Do Mary Robinson and President Obama Share the Same Viewpoint on Israel and the Palestinians?
On August 12, President Obama presented former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, with the Medal of Freedom, our country's highest civilian honor. Her nomination had caused great anxiety in the American Jewish community and in Israel, because as UN High Commissioner she had presided over the infamous UN Conference World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001.
That conference was effectively highjacked by a group of Islamic nations, who insisted that the only issue of racism worthy of international intention was Zionism and the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. The rhetoric at the conference and the language of proposed resolutions became so inflammatory that the United States delegation, led by the late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), himself a Holocaust survivor, felt compelled to walk out of the conference. Lantos subsequently placed much of the blame for the outcome of the Conference on Ms. Robinson. In his account published in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs (Vol. 26:1, Winter-Spring 2002), he wrote:
To many of us present at the events at Durban, it is clear that much of the responsibility for the debacle rests on the shoulders of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who, in her role as secretary-general of the conference, failed to provide the leadership needed to keep the conference on track.
Accordingly, many pundits have mulled over the reason that the Obama Administration chose to so highly honor Ms. Robinson. Was it a political oversight? Was it a symbolic thumb in Israel's eye?
In Commentary, Rick Richman posits another possibility: Mary Robinson actually shares the Administration's views on Israel and the Palestinians, and may even be the original source for some of its rhetoric. One of the factors that discomforted Israelis and Zionist American Jews about President Obama's Cairo speech was its apparent attribution of the Holocaust as the sole raison d'etre for Israel's existence, juxtaposed with a comparison of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust to the stateless existence of Palestinian Arabs. The President said:
Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. . . .
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians— have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. . . . They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation.
Rick Richman has discovered that the President's "on the one hand, on the other hand" formulation has an eerie and perhaps not coincidental echo in remarks of Ms. Robinson at a planning meeting in Geneva prior to the Durban conference, as quoted by Congressman Lantos in his account linked above. Ms. Robinson had met with the U.S. delegation to hear their objections to a so-called "compromise resolution," filled with accusations against Israel of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the sorts of scurrilous slurs against Israel that would eventually lead to the U.S. walkout at the conference. The U.S. delegates urged her to intervene with the representatives of the Islamic nations to try to salvage the conference. Congressman Lantos relates:
Mrs. Robinson’s intervention with the assembled delegates later in the same day left our delegation deeply shocked and saddened. In her remarks, she advocated precisely the opposite course to the one Secretary Powell and I had urged her to take. Namely, she refused to reject the twisted notion that the wrong done to
the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East. Instead, she discussed “the historical wounds of anti-Semitism and of the Holocaust on the one hand, and…the accumulated wounds of displacement and military occupation on the other.”(Emphasis added)
Unlike the President's remarks in Cairo, the context of Ms. Robinson's comparison was a defense of resolutions accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians. Of course, that is exactly the point of view espoused by the President's former minister in Chicago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago. Could it be that the President shares the views of Reverend Wright and Ms. Robinson regarding Israeli treatment of the Palestinians? Does he equate that history with genocide and the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jewish people?
Whatever the answer, on Rich Richman's own website, Jewish Current Issues, he juxtaposes a photo of President Obama conferring the Medal of Freedom on Ms. Robinson with a photo of President George W. Bush presenting the Medal of Freedom to former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, a true champion of freedom and democracy. What a contrast!