Last Thursday we presented Caitlyn Jenner with the Champion of Israel and Human Rights Award at the sixth annual World Values Network Champions of Jewish Values Awards Gala. The decision to give her this award, and her willingness to accept it, sparked controversy, but her inspiring speech was validation of the honor.
I must confess I was not entirely shocked, but still unnerved at the strong criticism for choosing to honor Jenner. She has made a lifestyle choice that makes many people uncomfortable, and clashes with the beliefs of some faith communities. But our point was always that every human life must be viewed as sacred and worthy of protection.
The highest Jewish value is the infinite worth of every human being, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender.
The focus of our organization is to use universal Jewish values to defend human rights and highlight Israel’s role as a light unto the nations. Choosing to honor Jenner was consistent with our mission.
The invective directed at us for this one decision was considerable, but an infinitesimal fraction of what people like Jenner endure daily. Beside the attacks for choice of lifestyle, Jenner also had to contend with criticism from antisemites who would not give her a second thought if not for her willingness to stand up and speak out about her love of Israel, respect for its defense of human rights and admiration for its commitment to protecting gay and transgender lives.
There are people in her own community who hate Israel more than they care about those rights and therefore condemn her and others who have the audacity to point out the difference between Israel’s protection of gays and the way they are brutalized by the Palestinian Authority and other Arab and Muslim states, especially Iran.
Introducing her, I said, “The fact [is] that Caitlyn Jenner, a great friend of the Jewish people and a great friend of Israel, has the courage to get up and boldly proclaim that Israel is a bastion of human rights that should be emulated, that should be copied in the Middle East.”
In her address, she talked about the common interests and challenges of the Jewish people and the LBGT community. “First of all,” she said to the 500 guests assembled at the Plaza Hotel, “we seem to attract a lot of enemies, don’t we? Tyrants, religious fundamentalists, white nationalists, radical Islamic terrorists, we got them all.”
“I wear that hatred as a badge of honor,” she added. “They hate us because of what we stand for: freedom, opportunity, diversity, and most of all, we stand for love.”
“We must continue to make progress globally because there are LBGT people and Jewish people living all over the world,” she said. “We may both be marginalized and there are countries where we could be imprisoned or killed, but we are resilient and we are determined.”
“Our challenges vary by nation,” Jenner declared, “but our enemies won’t stop us, and certainly won’t stop me from using all the resources and every tool available to fight for full equality.”
I could not agree more with Jenner’s message when she said, “I really feel like a true measure of a country’s character is how they treat their minorities. For the entire Middle East and the rest of the world, Israel is a beacon of hope.”
She correctly observed that “in a region where entire religions are banned, women are persecuted, gay men are sentenced to death, Israel is a long-standing refuge for LGBT people.”
It does not matter if religious Jews object to homosexuality based on Scripture, because we who try to lead Torah lives must protect and preserve life at all times. Could anyone condone gays or transgender men and women being put in cages and burned alive or hung from cranes, as has been done by Israel’s enemies in the Middle East? Jenner has a unique perspective on hatred directed at minorities because, as she explained, she was an eyewitness to the terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. She cried as she told this story and as she also related how her father was one of the American GI liberators of Buchenwald.
Jenner also said she admired the Jews for their commitment to their families, and called my wife Debbie “the bomb” for having nine children, joking, “I have 10 but it took me three women” to get there.
Our gala also honored two heroes whom we lost to the scourge of terrorism. We were pleased to present the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, with the Elie Wiesel Award in posthumous recognition of his brother Yonatan, who died leading the Israeli special forces that rescued 102 hostages in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. The award was also given to the parents of Taylor Force, in honor of his service to the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. After surviving the horrors of those two wars, Taylor was murdered while visiting Israel by a knife-wielding Palestinian terrorist.
Yonatan Netanyahu left a legacy of bravery that helped inspire generations of Israelis.
Taylor’s death prompted Congress to write the Taylor Force Act, which will require the US government to cut aid to the PA if it continues to provide funding to terrorists in Israeli jails and the families of suicide bombers.
This long overdue step will at least prevent American taxpayer money from being used to create incentives for Palestinians to murder Israelis, Americans or anyone else.
Another honoree, fighting terrorism from within the US government, is Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. After receiving the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson Award, Mnuchin, who impressed all with his openness and warmth, said, “We have over 700 people at Treasury that are focused on sanctions and sanctions management.” The secretary is a great friend of Israel and also plays a key role in enforcing sanctions against Iran.
We were also honored to have with us three other great friends and champions of Israel. Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer has been a stalwart defender from Israel from inside and outside the White House; Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis, who has championed the Taylor Force Act and been a vigorous supporter of US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and Miss Israel Adar Gandelsman, who promotes Israel’s image abroad while defending it at home as a member of the Israel Defense Forces.
Every day brings more and more news of school shootings, terrorist outrages and political unrest around the world. That makes it even more important to recognize, honor and champion the heroes who live among us.