Stars Shine at Wiesenthal Center Tribute

The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance (MOT) once again proved that flaunting a cuddly relationship with Hollywood helps boost its cause. This year’s national tribute dinner, honoring director-producer team Ron Howard and Brian Grazer along with three recipients of the organization’s Medal of Valor award, attracted one of the most star-studded crowds in recent years. Some of the industry’s heaviest heavyweights — including DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney President/CEO Bob Iger and actor Russell Crowe — gathered in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom for a two-hour homage to MOT’s human rights work.

The annual event, held on May 5, drew leaders from the Walt Disney Co. — Iger and chair Rich Ross — as well as the top brass from NBC Universal, including CEO Jeff Zucker and studio head Ron Meyer, who sat with the honorees in a show of solidarity for the upcoming Grazer-produced “Robin Hood,” starring Crowe, who was there to present Howard and Grazer with their Humanitarian Award.

Also at the table of honor was director Brett Ratner, who has made it something of a tradition to lead HaMotzi.

After tardy emcee Jay Leno failed to thrill with a brief routine on rectally inserted bombs and explosive diarrhea, Katzenberg wisely detected the crowd’s cool reception and announced that Leno had written a check — no word on how much — to the Wiesenthal Center.

“Had you mentioned that before,” Leno said, leaning into the microphone, “I would have gotten bigger laughs.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, transitioned the crowd into the serious part of the evening — the presentation of the Medal of Valor honors — by applauding recipients who “celebrate the principles of human dignity and tolerance and stand firm against the apostles of hatred and bigotry.”

Hier had high praise for each of the three medal recipients (two awarded posthumously): Winston Churchill, the World War II-era British prime minister “who saved Western civilization”; Aristide Pellissier, the late mayor of Les Brunels, a village in Southern France, who provided a mother and her daughter safe haven from the Nazis; and Dr. Ofer Merin, deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, who oversaw the Israel Defense Forces field hospital operation in Haiti.

“One thing they all share is courage,” Celia Sandys, Churchill’s granddaughter, said of the honorees while accepting the award on her grandfather’s behalf.

Sandys spoke of Churchill’s moral courage to be “a lone voice,” warning Britain of the threat building across the English Channel. Despite opposition from within his own country, “He didn’t give in,” she said. “We felt he was put on this earth for a purpose, that he was walking with destiny.”

Quoting one of Churchill’s own self-reflections on fighting the Nazis, she read, “All my past life was but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

The dinner, though largely a schmoozefest, wasn’t short on teary moments. Esther Liberman, who was a young girl when Pellissier saved her from the Nazis, stood on the stage as her 13 children and grandchildren rose from their seats to sustained applause.

And Merin, who was applauded for his heroic work in Haiti, received an emotional standing ovation buttressed by palpable Jewish pride in Israel. Merin spoke about the Israeli mission in Haiti and said that, despite their very best efforts, the Israeli medical team was but “a drop in the ocean,” able to treat only a fraction of the 300,000 Haitians injured. This was a sobering realization for many of the physicians, Merin said, who had to learn “the ability to accept what we could do, and what we could not.” 

Crowe took the stage next to introduce Howard and Grazer with a speech he had “spent most of the day writing,” according to his post on Twitter.

“What is at the core of the American dream,” Crowe said, “is tolerance and humanity; in [Howard’s and Grazer’s] work, you see tolerance and humanity are very important to them, and when you meet them you realize their kindness as men.”

Although it wasn’t explicit why Grazer and Howard were chosen to receive the evening’s highest honor — especially in light of the work of the evening’s other honorees — they both delivered tender and personal remarks about what the award meant to them. 

Howard, who is not Jewish, recalled a time early in his career on the set of “Happy Days” when director Jerry Paris noticed him pacing nervously. Howard told Paris he was indeed feeling jittery.

“Cute,” Howard remembered Paris saying. “WASP-y on the outside, total Jew on the inside!”

Howard said that Paris, who died in 1986, would often say to him, “It’s never too late — we can still bar mitzvah you!”

“Well Jerry, this is not quite the bar mitzvah you dreamed of, but it’s pretty remarkable,” he said to heaps of laughter.

Howard spoke eloquently about the importance of American leadership in promoting cultural diversity and “the human yearning for unity.” The Museum of Tolerance, he said, “is a living reminder that silent witnesses to tyranny and injustice are tacit supporters.”

Before the crowd spilled out of the ballroom and into the valet line, Leno singled out one audience member, Berkeley student body president Will Smelko, who recently risked his own popularity to veto a divest-from-Israel bill that had been passed by the student senate (see story on Page 12).

“Will, you are that next mayor in France,” Leno said.

A woman who identified herself as a Holocaust survivor approached Smelko on the way out and said, “People like you saved my life.”

So why did a 22-year-old non-Jewish student leader go against the grain for the Jewish state?

“It was a very one-sided attack on Israel,” Smelko said of the bill. On the surface, it seemed to make some sense, he said, but a closer look indicated a more spurious agenda. “The bill was being used for the political delegitimizing of the State of Israel. Something told me the way they used the bill was morally wrong.”

From left: Medal of Valor recipients Rabbi Abraham Cooper; Rabbi Marvin Hier; Brigitte Gaillot, accepting for her father, the late Mayor Aristide Péllissier, and the town of Les Brunels; Celia Sandys, accepting for her grandfather, the late Sir Winston Churchill; Dr. Ofer Merin of Israel’s Haiti rescue mission and Rabbi Meyer H. May, Wiesenthal Center executive director. Photo by Bart Bartholomew, courtesy of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.