WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama plans to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor he can bestow, to 16 people this month. Among the honorees are people of whom all Americans can be proud: Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the leading breast cancer awareness organization; physicist Stephen Hawking; the late Jack Kemp, conservative leader and friend of Israel; and entertainers Sidney Poitier and Chita Rivera.
On Aug. 12, they will join a distinguished list of past honorees that includes Natan Sharansky, Rosa Parks, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elie Wiesel, Mother Teresa, Vaclav Havel and Margaret Thatcher.
One of this year’s honorees stands out for a different reason: Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
While the president intends to honor people who are “agents of change,” whose work has “changed the world for the better,” he has missed the mark with Robinson.
Robinson presided over the 2001 Durban conference against racism, a conference that degenerated into a swamp of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda so foul that the United States walked out. Awarding the Medal of Freedom to Robinson does great dishonor to the outstanding men and women who will receive the award this year and have received it in the past.
The late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Durban conference that walked out of the event.
"To many of us present at the events at Durban," Lantos said, "it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who in her role as secretary-general of the conference failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track."
As Lantos wrote in a 2002 article for the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Robinson had several opportunities to resist efforts to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — alone among international conflicts — a major element of the conference agenda. She failed to do so. In fact, she worked against the U.S. delegation’s painstaking diplomatic efforts to keep the conference focused on the international problems of racism and discrimination. She allowed it to become a forum for bashing Israel and Jews.
Robinson’s record after Durban is little better. In 2002, according to Michael Rubin writing in National Review, Robinson’s U.N. Human Rights Commission voted on a decision that condoned suicide bombings as a legitimate means to establish Palestinian statehood shortly after Robinson pushed for investigation of the “Jenin massacre” — a massacre that never actually happened. Robinson was outspoken against Israel’s attempts to end Palestinian missile attacks from Lebanon in 2006 and from Gaza in the winter of 2008-09.
Robinson has spent much of her career in the field of human rights, but her work has been deeply flawed by her unmitigated bias against Israel. She has been less an "agent for change" than an agent for the ideology that has stymied efforts to improve the lives of millions around the world who are denied their human rights.
The decision to honor her has raised vocal bipartisan opposition. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has spoken out against giving the Medal of Freedom to Robinson. Mainstream Jewish organizations, including AIPAC and ADL, have done so as well.
If the White House staff passed on Robinson’s name knowing how controversial and troubling the choice would be, that’s wrong in and of itself. If Robinson’s name made it onto the Medal of Freedom list because the White House staff was unaware of how controversial she was, that’s even worse.
In any case, awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson is a troubling mistake on the president’s part. It diminishes the honor of the medal and of the notable men and women associated with it.
(Matt Brooks is the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.)