WASHINGTON — Jewish congressional members and lobbying groups are protesting President Obama's decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Irish leader Mary Robinson, who they say has a long record of harshly criticizing Israel.
The award announcement prompted the first criticism of Obama by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a group he courted during last year's campaign. Jewish groups in the U.S. have been largely supportive of the president. But the Robinson award is the latest in a series of recent disagreements with Obama, and some Jewish leaders are growing skeptical of his commitment to Israel.
Last month, Obama hosted Jewish leaders at a White House meeting designed to soothe tensions over his differences with Israel over the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and lingering concern over the tenor of his outreach to the Muslim world.
By Thursday, several members of Congress -- including two Jewish Democrats -- had rebuked the decision to bestow the country's highest civilian honor on Robinson during a White House ceremony planned for Wednesday.
Among their concerns was her role as the United Nations' high commissioner on human rights in the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The U.S. and Israel pulled out of the conference over objections to a document it produced accusing Israel of racism in its treatment of the Palestinians.
Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a member of the Jewish caucus to the conference, said Thursday that Robinson "allowed the event to be hijacked by extremists who had no interest in peace."
The episode, Cooper said, "degraded" the global human rights effort, setting the stage for the second racism conference, held this spring, in which a keynote speaker was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fierce enemy of Israel who has questioned whether the Holocaust occurred.
Robinson "simply did not have the guts . . . to step into the fray and say it can't be this way," Cooper said. "She's a nice woman and a good person, but the fact that you mean well isn't a prerequisite to get our nation's highest honor."
Robinson, Ireland's president from 1990 to 1997, told Irish reporters this week that the accusations had no merit and blamed the controversy on "a lot of bullying by certain elements of the Jewish community."
"They bully people who try to address the severe situation in Gaza and the West Bank," she told a radio network, according to an account in the Belfast Telegraph.
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D- Nev.) said Thursday that the "biased views expressed by Mary Robinson against the nation of Israel remain deeply troubling, and her tarnished record of actions on this issue cannot be erased with the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Berkley blamed Robinson for the "highly charged anti-Jewish attacks against Israel and its supporters" at the 2001 conference and said her actions "deserve to be condemned."
Another Jewish Democrat, Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Robinson was a "screw-up" and a "mistake."
A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, on Thursday stood by the president's decision, calling Robinson a key figure in history. "Mary Robinson was the first female president of Ireland, whom we are honoring as a prominent crusader for women's rights in Ireland and around the world," Vietor said. "She has dedicated her career to human rights and working to improve an imperfect world.
"As with any public figure, we don't necessarily agree with every statement she has ever made," Vietor said, "but it's clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good."
Still, the controversy looked to be growing.
The World Jewish Congress on Thursday accused Robinson of an "endorsement of Palestinian violence as legitimate political activity, and the outrageous equating of the Holocaust to the suffering of the Palestinians," adding that Robinson's record "renders her unqualified to receive the nation's highest civilian honor."
The criticism from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which called on Obama to "firmly, fully and publicly repudiate [Robinson's] views on Israel," was especially problematic for the president.
As a candidate, he delivered well-received speeches to the group as he presented himself as a staunch supporter of Israel. AIPAC's incoming president, Lee Rosenberg, is a Chicago friend of Obama's and was a key fundraiser during the campaign.
Defenders of Robinson point to a 2003 op-ed she wrote in the New York Times deploring the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and they note that during the 2001 racism conference she waved a booklet of anti-Semitic cartoons and declared, "I am a Jew."
But critics point to a 2002 report compiled by the late Rep. Tom Lantos of California, a Holocaust survivor and delegate to the Durban conference, who said that Robinson's conduct "left our delegation deeply shocked and saddened" by her remarks about Israel.