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Despite fierce opposition from pro-Israel advocates, including Jewish groups and bipartisan lawmakers, the White House awarded its highest civilian honor Wednesday to Mary Robinson, a former UN official who presided over the 2001 Durban conference on racism.
In an afternoon ceremony at the White House East Room, Robinson, the first female president of Ireland, was among 16 recipients to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was an award that riled critics who slammed her role in the Durban conference, known for its anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well as her track record on Israel during her tenure as UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama called Robinson a "crusader" for women and those without a voice who "illuminated a better future for our world."
Earlier, the White House defended the award, which recognized Robinson's leadership on women's rights and equal rights, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters before the awards ceremony.
The president "doesn't agree with each of her statements but she's certainly someone who should be honored," Gibbs said.
But as late as Wednesday morning, critics urged the president to reconsider honoring Robinson. And one day earlier, 45 Republican lawmakers wrote a letter to President Obama that cited Robinson's "failed, biased record" at the United Nations.
"Awarding this nation's highest civilian honor to Mary Robinson risks putting our imprimatur on a biased record that contravenes our nation's deepest values," they wrote.
A Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, separately called the award "a mistake."
Indeed, critics said the Obama administration's decision to honor Robinson reflected a detachment from mainstream American public opinion on foreign policy.
"Those in the administration who recommended her either ignored her anti-Israel history, or missed it entirely, as they either ignored or overlooked her hostility toward America's role in promoting international peace and security. Or perhaps they share Ms. Robinson's views," wrote John Bolton, the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, in the Wall Street Journal on Monday.
"The administration's tin ear to the furor over Ms. Robinson underlines how deep that detachment really is," he wrote.
For her part, Robinson has said she is being targeted by "certain elements" of the Jewish community and that allegations against her are "totally without foundation."
Indeed, she has garnered support for the award from Israeli human rights groups and others.
Nancy Rubin, a former American ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, praised Robinson as a "dedicated crusader for human rights for all people," in an August 11 letter to President Obama.
Rubin noted that critics of Robinson have neglected to mention her denunciation of anti-Semitism as a form of racism and her "passionate rejection" of anti-Semitic cartoons during the Durban conference.
"As a Jewish American who affirms that defending the human rights of all is a basic tenant of my faith, I wholeheartedly endorse your recognition of Mary Robinson for the narrative of her life," Rubin wrote.
A group of Israeli human rights organizations also supported Robinson in a letter to the American president.
"As leaders of a sector within Israeli civil society that monitors and often criticizes government and military policy for violating human rights, we do not see such actions as plausible reason for denying Mrs. Robinson the award," said the letter, signed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Bimkom, B'Tselem, Gisha, Hamoked, Physicians for Human Rights and Yesh Din.
"We believe that holding Israel accountable to its obligations under international law is part of the role of the international community through agencies like the United Nations and others."
But in an open letter to Robinson on Wednesday, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, rejected Robinson's claim at being misunderstood or bullied by those who criticize her role in Durban.
"Leadership means taking responsibility," he wrote, saying she failed to confront purveyors of anti-Israel rhetoric. "You may not have been the chief culprit of the Durban debacle, but you will always be its preeminent symbol."
Jewish groups also lambasted the decision to award Robinson an award that puts her in the same category as previous recipients such as Elie Wiesel, Rosa Parks, Margaret Thatcher and others. Hadassah, the Republican Jewish Coalition, AIPAC, and the Anti-Defamation League have been among groups to sharply criticize the award.
On Wednesday, the European Jewish Congress questioned the Obama administration's motivation.
"Awarding Mary Robinson with the American Presidential Medal of Freedom begs the question of whether providing platforms on the world stage for anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers is the new standard of human rights by which the US wishes leaders around the world to measure themselves," the EJC wrote.
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