NEW YORK (JTA) — The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, but don’t expect everyone to be smiling Wednesday when President Obama recognizes 16 distinguished people with the award.
Jewish groups and pro-Israel activists are fuming over the president’s decision to honor Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and past U.N. commissioner for human rights. The anger dwarfs anything seen so far regarding the Obama administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
In fact, for the most part, Jewish groups — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential pro-Israel lobby — refused to side publicly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he appeared to be backtracking from Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution; and they have avoided directly defending Israel’s settlement policies in the face of the Obama administration’s calls for a settlement freeze.
But the honor for Robinson has prompted AIPAC and other groups to speak out against the Obama administration’s decision. Perhaps even more telling is the silence coming from several left-wing groups (J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom) that have eagerly jumped at the chance to defend Obama on settlements and Palestinian statehood.
So why is Robinson’s selection so unsettling?
To be sure, the former Irish president has long been a harsh critic of Israeli settlement and security policies. But another of the honorees, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also has fiercely criticized Israel, arguably even more so than Robinson.
The reason Robinson triggers such strong emotions among pro-Israel advocates is that in her U.N. post, she presided over the anti-racism conference held in Durban in 2001. The notorious parley in South Africa served as a forum for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, and helped lay the groundwork for the subsequent (failed) push for divestment from Israel.
Robinson’s defenders accurately note that she ultimately spoke out against some of the blatantly anti-Semitic rhetoric seen at Durban and successfully worked to remove the most objectionable anti-Israel language from the conference’s final document. But in the end, with her blessing, the final document singled out the plight of the Palestinians, and according to an account from the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, Robinson “refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East."
Instead, according to Lantos, she discussed, "the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand and … the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other.’”
Durban was a startling wakeup call. During the previous decade, as the Madrid and Oslo processes unfolded, Israel seemed to be assuming an increasingly secure spot on the international stage: The United Nations repealed the “Zionism is racism” resolution and governments around the world moved to end their economic and diplomatic isolation of Israel.
But then the Palestinians launched the second intifada in 2000 and the peace process collapsed, triggering a new wave of anti-Israel hostility in Muslim countries, parts of Europe and university campuses around the world. Durban served as a rallying point for these forces, as they sought to roll back the clock and revive efforts to brand Israel as a pariah nation.
As a result of the progress made in the 1990s, Israelis and Diaspora Jews increasingly embraced the idea of a Palestinian state — and were increasingly willing to recognize the injustices suffered by Palestinians as a result of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Even after years of renewed Palestinian terror and rocket attacks, most Israelis and American Jews are still willing to give the benefit of the doubt to Israeli and American leaders who try to reach a fair and workable peace agreement. That’s why efforts to paint President Obama as anti-Israel based on his opposition to settlement construction have generally failed, at least among American Jews and Jewish groups.
The fight over Robinson isn’t about criticizing Israel. It’s about Durban and the noxious notion that in a world filled with racism and genocide, Israel is a rogue nation deserving of special rebuke.
In the end, Robinson ended up lending legitimacy to this warped worldview. So however praiseworthy her other efforts in shining a light on human rights issues, don’t expect friends of Israel to think she’s deserving of America’s highest civilian honor.