WASHINGTON — As he honored four people on Wednesday for risking their lives to protect Jews, President Barack Obama warned that anti-Semitism is on the rise and that an attack on any faith is an attack on all faiths.
Obama spoke Wednesday evening at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the first sitting president to speak at the embassy. He was introduced at the event by Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director of the Holocaust film "Schindler's List" and the founder of a Holocaust history foundation.
"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," Obama said. "So here tonight we must confront the reality that around the world anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it."
The United Nations has designated Wednesday as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in 1945. Six million Jews were killed by Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.
Recognized posthumously for protecting Jews from harm during the Holocaust were Roddie Edmonds of Knoxville, Tennessee; Lois Gunden of Goshen, Indiana; and Polish citizens Walery and Maryla Zbijewski of Warsaw. The honors were bestowed by Yad Vashem, the world's Holocaust education and research center, based in Jerusalem.
Each was designated Righteous Among the Nations, an official title awarded by Yad Vashem on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Obama said the Holocaust is unique, "a crime without parallel in history," but he also sought to extend his concerns about confronting intolerance toward other faiths as well.
"It 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," he said. "It means heeding the lesson repeated so often in the Torah: To welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers, too."
Edmonds, a master sergeant, participated in the landing of U.S. forces in Europe and was taken prisoner by the Germans. When the Germans ordered all Jewish prisoners of war to report, Edmonds defied the order by figuring out how to keep the Jewish POWs from being singled out for persecution. "We are all Jews," he told the Germans.
Gunden, a French teacher, established a children's home in southern France that became a haven for children, including Jews she helped smuggle out of a nearby internment camp. She protected the children when French police showed up at the home.
The Zbijewskis hid a Jewish child in their Warsaw home until the girl's mother could take her back.
In televised remarks during the ceremony, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel remained indebted to those being honored because of the Jewish soldiers and children saved by their bravery. He also praised the U.S. and said there was an unbreakable bond between the two countries.
"We know we have no better friend than the United States of America," Netanyahu said.
Obama's appearance at the Israeli Embassy came after several months of tensions during his pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu vigorously opposed. The two leaders met at the White House in November as they attempted to reset ties for the final year of Obama's presidency.
"America's commitment to Israel's security remains, now and forever, unshakeable," Obama said Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.