President Obama’s decision to bestow one of the nation’s highest honors on Mary Robinson, the first woman to serve as Ireland’s president, has touched off protests by Jewish groups and lawmakers, who claim she has shown a persistent anti-Israel bias in her work as a human rights advocate.
Mr. Obama plans to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Mrs. Robinson and 15 others at a ceremony next week at the White House.
In recent days, Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada, and other lawmakers have criticized Mr. Obama’s choice. They say that in her role as the United Nations human rights commissioner, Mrs. Robinson was one-sided in her criticism of Israel and allowed hostility toward it to infect the global debate on human rights.
Much of the criticism centers on Mrs. Robinson’s leadership of an antiracism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. The delegations from the United States and Israel walked out in the middle to protest a torrent of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, which critics say Mrs. Robinson did little to stop.
The White House has defended the decision to grant her the honor, saying it also recognizes her role as a crusader for women’s rights. Mrs. Robinson, a lawyer, was elected in 1990 as Ireland’s first female president.
“We don’t necessarily agree with every statement she has ever made,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman. “But it’s clear that she has been an agent of change and a fighter for good.”
Mrs. Robinson said she was “surprised and dismayed” by the protests. In a telephone interview on Thursday, she said she had fought unsuccessfully to prevent the Durban meeting from devolving into an attack on Israel.
“This is old, recycled, untrue stuff,” Mrs. Robinson, who now runs Realizing Rights, a human rights group in New York, said from California. “I have been very critical of the Palestinian side. My conduct continues to be on the side of tackling anti-Semitism and discrimination.”
The honor has also been opposed by Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The spat over Mrs. Robinson comes amid rising tension between the United States and Israel over the Obama administration’s insistence that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.