WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama joined members of the American Jewish community Wednesday night for a ceremony honoring four individuals who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, an honorific bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust.
The ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington was the first of its kind to be held in the United States, and thus the first to be addressed by a sitting US president. Held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Obama said the unusual gathering was to “make real the call to ‘never forget.'”
Mere months after a tumultuous showdown with Israel’s government over his signature foreign policy priority — an Iranian nuclear accord that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blasted as a “historic mistake” that poses an existential threat to Israel — Obama sought to showcase the US’s enduring ties with the Jewish state, undergirded by a genuine solicitude for the Jewish people.
“We are all Jews,” he said, paying homage to one of the four individuals being honored.
Americans Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee; Lois Gunden of Goshen, Indiana; and Polish citizens Walery and Maryla Zbijewski of Warsaw were the four recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance and education organization.
Gunden, a teacher of French and volunteer for the Mennonite Central Committee, established a children’s home that became a safe haven for Jewish children, including ones smuggled out of a nearby internment camp. The Zbijewskis held a Jewish child in their Warsaw home until the girl’s mother could take her back.
Obama focused mostly on the story of Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who participated in the landing of US forces before being taken prisoner by the Germans. Edmonds, the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer held in the Stalag IXA POW Camp, was asked by his Nazi captor to make known who among the more than 1,000 soldiers being held were Jews. But with a gun pointed at his head, Edmonds told him: “We are all Jews.”
He told his captor that, according to the Geneva Convention, each soldier only had to provide their name, rank and serial number. He also said that if the German soldier killed him, he’d have to kill everyone else there, for they would remember him and ensure he stood on trial for war crimes. The act of defiance worked: The Nazi backed down, and more than 200 Jewish lives were saved.
“It’s an instructive lesson, by the way, for those of us Christians,” Obama said. “I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say, ‘I, too, am a Jew.'”
That proclamation became the core of Obama’s message Wednesday, playing off an introduction by the Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who said the president had a “Jewish soul” signified by his strong defense of Israel and repudiation of hatred and persecution.
Spielberg — whose 1993 Academy Award-winning film “Schindler’s List” chronicled the story of Oskar Schindler, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for saving more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust — spoke about the “importance of not being a bystander as history passes close to you, giving us all a chance to do something before it passes us by.”
And while Obama avoided mention of the threats Israel faces from Iran, he expressed an unwillingness to be a bystander to security threats against the Jewish state, especially amid the metastatic rise of anti-Semitism around the world.
“When voices around the world veer from criticism of a particular Israeli policy to an unjust denial of Israel’s right to exist, when Israel faces terrorism,” he said, “we stand up forcefully and proudly in defense of our ally, in defense of our friend, in defense of the Jewish state of Israel.
‘America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakeable’
“America’s commitment to Israel’s security remains, now and forever, unshakable,” he added. “And I’ve said this before — it would be a fundamental moral failing if America broke that bond.”
Citing the increasing trend of Jews leaving Europe, the president highlighted his administration’s efforts to combat anti-Semitism, including urging other nations to appoint administrators on the matter, going so far as to say he’s made it clear to them that such appointments were “essential for… maintaining a healthy relationship with us.”
That is “because anti-Semitism is a distillation,” he said, “an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil.”
In attendance at the ceremony were also two members of the Senate who were among the most strident adversaries of the president’s Iran nuclear deal: Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), both there to pay tribute to the honoree from their state.
“I think the president spoke honestly and from his heart,” Alexander told The Times of Israel. “As for improving the administration’s relationship with Israel — that’s up to President Obama and the State of Israel. There do certainly remain policy differences, but the relationship with Israel and the United States is bigger than any one president. And I think we all recognize that.”
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