By Nora Gutekanst
With his acceptance of the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol rotunda, outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres joins Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela as one of only three foreign heads of state to receive the highest civilian award in the United States and becomes the first sitting Israeli president to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Democratic Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado introduced legislation to honor Peres with the medal for his decades-long role in cementing the exceptionally close alliance between the United States and Israel in August 2013, with similar legislation brought in the House of Representatives by Republican Congressman Trent Franks and Democratic Congressman Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts. The legislation passed the House in March, was unanimously approved by the Senate in May, and was signed by President Obama on June 9.
The effort to recognize Peres for his service and to publicly affirm the close relationship between the United States and Israel began two years ago and was initiated by Ezra Friedlander, CEO of the Friedlander Group. The effort was spearheaded by Robert Rechnitz, founder and chairman of the Jerusalem Conference and Iron Dome Tribute; Lee Samson, of the international board of trustees of Jerusalem’s Museum of Tolerance and founder and chairman of the Kiryat Shemona Foundation; Simon Falic of Miami Beach; Ron Plotnik, a major supporter of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Stanley Treitel; Rabbi David Baron of Temple of the Arts of Beverly Hills, who served as Chair of the Clergy Cabinet; and Hassan Ali Bin Al, International Chairman of the Shimon Peres Congressional Gold Medal Commemoration Committee. The introduction of the legislation in Congress was timed to coincide with the Israeli president’s 90th birthday, casting the spotlight on Peres, a close disciple of David Ben-Gurion, and the only living member of Israel’s founding generation of political figures.
“This was a great bipartisan effort,” said Rechnitz. “We spent a lot of time lobbying senators, congressmen, Democrats and Republicans and it was not hard to find people who understand the importance of supporting Israel and rewarding democracy in a hostile region. What is good for Israel is good for America and this is a relationship that is beneficial not just to the Jewish community but for both of our countries.”
Rechnitz described Peres as a highly regarded statesman with a reputation as a man of peace. “This was not about political leanings whether left or right, but instead about a great Jewish leader who has brought honor to Israel in the eyes of the world and that is what’s important during these difficult times,” observed Rechnitz.
Rechnitz noted that many of the speakers shared their personal feelings for Peres, with one speaker comparing Peres to George Washington, who was awarded the country’s first gold medal by the Continental Congress in 1776.
The opportunity to take part in a congressional ceremony honoring the president of Israel was an emotional one for Rechnitz, the son of Holocaust survivors. “To be standing in the Capitol rotunda while the marine choir is singing Hatikva and playing Jewish music was very moving and there were moments when there were very few dry eyes in the room,” said Rechnitz. “It was an incredible opportunity to witness firsthand the respect and support that Congress has for Israel.”
In his remarks prior to the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal, Rechnitz described the day as both historic and significant. “Today is a proud day, a triumph for us all, because today is a public affirmation of the unbreakable bond which not only exists, but indeed flourishes between the United States and Israel,” said Rechnitz. “It is a relationship which is being constantly scrutinized. But today, we are able to show to the world that the ties between our two countries can never be weakened.”
In recognition of their efforts to publicly strengthen the bond between the United States and Israel by presenting him with the Congressional Gold Medal, Peres honored Samson and Rechnitz with the U.S.-Israel Advocacy Leadership Award, presented at a Washington ceremony one day before receiving his own award, with an inscription: “In recognition of their pivotal role of stewardship and sustaining the bilateral relationship between the United States of America and the State of Israel and forging the unbreakable bond between the people of the United States and Israel.” v