By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 4:28 PM
Among the 16 Presidential Medals of Freedom handed out at the White House on Wednesday, one sparked a wave of protest: the honor given to Mary Robinson, a former president of Ireland and a sharp critic of Israel.
In the afternoon ceremony, President Obama praised Robinson as "a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland," saying she "shone a light on human suffering" during her work on human rights and hunger. A military aide read her citation, which praised her for "urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice."
But detractors said Robinson does not deserve the award because of the anti-Israel bias she has shown over the years. In particular, her role as chairwoman of the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa -- an event that was dominated by attacks on Jews and Israel -- has come under fire. She was charged with failing to intervene as the conference veered off course with anti-Israel and anti-American venom.
Among the critics of Robinson's award was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which described Robinson's time on the United Nations Human Rights Commission as "deeply flawed, and her conduct marred by extreme, one-sided anti-Israel sentiment." AIPAC 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."
Criticism mounted over the past few weeks as Jewish groups and some conservatives objected to Robinson's award. Two members of Congress, Reps. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), also publicly criticized the decision. But the White House stood firm. Asked again on Wednesday whether the president, after the outpouring of criticism, had any second thoughts about giving Robinson the highest civilian medal, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: "No."
"I think the president is recognizing her for her leadership on women's rights and equal rights. And as I've said before, he doesn't agree with each of her statements, but she's certainly somebody who should be honored," Gibbs said.
Obama, in the East Room ceremony, said the 16 honorees represent "what we can achieve in our lives . . . [and] the difference we can make in the lives of others." The rest of the awards, several of them accepted by the relatives of deceased or ill recipients, went to: Sidney Poitier, Jack Kemp, Stephen Hawking, Nancy Goodman Brinker, Pedro Jose Greer Jr., Billie Jean King, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Harvey Milk, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Joseph Medicine Crow, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Muhammad Yunus, Janet Davison Rowley and Chita Rivera.
"Each of their stories stand as an example of a life well lived," Obama said.