President Shimon Peres presented the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Distinction, to eight Israelis on Thursday.

Peres initiated the Medal of Distinction some two years ago and presented it for the first time in March 2012. It is awarded to people or institutions that have made an outstanding contribution to the State of Israel, to humanity and the betterment of the world through their talents, services or in any other form.

Recipients to date have included former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, US President Barack Obama, former US president Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel.

The eight recipients who were added to the list on Thursday were Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, Lia Van Leer, Avi Naor, Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, Avner Shalev, Dr. Harry Zvi Tabor and Jack Mahfar.

Grossman moved to Migdal Ha’emek in the Lower Galilee in 1968, two years after receiving rabbinic ordination. A year later he was elected its chief rabbi.

His aim was the rehabilitation of poverty-stricken young people, who had taken to crime and drug abuse. In 1972, Grossman founded Migdal Or (Tower of Light), an educational network that provides a warm and caring environment for children from age six. Since then Migdal Or has catered to more than 17,000 children.

Van Leer is being recognized for her extraordinary contribution to Israel’s cultural mosaic. She runs cultural events all over the country and is an Israel Prize laureate. In 1956, she and her husband, Wim, set up the first film club in Haifa, which later developed into the Haifa Cinematheque, and were instrumental in the establishment of the cinematheques in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Naor, an unrelenting fighter for road safety, founded Or Yarok (Green Light) in 1997 – two years after his son Ran, 19, was killed in a road accident – in the quest to minimize road accidents and casualties while increasing road safety. Through the Ran Naor Foundation he supports road safety research, conducted by a number of academic institutions.

In 2002 Naor and his wife, Eti, established the Oran Foundation to provide effective and far-reaching solutions for supporting children and youth at risk.

Firer is an Israel Prize laureate, recognized for his sterling work in finding the right solutions for the ill, regardless of religion, race or economic status. He founded Ezra Le’marpeh, which operates a fleet of ambulances and a special ICU for patients who need to be flown abroad for treatment.

He also runs a home care network for children who have various forms of cancer, but are not hospitalized, and operates an international videoconferencing network that facilitates diagnoses and consultations with the world’s greatest medical experts.

Kahalani served as deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and a Knesset member after his military service during which he received a Distinguished Service Medal for the Six Day War and the Medal of Valor – the nation’s highest military decoration – for leading the battle on the Golan Heights that was a turning point in the Yom Kippur War. He is chairman of the Association for the Welfare of Israel’s Soldiers.

Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, initiated a comprehensive development program, which included the establishment of a new museum complex, integral to the Holocaust History Museum, and has taken Yad Vashem into the 21st century in the challenging contexts of Holocaust documentation, research and education.

Shalev served as head of the bureau of then-IDF chief of staff David Elazar, during the Yom Kippur War. Following his retirement from military service, Shalev was appointed director of the Culture Authority in the Ministry of Education and Culture; chairman of the National Council of Culture and Art; and served on the boards of a wide range of Israeli museums and cultural institutions. He helped found the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem and was instrumental in creating the Israel Festival, a major cultural event in Jerusalem.

In 1949, prime minister David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Tabor, inviting him to join the physics and engineering desk of the Research Council of Israel. He subsequently set up the National Physical Laboratory of Israel, which placed its focus on solar energy for research and development. His breakthrough discoveries were beneficial not only to Israel but to the world at large.

Tabor will celebrate his 97th birthday on March 7.

Mahfar, Iranian born Jewish businessman and philanthropist, lives in Geneva and is the only non-Israeli among the current crop of recipients. Mahfar ran a successful pharmaceutical business in Iran and has contributed substantially to educational, health and social welfare projects in Israel and other parts of the world.

At the end of the ceremony Peres said: “People are capable of giving more to their country than their country can give to them. You all come from different backgrounds, with different outlooks on the world, but the contributions that each of you have made to this tiny country of Israel, have transformed it into the great State of Israel.”

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