Academy Award-winning filmmaker and philanthropist Steven Spielberg presented President Barack Obama with the USC Shoah Foundation’s Ambassador for Humanity Award at a glittering Beverly Hills gala that included guests Barbra Streisand, Samuel L. Jackson and Kim Kardashian.
Wednesday’s evening event, which was hosted by Conan O’Brien and featured a performance by Bruce Springsteen, marked the 20th anniversary for the foundation that Spielberg founded after making Schindler’s List, for which he was honored with a best director Oscar.
Initially conceived as a repository for the oral and filmed personal histories of Shoah survivors, the center’s archives have come to house nearly 52,000 first-person histories in 58 countries — not only of Jewish Holocaust survivors but of gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roma persecuted by the Nazis.
The crowd of 1,300 guests was packed with an array of industry execs and personalities, including frequent Spielberg collaborator Kathleen Kennedy, Jim Gianopulos and his wife, Ann, Phil Rosenthal and his daughter Lily, Jeff Skoll, Howard Gordon, Katie McGrath, Colin Hanks, Rita Wilson, Ted Sarandos and Nicole Avant, Jeff Garlin, Tom Rothman, TNT’s Michael Wright, Stacey Snider, Kathleen Marshall, Octavia Spencer, Judge Judy Sheindlin, Sue Kroll, Mitch Hurwitz and Jami Gertz, among others.
The director and the president took to the stage together shortly after 8 p.m., where they presented a video program about Shoah. Spielberg thanked Obama for taking steps to combat genocide worldwide.
In arguably one of the most powerful speeches of his presidency on Israel and genocide, Obama then told the crowd that because of Schindler’s List “we were reminded that the Holocaust was not a matter of distant history. The voices, the memories of survivors became a part of us. It entered into our DNA. That’s what stories do. That’s what Steven does. That’s what Bruce (Springsteen) does. They tell a story that stitches up our fates with the fates of theirs. That film gave us a stake in that history and a stake in insuring autocracies like that don’t happen again.
“Now, if the story had ended there, it would have been enough. But Steven didn’t stop with Schindler’s List, because there were too many other stories to tell. So he created this foundation to undertake what he called ‘a rescue mission’ — preserving the memories that would otherwise be lost to time,” he explained.
Over the past two decades, “you freed voices who could tell their own story in their own way. You’ve turned that testimony into tools that could be used by scholars all around the world. I know that for you and for so many here, this is deeply personal. You lost people in the Holocaust … None of these stories could be preserved without the men and women who have the courage to tell them … To turn to those moments and remember those darkest days.”
He revealed: “If the memories of the Shoah survivors teach us anything, it is that silence is evil’s greatest co-conspirator. And it’s up to us — each of us, every one of us — to forcefully condemn any denial of the Holocaust. It’s up to us to combat not only anti-Semitism, but racism and bigotry and intolerance in all their forms, here and around the world. To speak out against rhetoric that threatens the existence of a Jewish homeland and to sustain America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” said the president, prompting an outburst of loud applause.
In his address to the 1,300 guests, Obama also touched on the situation in Syria, the kidnappings in Nigeria and the Ukraine. “I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria — when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids — and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop by drop,’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story,” vowed the president.
Earlier, host O’Brien lightened the tone and gave Obama a hard time for causing traffic chaos across Los Angeles whenever he visits, telling him: “I know you left Washington six hours ago, but I left Burbank seven hours ago.” He also joked that Spielberg “was recording evidence of intolerance long before Donald Sterling’s girlfriend.”
Springsteen then entertained the audience with a moving performance of “The Promised Land,” from his 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his hit “Dancing in the Dark.”
When the evening began, reality star Kardashian tweeted that she was attending the event, writing: “Honored to be at the USC SHOAH Foundation event to support Armenian genocide testimonies. I’m sitting next to the most inspiring 100 year old Armenian genocide survivor.”
Shortly after landing at LAX at 5 p.m., the president headed to an exclusive fundraiser — with tickets ranging from $10,000 to $64,800-per-person — at the Bel Air estate of Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy.
The take from the Horn event will go to the DCCC and the DSCC. That gathering also featured House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, DCCC chairman Steve Israel and DSCC chairman Michael Bennet.
In their invitation to the event, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, the Horns wrote that “with the mid-term elections approaching, this event provides an opportunity to hear directly from President Obama on his positions on many issues that we all care deeply about, and to offer thoughts and suggestions. We urge you to join us in supporting the president’s important goal of taking back the House of Representatives and holding the Senate to further his legislative agenda.”
The president addressed the 90 guests, including Streisand, James Brolin and Jeffrey Katzenberg, for approximately 15 minutes at the event held under a tent at Horn’s house, during which he said that despite the progress the administration has made, “there’s still a disquiet around the country. There’s an anxiety and a sense of frustration … the challenges out there remain daunting and we have a Washington that’s not working.
“For families in particular, even with the recovery, they still have not seen an increase in wages, an increase in incomes. They’re still worried that they are not going to be able to retire when they planned to retire,” he went on to say. “They worry about the prospects for their kids, whether they are going to be able to live out their American dream the same way that they did.”
Obama revealed that the principle reason was the difference in what “Democrats believe and what this particular brand of Republicans that we’ve got in Congress believes.”
Couples on the handpicked guest list were invited to become co-sponsors for $64,800, while individuals who wanted to attend the dinner and get their photo taken with the chief executive, were allowed to purchase tickets for $10,000. Other attendees included Bob Iger and Willow Bay, Haim and Cheryl Saban, Jerry and Ann Moss, Christopher Nolan, CAA’s Peter Micelii, and Lindsey and Mike Weber.
On Thursday morning, he is scheduled to attend a DNC roundtable discussion — with tickets set at $32,000 per person — at the Beverly Hilton before heading to San Diego.