One letter said that Cresson “has been laboring under an aberration of mind for many years… His passion is for religious controversy and no doubt he expects to convert Jews and Mohammedans in the East.  But, in truth, he is a very weak-minded man and his mind, what there is of it, is quite out of order.”

Believe me, when you’re in my job, that’s not something you want your colleagues back in Washington saying about you.

Now rest assured, my government didn’t send me here to witness the end of the world.  On the contrary, I’d like to see this world go on for a very long time to come, and for the residents of this land – Muslim, Christian, and Jew – to live the long and prosperous and safe and dignified lives they all crave.

By the 1930s the Consulate had grown from one American diplomat to six.  Today, our American staff is 150.  We’ve long had a mixed Jewish and Arab local staff who work as a team during many difficult periods.  Our local colleagues today now number well over 400, and are still a mix of Palestinians and Israelis, and speak Arabic and Hebrew and English, and more than a few speak French and Armenian and Russian and even Chaldean.

After the armistice in 1949, part of our staff resided in the east and the rest over here, and the Consul General shuttled back and forth across the line daily – including two receptions on July 4th.

In 1952, we leased the building on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem.  We still have the lease, still from the same family.  I invite you to visit – we’ve done a lot of renovations recently, and today the building serves as America House, our cultural center serving Jerusalem’s Arabic speakers.

After the Oslo Accords of 1993, our political role grew further, our assistance to the Palestinians through USAID began, and we quickly became the leading provider of bilateral assistance to the Palestinians.  Our awesome USAID team is represented here tonight by Dave Harden and his colleagues.

In 2005, we established the U.S. Security Coordinator to help Palestinians reform their security services.  Vice Admiral Paul Bushong today serves in that position, and he’s here with us this evening.

In 2006, we expanded further when we leased the building next door.  It’s a monastery of the the Lazarists, built in the 1860s, around the same time as this house.  We share it still with three priests.  Since I live right here, I can tell you they’re very quiet neighbors, and they make delicious araq.

In 2010, we opened a brand new Consular Section at Arnona, to improve the consular services we have been providing to American citizens and local residents, really since 1857.

But unlike 1857, we now estimate there are over 150,000 Americans spread between Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.  The number of birth certificates we issue each year for American babies born overseas, whether from Talpiyot or Turmusaya, from Rehavia or Ramallah, from Sheikh Jarrah or Mea Shearim, ranks among the highest in the world.

By 2014, for so many reasons, the American Consulate General in Jerusalem has become a very big mission in what has long been a ceaselessly complicated place.  A big reason for that complexity is obviously the conflict that has hung over this city and this region for far too long.  Lamentably, tragically, we still live in an era of kidnapping and killing, of anger and fear and indignity.  And these ills, these evils, have endured long after they should have passed into distant memory.  But as long as this conflict endures, the search for peace will remain at the heart of this mission.  Peace is what all of us are working towards.  It’s a goal that’s been embraced with passion by our Secretary of State, John Kerry, who made 12 visits here over the past year, devoting countless hours, days, even weeks of his time.  His determination to find a resolution to this conflict – a goal that has eluded us literally for generations – should be an inspiration for anyone, and remain a goal for everyone.  Like any effort at peacemaking, this one has seen its share of ups and downs.  The phrase that comes to mind is one I’ve heard Secretary Kerry himself say many times:  If it were easy, we would have done it already. The truth is it isn’t easy, and we haven’t done it.  Our work remains unfinished.  So we all need to summon the strength and the courage to finish it.

Thank you all, and Happy U.S. Independence Day.

For more information please contact the Consulate General Press Office at 02-622-6909 or Information Specialist Hassna Dajani at 054-662-0257.