The Jewish community has good reason to be disappointed by President Obama awarding the presidential medal of freedom to Mary Robinson. But our communal response to the award has unfortunately done more harm than good.
Robinson, a former president of Ireland, forfeited any claim to accolades by presiding over the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism — a public spectacle of virulent antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. Her after-the-fact denunciation of its excesses cannot be seen as anything other than either an effort at rehabilitating the unsalvageable or, more charitably, shock at what happened on her watch.
Her response to Jewish criticism of her record is even more unsettling. She has described the criticism as “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,” she said. But criticizing a public official is not “bullying.” Robinson, dedicated defender of human rights that she is, should be able to recognize the difference.
Perhaps those within the Obama administration who wanted to honor Robinson were focused on her overall career in support of human rights. Maybe the decision to honor Robinson was just bad vetting. But it also sent the unfortunate message — whether intended or not — that the administration is not particularly troubled by the anti-Israel excesses of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which Robinson supervised as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It is therefore understandable that many Jewish groups reacted instinctively, negatively and publicly to the announcement of the honor for Robinson. But there remains the question of whether it was wise for the Jewish community to pick a public fight with the administration on this issue. The answer is that it was not.
Robinson’s award, which she received at an August 12 ceremony honoring her and 15 other individuals, does not change a thing on the ground in the Middle East. And it was self-delusion to expect that the president would back away from the award under criticism from pro-Israel groups.
Certainly, it was incumbent upon Israel’s supporters to clearly, but privately, let the administration know that honoring Robinson fueled doubts over its commitment to Israel’s security. It was neither prudent nor productive, however, to pick a public fight with no chance of success over a purely symbolic matter. Moreover, the near-immediate Jewish attack on Robinson’s award — with little acknowledgement of the useful things she has done — lent credibility to the charge that Israel’s supporters brook no criticism at all of the Jewish state.
There will be real fights ahead on the Middle East. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League has correctly called out the Obama administration for placing the burden of peacemaking on Israel. The Obama administration’s decision to put the settlement issue at the heart of the peace process — as if no other impediments existed — and the clumsy way it disavowed the understanding that Israel had reached with the Bush administration over settlements are both deeply troubling.
In contrast, the award for Robinson was not one of the battles that Jewish organizations had to fight. The Jewish community should have saved its political capital for more important matters.
There is a temptation in some segments of the Jewish community to vigorously challenge any perceived erosion, even on a purely symbolic level, of America’s commitment to Israel. There is the mirror-image temptation, evident in much of the American Jewish left — which always wants to demonstrate its own high-minded commitment to peace — to reflexively applaud anything the administration does and to automatically dismiss criticism of its actions as being motivated by partisanship.
Neither of these temptations should be indulged. Vigor for the sake of vigor and partisan defenses of an administration without regard to merit do equal disservice to Israel’s security, to the cause of peace and to rational discourse on the Middle East.
Marc D. Stern is acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress.