Harris: Is California in the house? (Laughs)
Interviewer: First of all –
Harris: This is fantastic.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Harris: I’m very happy to be here.
Interviewer: And for being such a powerful advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Harris: Of course.
Interviewer: So the theme of this year’s conference is choose to lead.
Harris: Yes, important.
Interviewer: And why did you choose to lead and why did you choose to pursue a career in public service?
Harris: Well you know first of all, I’ll say that leadership, as you all obviously have figured out, starts whenever to choose to become a leader. This is an auditorium full of leaders. Leadership, in my opinion starts the day you’re born, it’s just a matter of whether you decide to step up to that role. And for me, I mean you know, my parents met when they were graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley ― go Bears ― when they were active in the Civil Rights movement. My sister and I joke that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full-time marching and shouting about this thing called justice. And I wanted to do the work of hopefully contributing to an environment where we speak up for others. We speak up for the voiceless and the vulnerable, and we do that in a way that is true to the ideals of our country, which is about fighting for justice, and equality, and fairness. You know, I look at the challenges that we face as a country, as a world, and we as a country in particular have decided who we are based on such important ideals. Think about all the principles and ideals and values that were present when we wrote the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, those words we spoke in 1776 that we are all and should be treated as equals. And I strongly feel that to be a leader in our country, it should be to always be a voice to justice and it should always be doing that in the fight to make sure that we maintain and support and achieve the ideals of our country. And that’s how I think of my role of leadership, and that’s how I think of your role of leadership, each of you here. So it’s a heavy burden we all carry.
Interviewer: I couldn’t agree more, and many of the students here and I’m sure you know as well that part of leadership is working to create buy-in and making tough compromises sometimes to achieve the larger goals that we all pursue. And in Washington these days, it seems like sometimes compromise and bipartisanship are dirty words. So when it comes to the [inaudible] U.S.-Israel relationship, maintaining bipartisan support is critical. And so, if you could offer some advice on how you’ve best maintained bipartisan support for Israel in this era of hyper-partisanship?
Harris: That’s right, Hannah. That’s a wonderful question. So I’ve been asked, especially over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve been asked this question, what are we going to do about a divided America? And it breaks my heart to hear that question. And whenever I’m asked that question, my response, which is what I truly believe, is that I reject the premise, I reject the notion. I do not believe we’re divided. I believe as a country, and as people who live in this country, the citizens of this country, as Americans, I believe we have so much more in common than what separates us. And I know that. I know it based on my professional experiences, I know it based on my personal experiences. I know it based on what I call the three o’clock in the morning thought, or you may even call it the bewitching hour. The middle of the night, you know when you wake up in the middle of the night with that thought that’s been weighing on you. You know, you may wake up in a cold sweat, you’re jarred awake, thinking about that thing that has been troubling you or bothering you, or concerns you. For the vast majority of Americans, when they wake up with that thought in the middle of the night, it is never through the lens of the party with which they’re registered to vote. It is never through the lens of some demographic a pollster put them in. And for the vast majority of us when we wake up with that thought, it usually has to do with one of just a very few things. For most Americans it’s our personal health, the health of our children, or our parents. Can I get a job, can I keep a job, pay the bills by the end of the month, retire with dignity, pay off my student loans? Right? For the vast majority of us, we have so much more in common than what separates us. And back to your earlier question then, I think it is incumbent on us as leaders to always own that point, and to know it and feel it, and embrace it fully. The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us. So then to apply that more specifically to the issue of partisanship in Washington, D.C. and frankly, in other places in our country, and the issue of what we need to do to always fight for Israel’s safety and right to be, it is important that we understand that it is also an issue of shared values.
The vast majority of people understand the importance of the State of Israel. Both in terms of its history and its present in terms of being a source of inspiration on so many issues, which I hope we will talk about, and also what it means in terms of the values of the United States and those values that are shared values with Israel, and the importance of fighting to make sure that we protect and respect a friend, one of the best friends we could possibly have. And I do believe, walking the halls of the United States Senate these last several months, that this is a shared value. I do believe this is one of the issues that is more obviously not even a bipartisan issue but a nonpartisan issue.
Interviewer: I could not agree with you more. And so you began by talking about how you received and you were instilled justice from your parents. So I was wondering if you could tell myself, and I’m sure everyone else is wondering, where exactly your support for Israel comes from?
Harris: Well I grew up, it’s just it was always part of my life. I grew up ― we, and maybe many of you, I don’t know if anyone is still doing this with the vigor with which we would do it, but we would have our little boxes where we were raising money to plant trees for Israel. (Laughs) And we would go around with our box, and you know, I actually never sold Girl Scout cookies, but I raised money to plant trees in Israel. So it was just, it’s always been, it’s always been there. I’ve been to Israel three times, most recently in November of last year. I promised friends and myself that I would go before the end of my first year as a United States Senator, and it is just something that has always been a part of me. I don’t know when it started, it’s almost like saying when did you first realize you loved your family, or love your country, it just was always there. It was always there. But I will also say something that connects to the earlier point that you made. So this weekend, in fact late last night, I got back from Selma, from Alabama. And I was there with a bipartisan delegation of members of Congress to commemorate, not really celebrate, but commemorate the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which occurred 53 years ago, and was highlighted because it was a notoriously awful day in what was called Bloody Sunday. Which is when a group of people that were black and white and brown and every color under the rainbow, a group of people that were ministers and rabbis, people of all ages, from all areas of the country, 25,000 in number by the third day that they tried to take that walk across that bridge, who marched together hand in hand to fight for everyone’s civil rights, and in particular the right of African American’s to vote, at that time.
And I would encourage us all to remember every aspect of our history as an indication again of who we are, and what we must always recommit ourselves to be. Because the stories of what happened in those days, for those marchers, and again the incredible diaspora of who we are as a country, is a story of going to that bridge. Mostly [the] movement was by students, students. That movement was student-led. A young John Lewis, who faced troopers who were on horses and those horses were trampling these young people who were marching for justice. They faced mobs, Klan members, Ku Klux Klan members who were telling them they didn’t belong, and they marched hand in hand. And I actually gave a speech over the weekend while I was there, and I said you know, the thing about the recognition of this bridge crossing is that, the bridge crossing, they were crossing that bridge also while they were building bridges. And that gets back to our collective mission as leaders. We will cross bridges, we will fight, we will go arm in arm to make sure that we will always be a loud voice against bigotry and hatred and anti-Semitism. We will always march together, proudly, against all of those forces that may seem more powerful sometimes. Look at Charlottesville and that awful moment when we had to see people marching with torches and swastikas, but we will always remember. We will be strong in the face of that kind of hatred. It is not new, it will revisit itself, but we will stand together proud and in the process of standing up and fighting for equality and fairness and justice, we will also commit ourselves to building bridges. And that means building the coalition, and building the connection between all of us to fight together and that’s on the issue of Israel, it’s on the issue of so many challenges that we face as a world and the challenges we face as leaders. Building bridges, very important.
Interviewer: And so, I unfortunately only get to ask you one final question. As you know there are over 3,000 students here today, many of whom are from your home state of California, and my home state of Massachusetts. What advice would you give them on politics and activism broadly? If you could think, take one thing away from this?
Harris: Know your power, you have incredible power, you have incredible power. All of the great movements started with students as far as I’m concerned, all of them. Back to when my parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement so long ago, look at what’s happening with our friends in Florida, there’s a big march happening, right? Our Dreamers, and the movement that they’re engaged in right, right? There’s so much excitement right now, so hold onto it. Harness it. Own it. And the way that you’re able to communicate now, you know it was marching and shouting in the kinda old school way. But on social media, you can now look in that screen and talk to a million people and I encourage you to do it every day. Use your twitter accounts, however you are – Instagram – however you are communicating. Let your voice be heard. Do not ever tell you – let anyone ever tell you you’re too young or it’s not your time, or there’s no one like you that has done this before. Don’t listen, ever. I eat no for breakfast. I can’t hear no until maybe the fifth time, and sometimes I can’t hear it then either. You own your power, you are the future, and I know that is so cliché, you know it, that’s why you’re here. But right now, this is such an exciting time in our world. And we are being faced with so many challenges and you are going to light the way. And just – I beg of you, you march forward with your voices, and your opinions and your leadership, and be undeterred. Do not let anyone deny you your voice, and your role of leadership. Never. Don’t let anyone deny you that.
Interviewer: Senator Harris, on behalf of myself and the over 3,600 students here today, we’re missing midterms ―
Harris: Oh no.
Interviewer: ― to sit here
Harris: Now don’t do that.
Interviewer: ― to advocate on behalf of this issue. Thank you so much for inspiring us to be champions, and for being such a fierce advocate for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Esteemed delegates, one more time for Senator Kamala Harris.