- President speaks at ceremony recognizing Holocaust rescuers
- Israeli ambassador calls appearance a signal of friendship
President Barack Obama honored two Americans and two Poles who helped Jews escape the Holocaust in an address at the Israeli embassy that served as a sign of rapprochement with a key ally that split with the administration over the nuclear deal with Iran.
In addressing a ceremony for the Righteous Among the Nations Award Wednesday on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to deliver remarks at the embassy in Washington.
Recalling the bravery and spirit of those being honored, Obama said the world cannot stand in silence amid the spread of acts of anti-Semitism and bigotry.
“Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else, someone different, to blame for our struggles,” Obama said. “An attack on any faith is an attack on all our faiths.”
Relations between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Benjamin Netanyahu were deeply strained by the Iran nuclear deal, which provides the Islamic Republic with relief from economic sanctions in exchange for giving up its capacity to build nuclear weapons. Earlier this month, international inspectors certified that Iran had taken the necessary steps curtailing its nuclear program, freeing tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets.
Netanyahu lobbied heavily against the deal, including an address to the U.S. Congress last March, arranged without White House consent or participation, in which he warned that the deal would embolden Iran to support terrorism and threaten Israeli national security.
The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, helped broker the appearance before Congress, outraging Obama administration officials. Since the Iran deal was signed, both sides have taken steps to mend the rift. Before Obama spoke, Dermer said Obama would be the first sitting president to speak at the embassy.
“I deeply appreciate the message of friendship you are conveying by being here tonight,” Dermer said.
Netanyahu addressed the event via a recorded video, and he too thanked Obama for appearing and for his support for Israel’s security. “As we defend ourselves, we know that we do not stand alone,” the prime minister said.
The Righteous Among the Nations award is the highest honor bestowed on non-Jews by the state of Israel. Wednesday’s event honored, posthumously: Roddie Edmonds, a U.S. Army Sergeant from Tennessee who helped save Jews in a prisoner of war camp; Lois Gunden, a teacher from Indiana who helped smuggle Jewish children out of a camp in southern France; and Walery and Maryla Zbijewski, who helped a young girl who fled the Warsaw ghetto.
Obama was introduced at the event by Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg, who has been among Obama’s top fundraisers and donors. The director of “Schindler’s List” called Obama “my good friend” and said his support for Israel is “steadfast.”
Spielberg cut a $1 million check to the super-political action committee that supported Obama’s 2012 re-election and in July donated another $1 million to the super-PAC backing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The president’s visit to the embassy is the latest effort to repair relations with Israel, and American Jews, following the Iran deal’s implementation.
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden and Netanyahu met privately at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Biden "reaffirmed the unshakable U.S. commitment to Israel’s security" and the pair "discussed ways to further deepen security cooperation," according to a statement from the White House.
A delegation of senior administration officials also traveled to Israel this week to continue discussions on renewing and expanding a $30 billion, 10-year package of U.S. aid to the country, which Netanyahu cited in his recorded message.