USC Shoah Foundation honors President Obama at annual gala

The USC Shoah Foundation honored President Barack Obama with its annual “Ambassador for Humanity” award Wednesday night at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Century City, California.

The Shoah Foundation has dedicated itself to collecting testimony from survivors and witnesses of genocides, including the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Nanjing Massacre. The institute also announced the establishment of the Center for Advanced Genocide Research late last month.

President Barack Obama speaks about the importance of remembering the past in moving toward the future at the USC Shoah Foundation's Ambassador for Humanity Gala on Wednesday — Photo courtesy of Josh Grossberg

President Barack Obama speaks about the importance of remembering the past in moving toward the future at the USC Shoah Foundation’s Ambassador for Humanity Gala on Wednesday — Photo courtesy of Josh Grossberg

“Even though you can’t fix everything on your own, you do what you can … Capturing one story on film can make an impact,” said Shoah Foundation founder Steven Spielberg of the institute’s mission.

Comedian Conan O’Brien hosted the star-studded gala, at which singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen performed and actor Liam Neeson was a special guest. Other speakers included USC President C.L. Max Nikias and Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith. All the speakers focused on the importance of remembering past tragedies in moving forward.

“The purpose of memory is not simply to preserve the past, it is to protect the future,” Obama said during his remarks.

Educating younger generations, a main priority of the Shoah Foundation, was also a focus of the night. Prior to the main event, there was a cocktail reception during which guests could both mingle and learn more about the Shoah Foundation through exhibits and a classroom presentation.

One special exhibit was hosted by Ruth Hernández, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Pennsylvania whose video, “Voices of Our Journey,” was selected as a winner in the Shoah Foundation’s nationwide IWitness Video Challenge.

“We talked a lot about immigration in our video. Many people come to the United States because it’s the land of opportunities. But people are sent back to their countries, or they’re ripped away from their families,” Hernández said of her project.

Hernández and other students who have participated in the IWitness program had an opportunity to see Celina Biniaz, a Holocaust survivor who testified about her story via the Shoah video archives, speak in person at the event.

Biniaz was the youngest worker in Oskar Schindler’s factory when she was 13 years old. Schindler saved her, along with his other workers, in a story that has become memorialized in Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List.

“Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice,” she said.

After Biniaz spoke about her involvement with the Shoah Foundation, high school teacher Michelle Sadrena Clark discussed using the testimonies to educate her students. After Smith explained the mission of the foundation, O’Brien was brought on stage to help lighten the mood.

Shoah Foundation Founder Steven Spielberg presents President Barack Obama with the Ambassador for Humanity award. — Photo courtesy of Josh Grossberg

Shoah Foundation Founder Steven Spielberg presents President Barack Obama with the Ambassador for Humanity award. — Photo courtesy of Josh Grossberg

“Steven decided he wanted someone to come onto this stage, after all we’ve seen and heard, and get the crowd laughing. Well, I don’t know who Steven got, but man do I pity that guy,” O’Brien cracked.

O’Brien also touched on one of Angelenos’ favorite topics: traffic. Due to Obama’s presence, many streets in the area were temporarily closed, leading to increased gridlock.

“I know you [President Obama] left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago,” he joked.

O’Brien then introduced Springsteen, who performed two of his songs, “Promised Land” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Afterward, Spielberg praised Springsteen for his philanthropic efforts, calling him the “hardest working lyrical poet for our common humanity.”

Spielberg went on to introduce Obama by discussing the work the president has done to combat genocide. In winning the Ambassador for Humanity award, Obama joins past honorees George Clooney, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Clinton, among others.

“Last year, in the first ever presidential directive on this challenge, he demonstrated his commitment to our cause by declaring that preventing mass atrocities and genocides is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America,” Spielberg said of Obama’s qualifications for the honor.

Obama focused his speech on the “sacred duty of memory,” praising the Shoah Foundation’s mission to educate people about past atrocities in order to inform society moving forward.

“For setting a light, an eternal flame of testimony, that can’t be extinguished and cannot be denied, we express our deepest gratitude,” he said.

Despite the guest of honor’s office, the event did not get political, save for one remark by the president on ways society must continue to remember the Holocaust.

“It’s up to us to speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” Obama said to applause from the crowd.

Soon, however, the president returned to the gala’s overall theme of fighting bigotry through education.

“We cannot eliminate evil from every heart and hatred from every mind, but what we can do and what we must do is make sure our children and their children learn their history so that they might not repeat it.”

5 replies
  1. Parent of an alum
    Parent of an alum says:

    What is happening to USC? Promoting a president (lower case intended) that is doing everything to this country. by ruining its economy and political structure that USC is trying to educate its students to bild on, success and hard work. Why is Speilberg promoting a president and his administration that is very anti-Israel. What is wrong with the Jews of this country that they can’t see it..

  2. calipol2009
    calipol2009 says:

    It would have been nice for USC to have made it possible for some of its students to attend the event without having to buy tickets. Especially since we pay over $40,000 a year, help fund the Shoah Foundation, and use it in our history courses, etc… Would have been an honor to see the President of the United States instead of it being the usual Hollywood packed gala.

  3. Irv Spielberg
    Irv Spielberg says:

    [Just spotted this scream on the web! Enjoy!]


    ( This paper is what I experienced while trapped in a large US city.
    BTW, Obama now wants to move “disadvantaged” folks into “better” areas.
    Since he’s an expert on where rich Hollywood Jews live, he could
    “diversify” them with the L.A. homeless. He could
    also change Beverly Hills into Burka Hills! Is this the “change” Obama
    has promised?)

    The suburbs are booming, but not fast enough. Yessir, you ghetto folks

    in inner cities have started a good thing, but there are still lots of acres

    outside the cities without any houses on them. So you’ve gotta move into

    “untouched” city blocks and do the following:

    Throw trash everywhere. You’ll insure that your friends who pick up trash

    and distribute free rat poison packets will keep their jobs. And folks can

    predict the weather by the direction the trash is blowing!

    Walk down the street. Better yet, rhythm down it. And when I say street

    I don’t mean sidewalk. Save sidewalks for your friends on cycles. Besides,

    it’s hard to fit many cursing, screaming, drinking, pot-smoking kids on a

    sidewalk, and it’s also hard to spot keys and other things left in cars when

    you’re walking on a sidewalk!

    When walking down a street, turn your head when you hear a car coming

    and stare at the driver. For all you know, it might be one of your enemies

    out to get you. On the other hand, it might be only your neighbor and all

    that hateful staring might make him want to move out.

    Be sure to beget lots of unloved, unsupervised, unwashed two-legged

    “Obama welfare meal tickets” – either through wedlock or (preferably) out of

    wedlock. And let them often ring doorbells, begging for money.

    Turn quiet streets into noisy jungles. Have a blast – a

    long blast with your car horn under your neighbor’s window at

    3:00 a.m. Let folks know who the real honkies are! Blow your horn when (1)

    you see the police coming (2) you want to buy some dope (3) you want to sell

    some dope (4) for any other reason. Play your stereo so loudly that folks can’t

    hear sirens going to the latest holdup or arson. Be noisy, man, noisy!

    Be cruel to animals, especially “man’s best friend.” Tie your dog on a

    short chain under a blazing sun with no water or food or love or license or

    dog shots. Make him as mean as you are. Better yet, let your dog run loose.

    Neighbors love to find freshly killed cats (after hearing their screams) and

    other goodies on their lawns. Pit one dog against another in bloody “canine

    cockfights” while friends lounge on car hoods and cheer and make bets! And

    what madness is it where folks move out and abandon pets in the house,

    leaving them nothing to eat but their own droppings? This happens often in the

    ghetto, and almost no one will help the animals.

    Keep a good supply of Saturday Night Specials – also Sunday, Monday,

    Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday Night Specials. Your criminal

    presence will improve your neighbor’s light bill; when he isn’t watching you

    at night (with his lights off), he will be able to read books at night by

    the light of the police helicopter searchlights!

    Here’s more insanity: Uncle Sam spends millions of our tax money to

    move you into our neighborhoods where we lose much when we sell our homes.

    So you have your nerve when you glare and swear at us when we don’t move

    out quickly; but you’re the reason we can’t find good buyers! I really wonder

    what you and Uncle Sam will do when lots of folks move to the wilderness and

    live off the land and consequently don’t have to pay taxes to support such


    Finally, spread the rumor that all of your troubles are associated with

    skin, even though you and I know that your problem isn’t skin. It’s sin!!!

    What makes a ghetto? It’s not the paint on a house (or lack of it) but all

    of you two-legged pains in the neck!

    For more information on Blockbuster Obama, Google “The Background Obama

    Can’t Cover Up.”

  4. PakMaN
    PakMaN says:

    Why no mention of the Armenian Genocide? Isabella Sayyah ?? IIRC there were Armenian Genocide survivors present as well during the evening.

  5. acasinofriend
    acasinofriend says:

    What Will His Legacy Be? Did He Improve Race Relations? Did He Improve The Ghetto? Did He Make Chicago A Better Place? Hope & Change???

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