May 7, 2010 | 12:03 pm
Posted by Danielle Berrin
The Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance once again proved that their cuddly relationship with Hollywood is a boost for their cause.
This year’s national tribute dinner honoring director-producer team Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, along with three medal of valor recipients, attracted the most star-studded crowd of recent years. Some of the industry’s heaviest heavyweights – including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bob Iger and Russell Crowe—clustered at the center of the Beverly Wilshire ballroom for a 2-hour homage to MOT’s human rights work.
The annual event was held on May 5 and drew leaders from the Walt Disney Company – including Iger, its CEO, and chairman Rich Ross, as well as the top brass from NBC Universal – comprised of controversial chief Jeff Zucker and Universal Studios head Ron Meyer, who sat with the honorees in a likely 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 dining-room-table-of-honor was director Brett Ratner who has made it something of a personal tradition to lead the hamotzi.
The only misguided star that evening was emcee Jay Leno, who was late, and whose brief routine on rectal-inserted bombs and explosive diarrhea failed to thrill. (Hear that Mr. Zucker?) Katzenberg wisely detected the crowd’s cool reception and announced that Leno had kindly written a check – no word on how much – to the Wiesenthal Center.
“Had you mentioned that before,” Leno said, leaning into the mic, “I would have gotten bigger laughs.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier 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.” He had high praise for each of the three medal recipients: a posthumous Sir Winston Churchill—“the man who saved Western civilization” – a brave prime minister who defied popular opinion to combat Hitler and his regime; a posthumous Le Maire Aristide Pelissier, the mayor of a small French town, Les Brunels, who provided a mother and her daughter safe-haven from the Nazis; and Dr. Ofer Merin, the deputy director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem who oversaw the IDF Field Hospital operation in Haiti.
“One thing they all share is courage,” Churchill’s granddaughter, Celia Sandys, who accepted the award on his behalf, said of the honorees. She spoke of Churchill’s moral courage to be “a lone voice” warning England 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,” she said. 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 Lieberman, who was only a young girl when Pelissier saved her from the Nazis, stood on the stage as her 13 children and grandchildren rose from their seats to gallant applause. And Merin, who was heroically applauded for his 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 twittered he had “spent most of the day writing.”
“What is at the core of the American dream,” Crowe said, “is tolerance and humanity; in [Howard 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.”
Though 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 remembers Paris saying. “Waspy on the outside, total Jew on the inside!” (If only Leno had thought to serve up some Jewish jokes..)
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,” Howard 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 SWC museum, 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 fashionable divest-from-Israel bill that had been passed by the student senate.
“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.”
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