Anger over US medal for Israel critic

By Nathan Guttman, August 6, 2009
Former Irish president Mary Robinson, seen at the Durban conference in 1991, will be honoured by Obama

Former Irish president Mary Robinson, seen at the Durban conference in 1991, will be honoured by Obama

In the current contentious relationship between the Obama administration and Israel, even symbolic gestures are being taken as signs that the bond between the two countries is deteriorating.

Such is the case with Mary Robinson’s selection as a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour.

The former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner on Human Rights is among the 16 US and international figures who will receive the medal at an August 12 White House ceremony.

The choice of Ms Robinson, and to a lesser extent that of South African archbishop Desmond Tutu — both known as critics of Israel’s policy — drew an almost automatic response from the right-flank of the community in the United States.

For pundits opposed to Mr Obama and to his approach to Israel, Ms Robinson’s selection was yet another sign that the Democratic president has taken on a new policy that favours critics of the Jewish state and ignores concerns of Israelis and their American supporters.

Ms Robinson was portrayed in opinion columns and news articles as the mind behind the first Durban conference on racism in 1991, which turned into a forum for Israel-bashing by many participating groups and nations.

For the US community, Durban is still viewed as a watershed, marking the point at which international public opinion turned against Israel and at which anti-Zionist criticism inched dangerously toward antisemitism.

“There are no words to describe how atrocious a selection this is. But it does speak volumes about the president’s sympathies,” wrote Jennifer Rubin in Commentary magazine’s blog. And Tevi Troy, a former adviser to President George W Bush, added in a National Review column: “The Obama administration’s approach appears to be: ‘F the Jews, they’re going to vote for us anyway.’”

By the end of the week, however, more mainstream organisations had weighed in, including the Anti-Defamation League and Israel lobby AIPAC, which rarely goes public on such subjects unless it is assured it speaks for a large swathe of American Jewry.

“AIPAC respectfully calls on the administration to firmly, fully and publicly repudiate [Ms Robinson’s] views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one-sided bias towards the Jewish state,” said its statement.

A spokesman for the White House, Tommy Vietor, responded: “Mary Robinson has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world.

“As with any public figure, we don’t necessarily agree with every statement she has made, but it’s clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good.”

And a Jewish Obama supporter pointed out that the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Honour this year also include two leading Jewish American figures: Nancy Goodman-Brinker, who founded a breast cancer research foundation, and the late Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official.

Still, on the other side of the Atlantic, emotions were running high, with Ms Robinson taking on the issue in harsh terms: “There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community. They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Unfortunately, such comments provide fodder for the dispute over the president’s views on Israel.

Last updated: 5:14pm, August 6 2009