The White House is facing mounting criticism over its decision to give a prestigious award to the former United Nations official who presided over the infamous 2001 Durban conference and has a history of criticism of Israel.
The Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC and the Zionist Organization of America are among the latest to slam the pick of Mary Robinson, the former U.N. high commissioner for human rights, as one of 16 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the United States.
A Jewish Democratic congressman joined the chorus on Aug. 4. “It think it’s a mistake given Mary Robinson’s bias and statements and actions,” said Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “She personifies everything wrong with the United Nations … it’s a poor choice.”
Engel became the first Democratic congressman to publicly criticize the administration’s selection, a day after two Jewish groups joined a spate of initial criticism, mostly from conservative pro-Israel blogs, soon after Robinson’s name was announced July 30.
The ADL in a statement called the pick “ill advised” and said Robinson was “undeserving of the honor” because of her “animus toward Israel.” The ZOA called Robinson “viciously critical” toward the Jewish state, while AIPAC called on the Obama administration to “firmly, fully and publicly repudiate her views on Israel.”
Even before the two statements were released, the White House was defending the pick.
“Mary Robinson has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the day after the selection. “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.”
Robinson — an honorary president of Oxfam International, chair of the Board of Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations, and president of a New York–based initiative to put human rights concerns at the center of globalization — called the criticism “totally without foundation” and pointed a finger at Jewish critics.
“There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community,” Robinson, the former president of Ireland, said Aug. 2 in an interview with RTE Radio One that was reported in Irish newspapers. “They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gets the same criticism.”
Tutu, an anti-apartheid activist whom the ZOA also called a “virulent critic” of the Jewish state, also is among the medal recipients.
The Robinson award comes as the Obama administration is already facing increasing criticism from several Jewish groups over a Middle East strategy they see as placing disproportionate pressure on Israel compared to the Palestinians and Arab states.
The growing controversy over Robinson could potentially complicate such efforts to win over the Israeli public, since the former U.N. human rights chief is slated to visit the region just a couple weeks after the Tuesday, Aug. 12 White House medal ceremony.
Robinson is expected to join Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter, a longtime Israel critic, on a mission to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza as part of an international group of statesman and dignitaries that calls itself the Elders. Any anti-Israel rebuke from Robinson or the group is likely to prompt a new round of criticism and questions about Obama’s decision to honor her.
The controversy is fueling speculation over whether the controversy is an example of poor vetting or a conscious decision to push ahead despite the predictable complaints from some sectors of the Jewish community.
Tevi Troy, a former Jewish liaison and domestic policy adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said he was surprised that such a controversial honoree could pass what should be an extensive vetting process in the White House.
Troy said that when he worked in the Bush administration, one person had the job of researching every person selected for an honor or scheduled to meet with the president to make sure the person had nothing in his or her past that might reflect badly on the president — from a controversial public statement to a tax lien.
Finally, Troy said, any major award would have to “get clearance” from senior staff, which in this case would likely include top adviser David Axelrod and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, both of whom are Jewish.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, doubted that this was a case of anything more than “sloppy research.”
“I don’t think this is consciously” an act “against the Jewish community or Israel,” he said. “Somebody didn’t do their due diligence.”
One Obama supporter suggested that the controversy was a distraction from more important matters.
“With a major battle to ensure every American has access to health care, delicate negotiations to further the peace process in the Middle East and the battle to deny Iran a nuclear capacity, don’t we as a community have more critical issues to focus on?” said Ira Forman, the CEO of the National Jewish Dem-ocratic Council.
The primary criticism of Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, comes over her 1997-2002 tenure as U.N. high commissioner of human rights, during which she was the convener of a U.N. conference ostensibly against racism that was filled with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hostility.
“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,’ ” Foxman said.
In an article detailing the reasons for the failure of the conference, the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) wrote in 2002 that “much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders” of Robinson, who “in her role as secretary general of the conference failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track.”
Supporters of the Robinson selection have pointed to an article from the Jerusalem Post to argue that Robinson did make efforts to fight anti-Semitism at the conference. The article reports that “waving a book of anti-Semitic cartoons distributed at the anti-racism conference in Durban, U.N. High Commissioner Mary Robinson — in a dramatic act of identification with the Jews vilified in the pamphlet — declared ‘I am a Jew’ at an NGO dinner there Wednesday night.”
Engel said he didn’t think the White House would withdraw the award because “they don’t want to look like they buckled under to pressure.” The congressman cautioned, however, that he didn’t want to “blow it out of proportion,” noting that there are “a lot more important things” going on besides the Robinson controversy.