Several members of the American Jewish community were among those awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday by U.S. President Barack Obama.
"What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people - not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily over the course of a lifetime," said the president in front of a room packed with senior administration officials, guests and reporters.
"No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking: 'You know what? If I keep this up, in 2012 I could get a medal in the White House from a guy named Barack Obama. That wasn't in the plan. But that's exactly what makes this award so special," Obama said.
The Presidential Medal of Honor is one of the highest civilian honors that can be bestowed by the U.S. president.
One recipient of the 2012 award was musician Bob Dylan, of whom Obama admitted that he is "a really big fan."
"Bob Dylan started out singing other people's songs, but as he says, 'There came a point where I had to write what I wanted to say, because what I wanted to say nobody else was writing.' Born in Hibbing, Minnesota - a town, he says, where you couldn't be a rebel; it was too cold - Bob moved to New York at age 19."
"By the time he was 23, Bob's voice, with its weight, was redefining not just what music sounded like but the message it carried and how it made people feel. Today everybody from Bruce Springsteen to U2 owes Bob a debt of gratitude.
There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music. All these years later, he's still chasing that sound, still searching for a little bit of truth," said Obama.
Another recipient of the award was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Joking about her famous penchant for wearing brooches, Obama introduced Albright as someone who "does the talking, and, once in a while, she lets her jewelry do the talking."
"When Saddam Hussein called her a snake, she wore a serpent on her lapel the next time she visited Baghdad. When Slobodan Milosevic referred to her as a goat, a new pin appeared in her collection," he said.
On a more serious note, Obama praised Albright for her courage and toughness as America's first female secretary of state, saying she "helped bring peace to the Balkans and paved the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the world.
"And as an immigrant herself, the granddaughter of Holocaust victims who fled her native Czechoslovakia as a child, Madeleine brought a unique perspective to the job. Once at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, only in America can a refugee meet the secretary of state. And she replied, only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State."
Another award went to Israel's president, Shimon Peres. Peres, who was not present at the ceremony, will receive his medal in mid-June.
Jan Karski, a Polish-Catholic resistance fighter during World War II, was awarded the medal posthumously.
"Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring the world to take action," Obama said of Karski, who passed away in 2000.
Other recipients of the award included novelist Toni Morrison, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, NCAA basketball coach Pat Summitt and George Hirabayashi, who was one of only three Japanese-Americans to defy the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Hirabayashi died in January of this year.
Earlier Tuesday afternoon, Obama and White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew met about 20 Conservative Jewish community leaders, thanking them for the work they do to improve communities around the country and discussed their shared commitment to rebuilding the U.S. economy.
The U.S. president, according to a readout of the session also reiterated his unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security and steps his Administration has taken to enhance it - including unprecedented security cooperation and the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.”
There were some questions directed at the presidents concerning his thoughts on the role of religious leaders in a more civil political dialogue, which then lead to the inevitable question - how does he feels about Israel? Obama joked that Lew always warns him it will get to "the kishkes question."
"Rather than describe how deeply I care about Israel, I want to be blunt about how we got here," Obama said, reminding his guests that he had so many Jewish friends in Chicago at the beginning of his political career that he was accused of being a puppet of the Israel lobby.
In the Senate, he said, his support for Israel's qualitative military edge has been unwavering.
Obama added that people judged his support for Israel because of the differences between a center right government in Israel and center-left in the U.S. - because he pressed Netanyahu too hard in his belief that it was time to seize the moment and pursue peace initiative.
Obama also stressed he probably knows about Judaism more than any other president, because he read about it - and wondered how come no one asks Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner or Senate minority leader Mitch McConnel about their support to Israel.
William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, criticized Obama's comments at the meeting with Conservative rabbis, saying that the "reason no one asks John Boehner or Mitch McConnell about their support for Israel is because they really do support Israel," adding: "The reason people ask Barack Obama about his support for Israel is because his support for Israel has been equivocal."
Kristol also tagged as "truly pathetic" President mentioning his "Jewish friends" in Chicago to support his pro-Israel credentials, and ripped at the claim he "knows more about Judaism than any other president."
"His vanity boggles the mind". Kristol wrote, adddig: "One could begin by citing Adams and Madison, who knew Hebrew, or Harry Truman, who knew Jewish history."
The conservative writer added that in "thinking about the presidents since Truman, though, I'd guess the president who knew the most about Judaism was Jimmy Carter, who taught Sunday school and had a deep interest in religion."
"So let's stipulate that of the modern presidents, Carter and Obama 'know' the most about Judaism. But what is it they know? In Obama's case, one could ask whether what he 'knows' is what he learned from Rashid Khalidi and Jeremiah Wright," he added.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), which is the international umbrella organization for Conservative rabbis, told Haaretz after the meeting: "It was a very wide-ranging discussion about domestic issues, the need of our country to come together, basic values, education, geo-strategic partnership with Israel, sanctions against Iran - we thanked the administration for its very strong efforts. We had an opportunity to have thoughtful, reflective conversation."
Schonfeld said she didn't feel the tone of this meeting was influenced by the elections. "It was serious and thoughtful."
Obama found himself in the middle of a storm of sorts on Tuesday, over remarks he made at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, referring to a "Polish death camp" while honoring a Polish war hero.
The president's remark had drawn immediate complaints from Poles who said Obama should have called it a "German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland," to distinguish the perpetrators from the location. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."
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