On August 12, 2008, President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor, to 16 individuals whom he described as "agents of change". Among the awardees were: Senator Edward Kennedy; former Congressman and Cabinet Secretary, the late Jack Kemp; and Grameen Bank founder, Muhammed Yunus.
One of the recipients, Mary Robinson, Ireland's first woman President and world renowned advocate for human rights, was singled out for attack by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AIPAC. They argued, on the flimsiest of grounds, that Robinson was biased against Israel (though for the ADL and AIPAC, anything short of effusive praise for Israel is seen as evidence of bias).
The case they built against her was based largely on her chairing the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in her capacity as High Commissioner of the UN Human Rights Commission. The Durban Conference has been criticized by supporters of Israel for its harsh criticism of Israeli policies. There is, however, clear evidence that Robinson played an important moderating role in tempering the language of the conference, especially when it came to upbraiding those conferees who crossed the line into anti-Semitism. She was praised for her efforts by prominent Israelis, including Shimon Peres. None of this, however, has deterred Robinson's detractors. When faced with the facts which rebut their charges, they simply ratcheted up their rhetoric. A recent piece in the Jerusalem Post, for example, makes an absurd charge, blaming Robinson "for the destruction of the universality and moral foundation of human rights".
Despite the harshness of these attacks, and the hurt, no doubt, they have brought to Ms. Robinson, I am convinced that this entire episode had less to do with her than it does with the President. And the charges against this distinguished Irish leader though not only wrong headed, hurtful to her, and unfair, were also a case of political misdirection.
What first aroused my suspicions was ADL's and AIPAC's silence about the fact that South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu had also been tapped by the President to receive a Medal of Freedom. Unlike Robinson, who has only expressed general concern about Palestinian rights and temperate criticism of Israeli policy, Tutu has been a harsh critic, comparing Israeli practices in the occupied lands to Apartheid. How to explain this uproar over Robinson, and not a peep about Tutu?
It is known that some groups, like the ADL, have targeted Robinson for years, objecting, for example, each time she received an honorary doctorate. But for AIPAC, and its coterie of Congressional acolytes, to have gotten into the fray, established that this was a political "inside the Beltway" fight. The goal here was not to deny an award, but to send a message of displeasure to President Obama, prompted more by his persistent pressure on Israel to freeze settlements, then his choice of awardees. AIPAC appeared to believe that an attack on Robinson was a safer route to take to send this message than going after Tutu-and with less negative fallout.
During the past few months, as Obama has continued to raise the heat on Israeli P.M. Netanyahu, AIPAC has been noticeably quiet. They have neither criticized nor challenged the President directly, nor did they mount a campaign to defend Israeli settlements. Instead, they took a more indirect route, opting to support Congressional sign-on letters, praising Israel's commitment to peace and calling on the President to ease off pressure on Israel and direct pressure, instead, on Arab states to normalize relations with Israel, as the first step in the peace process.
In the end, that was what this gratuitous "Medal of Freedom" shot across the White House bow was all about-not a concern over anti-Israel bias (or else Tutu would have been raised), but a not so subtle jab at Obama and a reminder, by AIPAC, of the controversy they can manufacture.
In this case their efforts failed. Many Irish and Irish Americans were outraged, human rights organizations world-wide, including those in Israel, came to Robinson's defense, and the President dismissed the protests and went ahead with the award.