U.S. Jews should speak truth to Obama

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 8-20-09

That’s why the White House decision to award Mary Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom is so disturbing. It sends a symbolic message of disrespect to Israel – and to Jewish sensibilities – at a time when relations with Israel are already tense.

Granting Mary Robinson America’s highest civilian honour is a surprisingly unnecessary, self-inflicted wound. A former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, Robinson’s reputation is forever stained by her failures of leadership during the Durban debacle of 2001, when a UN conference against racism degenerated into an anti-Semitic hate-fest. She also has been very critical of Israel, and at crucial moments during her UN tenure from 1997 to 2002, she failed to pressure the Palestinians to swear off terrorism. It would have taken about 10 seconds of Googling to discover that Robinson is controversial.

As of this writing, no one has come forward to admit nominating Robinson, and the White House spokesperson made some mealy-mouthed comment about not agreeing with everything she’s ever said. Dr. Tevi Troy – yes, he is my brother – the former U.S. deputy secretary of health and human services and a former White House aide, reports that a White House source claimed that the Obama people were unaware of the controversy, which suggests rank, amateurish incompetence rather than gross insensitivity.

This unfortunate choice nevertheless highlights that there are powerful forces within the Obama White House and State Department who see Robinson and swoon – rather than remember Durban and feel queasy. This symbolic slap to the Jewish community, coming on the heels of Obama’s Cairo speech, which suggested that the founding of Israel stemmed from the Holocaust, makes his picking fights with Israel seem mean-spirited.

It’s important not to overreact. Obama has spoken eloquently before about the Jews’ right to a homeland, about the power of returning to one’s roots, and about the need for Palestinians and the Arab world to accept Israel’s existence. But Obama has bought into the Peace Now miscalculation that Israeli leaders need to be bullied to compromise rather than calmed and coaxed. So far, many American Jews have seemed reluctant to criticize the president, dazzled by Obama’s eloquence, committed to his liberal agenda, silenced by his pro-choice leanings and bamboozled by his clever strategy, which manipulatively balanced off Jewish fears about his Cairo speech with a trip to Buchenwald. This trade-off showed an understanding of American Jews’ unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust and growing distance from Israel’s needs.

With a pro-Israel prime minister, Stephen Harper, at the helm today, many Canadian Jews may be tempted to judge American Jewish silence arrogantly. But during the bad old days of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, Canadian Jews were the Jews of silence. During the difficult years of Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat’s wave of terror against Israel and the Jewish people, many Canadian Jews were too loyal to the Liberal Party, and too fearful of Chrétien’s wrath, to criticize.

Moreover, in 2004, when I criticized McGill University for giving Robinson an honorary doctorate, most of the organized Jewish community was silent. One leader told me, “I’m sorry you said anything. You’re a nice guy, and I don’t want to see you get bashed publicly.” I told him then that I had nothing to apologize for, that it was Robinson who needed to apologize for her failures to stop the worst outbreak of official anti-Semitism in decades.

On both sides of the border, Canadian and American Jews must remember that we’re free to criticize our leaders and free to praise them, and that we’re most effective by avoiding overly simplistic demonization or deification. Democracies are dynamic, and governance is complex. As citizens in a democracy, it’s our right and our privilege to speak truth to power, asking our leaders to do the right thing, both symbolically and substantively.

Center Field: Defending Israel is not Smearing Obama or Bullying Mary Robinson

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-6-09

Just as savvy lawyers teach their associates to pound the table harder the weaker their argument becomes, Israel’s critics are accusing its defenders of “smear” tactics and “bullying.”

In the toxic atmosphere which pollutes Middle East discourse, rife with accusations about super-powerful Jews doing their dirty work through the omnipotent “Jewish lobby,” Israel’s defenders are frequently put on the defensive. These unfair, hysterical accusations undermine the democratic discourse essential to governing effectively, especially in a complicated, messy policy arena such as the Middle East.

Let’s face it, no one wants to be accused of McCarthyite tactics, and few people have the stomach these days to be on the wrong side of Barack Obama and his minions. People who dare criticize the American president get the kind of treatment Marc Stanley, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, meted out in The Jerusalem Post this week.

In a screed entitled “The Chutzpah of Obama’s Jewish Critics,” Stanley targeted the rather mild, anguished op-ed Aluf Benn of Ha’aretz, published in the New York Times, asking “Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?

Benn made the important point that having visited so many other capitals, Obama’s refusal thus far to visit Jerusalem was telling, as was the president’s inability to address serious Israeli security concerns in the wake of Yasser Arafat’s return to terrorism and Hamas’s barrage of rockets after Israeli concessions.

Stanley claimed Obama is “making an unprecedented effort to reach out to the Jewish community,” and that critics like Benn would “leap at any chance to attack the president.”

Stanley then accused “the small anti-Obama wing of the Jewish community” of trying “to smear Obama in the Jewish community” during the 2008 campaign.

In the same vein, valid criticisms raised about President Obama’s shocking decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson were distorted, then dismissed.

I was careful in my Jerusalem Post blog criticizing her selection for America’s highest civilian honor not to call Robinson an anti-Semite – I called her a Neville Chamberlain, an appeaser who failed to stand up to Arab anti-Semitism in the buildup to Durban in 2001.

Nevertheless, critics in the “Talkback” said I called her an anti-Semite. Mary Robinson herself responded to the criticism with her own smear. “There’s a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community,” she said. “They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The Belfast Telegraph made explicit what Robinson’s snide remark implied with its headline:  “Former Irish President Mary Robinson ‘bullied’ by Pro-Israel Lobbyists.”

In fairness, the pro-Israel side has more than its share of hysterics too.

Those of us who try to criticize President Obama’s Middle East Policy constructively – and lament his tone -deafness in awarding Mary Robinson and other matters – are hindered by the shrill minority that unfairly and inaccurately calls Obama a Muslim and Robinson an anti-Semite.

But to lump a thoughtful leftist like Aluf Benn in with that crowd, to ignore the anguish Mary Robinson’s failures at Durban caused, by simply dismissing critics as “bullies,” is destructive.

Since the 1980s, there has existed a kind of political sweepstakes, a competition in which each side in a debate tries to gain points by claiming it has been the one treated most unfairly.

Since the 1990s, in the United States, Republicans and Democrats have tended to treat honest criticism as personal attacks. Too many people seem to forget George Washington’s counsel to learn from your critics and understand that intelligent and virtuous people sometimes come to contrasting conclusions.

In his latest NRO Blog, the former Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and White House aide Dr. Tevi Troy (yes, he is my brother), reports that a source told him that Robinson’s selection “was not fully vetted, but that the White House feels that backing down at this point would make things worse.”

In criticizing Robinson’s award I did not expect the White House to backtrack – institutions rarely do. But I did hope that the White House would be more careful next time and more sensitive to Jewish communal concerns in so many ways.

It is clearly still amateur hour at the White House. Even the holy Obamians have much to learn. A White House impervious to criticism is a White House doomed to fail. Obama and his aides, like the rest of us, can learn from their critics, even more than they learn from their friends  if they are open to listening rather than quick to smear critics as enemies.

Gil Troy Quoted in Jerusalem Post “US decision to honor Robinson slammed”

Jerusalem Post, 8-6-09

Mary Robinson let the Durban...….Indeed, in an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s New York Post, Gil Troy, a professor at McGill University and a Jerusalem Post contributor, and Tevi Troy, a former senior White House aide under president George W. Bush, bluntly labeled the honor a “bad choice.”

“Robinson’s views are well out of the American foreign-policy mainstream,” they wrote, questioning what message Obama possibly could hope to send by awarding Robinson the high honor.

“If President Obama believed he could honor Robinson without harming himself politically, he’s taking for granted the votes of both American Jews and more traditionally hawkish moderate Democrats,” they wrote.

“Worse, it seems Obama doesn’t mind celebrating a symbol of Western weakness and appeasement of anti-Semitism at a time when the world’s dictators and terrorists are deciding what to think of him.”

Center Field: Honoring Mary Robinson, Obama honors appeasement of anti-Semitism

Posted by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-2-09

In the latest example of President Barack Obama’s utter and complete tone-deafness regarding Jewish sensibilities, the White House has announced that Mary Robinson will be one of sixteen recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

While Robinson has had a distinguished career as the President of Ireland and a human rights activist, she has also displayed a consistent anti-Israel animus. Most disturbing, she was one of the people most responsible for the great debacle at Durban, 2001, when a conference convened to fight racism became a UN-sponsored hate-fest against Jews.

At a time when Barack Obama should be honoring Winston Churchills in the fight against anti-Semitism, he has chosen a Neville Chamberlain, someone who appeased the haters at Durban and in the UN again and again, until it was too late.

As the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 until 2002, Robinson consistently displayed a pro-Palestinian bias during a fragile moment in the search for Middle East peace.

When Yasser Arafat led the Palestinians away from negotiations back toward terror in 2000, Robinson could have stood up and urged the Palestinians to eschew violence. Instead, she and the UN Human Rights Commission continued to demonize Israel, implicitly encouraging Palestinian terrorism.

Making matters worse, she presided over the infamous World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001. She repeatedly ignored the pleas of distinguished human rights activists including the late Congressman Tom Lantos and the US secretary of state at the time Colin Powell to stop the Durban conference from degenerating into an orgy of Israel- and Jew-bashing.

In fairness, eventually she herself was so appalled by a cartoon the Arab Lawyers’ Union distributed equating the Star of David with the Swastika that she proclaimed at an official dinner “When I see something like this, I am a Jew.”

Nevertheless it was too little, too late. And in her closing remarks Robinson declared “we… succeeded,” a shocking statement considering that anti-Zionists hijacked the conference, demonizing Israel, bullying Jewish participants and distributing crude anti-Semitic images of hooked-nose Jews at the parallel NGO forum.

For at least three years after the conference, Mary Robinson continued to celebrate Durban’s success. It was only in response to public campaigns at McGill University (which, full disclosure, I led) and at Emory University against her receiving honorary doctorates in 2004 that she began to acknowledge Durban?s legacy as mixed.

As such, she was also responsible for trying to sanitize the historical record and soft-pedal the Durban disgrace.

For many in the human rights community, when they hear Durban, Mary Robinson, Human Rights and the UN, their knees go wobbly. For others of us, we hear Durban – and everything associated with it – and our stomachs get queasy.

Mary Robinson failed at Durban. Mary Robinson failed when in the Regional Conference in Teheran in February, 2001 leading up to Durban she watched as Israel was targeted and demonized, allowing the anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to fester.

Mary Robinson failed when in that already inflamed atmosphere she allowed the Palestinian conflict to be singled out, acknowledging on August 9, 2001 the need for “Recognition of the accumulated sense of grievance and frustration because of prolonged military occupation, now in its fourth decade.”

This behavior violated the UN protocols whereby at human rights world conferences such as at the UN Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, and the UN Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, no single state or conflict was to be singled out.

And Mary Robinson failed when she refused to distance herself from the conference – in fact boasted about it.

In fighting modern anti-Semitism, the moral neutrality of the politically correct – which often masks moral sloppiness or even outright bias – is particularly insidious. To see the President of the United States honor someone who has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution is sickening.

The President also awarded Senator Edward Kennedy and the late Congressman Jack Kemp with the Medal of Freedom. Mary Robinson – and apparently Barack Obama himself – could learn from both their examples how to defend human rights without enabling the modern-day demonization of Israel and the Jewish people.

So far, the American Jewish community has been afraid to criticize Obama. Most have stood silent as he has singled out Israel for criticism while making nice to Iran and other dictatorships.

When American Jewish leaders were finally granted an audience with the president, the meeting was initially kept off the his daily schedule and, by all reports, was deferential, not confrontational.

How many more examples of presidential insensitivity to Jewish concerns will it take for American Jews to remember that as citizens in a democracy, it is our right and responsibility to stand up for ourselves.

And in the case of Mary Robinson’s undeserved honor, it is our right and responsibility to stand up for American integrity, making sure that the Presidential Medal of Freedom is not awarded to those whose commitment to liberty and justice for all is spotty and trendy rather than consistent and enduring.