Jewish, Israeli Luminaries Among This Year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients

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Madeleine Albright, the first ever female U.S. Secretary of State, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Albright’s talks about her discovery, at age 59, of her own Jewish roots in her new book Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1984. (IMAGE COURTESY OF WHITEHOUSE.GOV)President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to a diverse set of individuals, recognizing their achievements in a variety of fields. Among the distinguished honorees were three individuals who are either Jewish themselves, or claim Jewish heritage: namely Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, and Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Placing her first among the honorees, President Obama praised former Secretary of State Albright’s “courage and toughness,” and the role she played in “[paving] the way for progress in some of the most unstable corners of the globe.” He also noted that because of Albright’s background as former refugee, and the daughter of Holocaust victims, she “brought a unique perspective to the job.”

Eliciting laughter from the audience, he reminisced on Albright’s dealings with some of the world’s less reputable heads of state. “Usually, Madeleine does the talking. Once in a while, she lets her jewelry do the talking,” said the president. “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,” Obama recalled, “a new pin appeared in her collection.”

Honoring Bob Dylan for his contributions to the world of music, President Obama told how the singer-songwriter moved from Minnesota to New York at age 19, and how “By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice, with its weight, its unique, gravelly power 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.”

“And I have to say,” added the president, “that I am a really big fan.”

President of Israel Shimon Peres was also among this year’s Medal of Freedom recipients, in recognition of his efforts advocating for both Israel’s security and for peace, although he was not in attendance at the ceremony. 

Peres has “done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive,” said President Obama.  “I’ll be hosting President Peres for a dinner here at the White House next month, and we’ll be presenting him with his medal and honoring his incredible contributions to the state of Israel and the world at that time. So I’m looking forward to welcoming him.” 

“And if it’s all right with you,” said Obama, “I will save my best lines about him for that occasion.”

Also worthy of note, the Medal of Freedom was awarded posthumously this year to righteous gentile and World War II freedom fighter Jan Karski (o.b.m.), who passed away on July 13, 2000.

“Fluent in four languages, possessed of a photographic memory, Jan served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II,” the president said.  “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 to the world to take action,” Obama continued.  “It was decades before Jan was ready to tell his story.” 

“By then, he said, ‘I don’t need courage anymore.  So I teach compassion.’ ”