President Obama paid tribute Wednesday night to Americans who saved Jews from the Holocaust during World War II, saying their example holds a lesson in today’s political climate of anti-immigrant sentiment and religious intolerance.
“An attack on any faith is an attack on all of our faiths,” Mr. Obama told an audience at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “For Americans in particular, we should understand that it’s an attack on our diversity, on the very idea that people of different backgrounds can live together and thrive together.”
The event represented a bit of fence-mending for Mr. Obama with American Jews and with Israel. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who attended the ceremony, has been particularly critical of the president’s nuclear deal with Iran.
The event was held on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance and education organization, bestowed its award posthumously on four Americans, including the late Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee.
As a prisoner of war in January 1945, Sgt. Edmonds was told by his Nazi captors to reveal which of his fellow prisoners of war were Jewish. At the barrel of a gun, Sgt. Edmonds refused, declaring, “We are all Jews.”
He was represented at the event by his son, Chris, who said his father “lived by a sincere Christian faith.”
Mr. Obama said the soldier’s example should serve as a lesson today, when Jews and other people of faith are persecuted.
“His moral compass never wavered,” the president said of Sgt. Edmonds. “He was true to his faith. It’s an instructive lesson for those of us Christians. I cannot imagine a greater expression of Christianity than to say ‘I too was a Jew.’”
Mr. Obama didn’t mention the ongoing controversy over his plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this year, nor Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s proposal to bar Muslim immigrants temporarily. But he said the lessons of religious tolerance have special meaning today.
“Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give in to a base desire to find someone else, someone different to blame for our struggles,” Mr. Obama said.
He said the lesson “means taking a stand against bigotry in all its forms, and rejecting our darkest impulses and guarding against tribalism as the only value in our communities and in our politics.”