LOS ANGELES — The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance again proved that flaunting a cuddly relationship with Hollywood helps boost its cause.
This year’s national tribute dinner honoring the 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 — DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney President/CEO Bob Iger and actor Russell Crowe, among others — gathered May 5 in the Beverly Wilshire ballroom for a two-hour homage to the museum’s human rights work.
Along with Iger, the annual event drew leaders from the Walt Disney Co. such as chair Rich Ross, as well as the top brass from NBC Universal, including CEO Jeff Zucker and studio head Ron Meyer. The Universal guests 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 the Hamotzi blessing.
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 lauded the three medal recipients: 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 Israeli army’s 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.
Esther Lieberman, 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 gallant 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.
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 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.”
Howard and Grazer 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. “WASPy on the outside, total Jew on the inside!”
Howard said that Paris, who died in 1986, often would 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, University of California, 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,” Smelko said. “Something told me the way they used the bill was morally wrong.”