Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree Draws Criticism from Jewish Groups

Aug 3, 2009 6:16pm

ABC News' Jake Tapper and Matthew Larotonda report:  President Obama’s decision to honor Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first female president and the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, is drawing criticism from some in the Jewish community.

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, today issued a statement saying that Robinson has “anti-Israel bias” and calling the decision to bestow America’s highest civilian honor upon Robinson as an agent of change “ill-advised.”

“While Mary Robinson may have accomplishments to her credit, she also, unfortunately, has an animus towards Israel as evidenced by her tenure” at the UN where, “rather than be constructive and act objectively, she became its lead cheerleader by adopting the Palestinian narrative.”

Foxman said that Robinson “issued distorted and detrimental reports on the conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and blamed Israel for the outbreak of Palestinian violence – the Second Intifada. As the convener of the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, she allowed the process to be hijacked to promote the delegitimizing of Israel and pronouncements of hateful anti-Jewish canards, such as ‘Zionism is racism.’ She failed miserably in her leadership role, opting to join the anti-Israel forces rather than temper them.”

The 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, was widely criticized in the US for devolving into a forum where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments were condoned alongside calls for an end to racism and discrimination against other ethnic groups. The US and Israel withdrew from the conference to protest continued Arab efforts to accuse Israel of propagating racist policies. In the end, much of the offending language was removed Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, though not all of it.

“The compromise, for which South Africa claimed authorship, removed some of the anti-Israeli language, but contained Mary Robinson’s longed-for language that recognized the ‘plight of the Palestinian people under occupation’— language that clearly would have been unsatisfactory to the United States,” wrote Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs in Spring 2002. “Not only does the final document single out one regional conflict for discussion, it does so in a biased way: the suffering of the Palestinian people is highlighted, but there is no discussion of the Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.”

When the Obama administration boycotted the 2009 Durban Review Conference in April, it did so because the 2001 document "singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians." 

Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told ABC News that he agreed with Foxman’s assessment of Robinson’s past behavior but added that his organization had yet to decide whether it would formally protest Robinson being honored by the President.

“Mary Robinson has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world,” said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. “As with any public figure, we don’t necessarily agree with every statement she has ever made, but it's clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good.”

The White House named Robinson as one of 16 pending Medal of Freedom recipients because she “continues to bring attention to international issues as Honorary President of Oxfam International, and Chairs the Board of Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI Alliance).  Since 2002 she has been President of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, based in New York, which is an organization she founded to make human rights the compass which charts a course for globalization that is fair, just and benefits all.”

Robinson today was quoted in an Irish newspaper, the Independent, saying: “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. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets the same criticism."

Robinson told RTE Radio One that allegations that she condoned anti-Semitic behavior at the Durban World Conference Against Racism in 2001 are “totally without foundation but when stuff is out on the internet, I'm not quite sure what you can do.”

In a 2002 interview with the Village Voice, Robinson expressed her take on the Durban controversy. “I was very sad and disappointed that the United States and Israel did withdraw,” she said. “I tried very hard to persuade them to be patient and to recognize that the difficult decisions of taking unacceptable language out would have to come at the very end. But time limits were set—I think there was a heated political climate in Washington itself—and for whatever reasons, therefore, it wasn't possible for the U.S. or Israel to remain to the end. I would be the first to say that there was an atmosphere in some of the discussions that had very worrying and unacceptable bases of anti-Semitism.”

That said, Robinson said what came from Durban “was a remarkable declaration and program of action, which had purged out of it the kind of language that was causing all the difficulty. Durban achieved its objective. It yielded an extraordinarily important document for those who suffer discrimination and marginalization and racism, for indigenous peoples, for minorities such as the Roma in Europe, and those of African descent, and for issues that link poverty and racism. It's also the best text internationally on migrants…. The rest of the world views the racism conference as an extraordinarily positive achievement.”

The Jerusalem Post detailed one moment during the Durban Conference that seems to throw water on the idea that Robinson never took a stand against anti-Semitism.

According to Shimon Samuels, an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris and head of the Jewish caucus at the conference, after he showed Robinson a booklet of anti-Semitic cartoons, Robinson at a dinner for NGOs stood “stood up, waved it and said, ‘This conference is aimed at achieving human dignity. My husband is a cartoonist, I love political cartoons, but when I see the racism in this cartoon booklet, of the Arab Lawyers' Union, I must say that I am a Jew – for those victims are hurting. I know that you people will not understand easily, but you are my friends, so I tell you that I am a Jew, and I will not accept this fractiousness to torpedo the conference.’”

This is hardly the first time Robinson has been criticized by members of the Jewish community over perceptions of her lack of even-handedness regarding Israel.

After a fierce battle between Israeli and Palestinian forces in 2002 in Jenin, the Israeli government voted to allow a United Nations fact-finding team investigate what Palestinian officials had labeled a “massacre” of 500 Palestinian civilians, but requested that Robinson not be on the team because of her perceived pro-Palestinian bias.

As first reported by Jennifer Rubin at Commentary, Lantos wrote that to “many of us present at the events at Durban, it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of UN 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. Indeed, she obstructed efforts to prevent the conference from devolving into an Israel-bashing event.”

After Lantos and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to Robinson, “she advocated precisely the opposite course to the one Secretary Powell and I had urged her to take. Namely, she 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, 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.’ Thus, instead of condemning the attempt to usurp the conference, she legitimized it. Instead of insisting that it was inappropriate to discuss a specific political conflict in the context of a World Conference on Racism, she spoke of the ‘need to resolve protracted conflict and occupation, claims of inequality, violence and terrorism, and a deteriorating situation on the ground.’ Robinson was prepared to delve into the arcana of a single territorial conflict at the exclusion of all others and at the expense of the conference’s greater goals.”

-Jake Tapper with research assistance by Matthew Larotonda

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