A Medal Not Worth AIPAC's Mettle

By Rich Cohen
Saturday, August 8, 2009

As an American Jew, I must raise my voice in protest against a recipient of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, Billie Jean King, who, along with Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, and Stephen Hawking, the physicist and decoder of time, is to be honored by Barack Obama, who, according to the New York Times, was recently referred to by a Jewish settler on the West Bank as "that Arab [you] call a president." (Actually, I call that "Arab" Mr. President.) It's not just that watchdog groups believe King to be hostile to Israel. Observers have seen her shun bagels at the breakfast buffet.


What? That's not true?

Billie Jean King is totally cool?

The fuss is all about Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland?

She did what?

Served as the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, leading a body that has condemned Israel more times than it has any other nation, even the real bad ones like Chad and Sudan? Said, according to my father, many awful things about Jews -- especially shocking when you consider the fact that the Irish Republican Army was an early supporter of a Jewish state in Palestine. Presided over the U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which the United States boycotted and which descended into an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel hate-in?


Got it.

As an American Jew, I must raise my voice in protest against a recipient of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mary Robinson, who, after leaving the United Nations, worked as a professor at Columbia University, which, as we all know, has become a gathering place for Israel haters.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of Washington's most influential lobbying organizations, has called on the Obama administration to "firmly, fully and publicly repudiate her views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state."

(Presumably, Robinson's other views, the good ones on the environment, women's rights and tolerance in general, they can continue to praise.)

Speaking through spokesman Robert Gibbs, Obama said he will stand by Robinson, who is being honored "as a prominent crusader of women's rights in Ireland and throughout the world."

"There are statements that obviously she has made that the president doesn't agree with," Gibbs added, "and that's probably true for a number of the people that the president is recognizing for their lifetime contributions."

Obama, for example, might strongly dispute Hawkins's views on black holes and event horizons.

Clearly, though, repudiation is not enough. The cries are ringing: Robinson must go.

So what if AIPAC, in the course of this fight, expends more capital (monetary and political) than seems sensible? So what if AIPAC, a crucial organization that does important work, exhausts itself in a squabble that, to many, myself included, seems minor? So what if, a year from now, all that many people remember of the Presidential Medal of Freedom awards is how AIPAC got worked up about something that was not all that important? As offensive as some of Robinson's actions have been -- in particular, her work on the Human Rights Commission, which seems to have a perverse predilection for smacking Israel, and her leadership role at the Durban Conference, and the deplorable resolution that came out of that conference equating Zionism with racism -- I simply do not believe that this issue (the award has been given to a grab-bag of people, including Buzz Aldrin, Pearl Bailey and Andy Griffith, and does not have to be considered the final say on human value) is worth the struggle.

AIPAC, like all lobbying groups, is meant to focus on legislation that is favorable or detrimental to its cause, which in this case is the security of Israel and the real and ominous threats it faces. That is a mission from which, sadly, many young Jews, who have intermarried, lost their faith, stopped caring or simply fulfilled an American version of the old Zionist dream -- a life free of fear and worry about being a Jew -- feel increasingly disconnected. In such a circumstance -- and according to the trend lines, the future does not look good -- it seems important for Jews concerned about Israel to focus on the fights that really matter. Any sentence that includes the word Iran can be plugged in here.

But I suppose the point is precedent. If Mary Robinson receives this nation's highest civilian honor, next time Obama may give it posthumously to, say, T.S. Eliot, a genius of language, yes, but not the most friendly when it came to Jews.


They gave it to him in 1964?

Never mind.

Rich Cohen, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, is most recently the author of "Israel Is Real."

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