In a column last week I shared my disappointment in discovering that one of the people whose thought and books have been a formative influence on my life had been associated with anti-Israel remarks. Samantha Power is arguably the world’s foremost voice against genocide. Her 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning book A Problem from Hell is one that I have quoted on countless occasions in print and in lectures. As a member of a people who just 60 years ago faced total annihilation in the holocaust, I consider Power’s plea – that ‘Never Again’ be a motto that civilized nations deliver on, using the diplomatic, economic and, if necessary, military tools at their disposal to prevent genocide – to be one of the world’s most important. She currently serves as President Obama’s senior adviser on human rights and is widely acknowledged to have the President’s ear. She was also credited by many publications with being one of the most influential voices in President Obama’s decision to prevent Muammar Kaddafi from slaughtering his people (although in my meeting with her she adamantly denied this and said the decision was the President’s alone). In short, Power is and has been one of my heroes.
So it was with profound sadness that in praising her in recent lectures to the Jewish communities of Australia, South Africa, and New York that audience members approached me with alleged negative comments she had made against Israel. I responded with a column last week quoting the comments and calling on Ms. Power to clarify them lest she be seen as insensitive to a nation who has an army solely for self defense without which it would likely be subject to yet another genocide.
To her credit, Ms. Power got in touch with me and invited me to meet her in her White House office this past Thursday. The meeting was substantive and directly addressed the comments I quoted. She was personable, accessible, and exhibited a humility uncommon to those in positions of high authority and power. She seemed genuinely and deeply pained by the perception that she was not a friend of Israel.
The principal comments attributed to her come from an interview she granted in 2002 in Berkeley, California while she was on her book tour. She was asked by an interviewer to respond to a “thought experiment” as to what she would advise an American president if it seemed that either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were moving toward genocide. Any seasoned media professional would have known that rule number one – as Michael Dukakis famously discovered in 1988 after being asked by Bernard Shaw of CNN how he would respond if his wife Kitty were raped – is never to respond to a hypothetical. But Power, fresh on the national media scene, was baited by the question and answered that preventing such a genocide would entail America being prepared to alienate a powerful constituency – by which she meant the American-Jewish community – and sending in a protective force to prevent another situation like Rwanda. From these comments – putting Israel and the possibility of genocide against the Palestinians in a single sentence – Power has been lobbed together with other enemies of Israel.
In our conversation she rejected utterly the notion she had any animus toward Israel. She acknowledged that she had erred significantly in offering hypothetical comments that did not reflect how she felt. She said that opponents of President Obama had unfairly taken her disorganized comments further and characterized them as ‘invade Israel’ talk. She said that if she really believed that Israel could even be remotely accused of practicing genocide against the Palestinians then the correct forum for her to express that view would have been somewhere in the 664 pages of her book wherein she details all the genocides of the twentieth century. She never even hints at Israel being guilty of any such atrocity. She explained that the only time she has written about Israel was in a later book on slain UN Diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. There she described his time in UNIFIL and included a discussion of the Government of Israel’s own findings on Sabra and Shatila.
To bolster her argument she mentioned that her former Professor at Harvard Alan Dershowitz – whom I consider to be Israel’s most eloquent global champion – called her after A Problem from Hell was published to applaud her for not remotely associating Israel with genocide, the way so many academic enemies had. I checked with my old friend Professor Dershowitz and he confirmed that he has warm feelings toward his former student and considers her a moderate on Israel.
Listening to Power face-to-face and hearing her clarification set amidst the visible hurt of being grouped together with Israel’s detractors, I found her argument convincing. Power, the world’s leading chronicler of genocide, is being dismissed as an enemy of the Jewish state based almost entirely on a fragment of a single interview lasting about two-and-a-half minutes. Most significantly, however we understand the meaning of her words in the unfortunate interview, they are utterly belied by her actions. She would later indeed become a senior adviser to a President of the United States and not only would she never even remotely identify Israel as a genocidal power that needed to be stopped but, to the contrary, she would utilize her influence to advocate for military action against a genocidal Arab dictator who is not only killing innocent Arab protestors but is, along with Iran, one of Israel’s most outspoken enemies.
In addition, some leading members of the American Jewish establishment shared with me that Power was instrumental in having America decline attendance at Durban II in April 2009, otherwise known as the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, which promised to be, like Durban I in 2001, a UN-sponsored Israel hate-fest.
There have been other, more minor comments by Power that have been interpreted as hostile to Israel but the interpretations rely on the assumption, generated in 2002, that she is an Israel-hater. But based on Ms. Power’s clarification, and much more importantly her actions, I believe this perception to be without merit and justice demands that we now move on from her comments and judge her instead by her actions.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my personal stake in the rehabilitation of Samantha Power’s reputation in the Jewish community. Firstly, it seems incongruous that a woman that has done more in modern times to highlight the atrocity of genocide than anyone else should be ostracized from a community that has most experienced its tragic effects. Indeed, in our meeting Power told me that the Jewish community is by far the most vocal against genocide and that at the Save Darfur rally of 1 May, 2006 there was an endless sea of yarmulkes. Likewise, in A Problem from Hell she writes of the Jewish community’s role in mobilizing military intervention in Bosnia.
Second, Muammar Kaddafi owns the home right next door to me in Englewood, New Jersey. I have been sickened over the past two years to awaken every morning to the site of the Libyan flag flying fifty feet from my home. I have done everything in my power to fight and oppose this brutal dictator ever since he announced plans to personally occupy the home and pitch a tent next-door to me. I have lobbied mayors, Governors, Congressmen, and Senators. Amid my deep respect for President Bush and his efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East, I was disappointed that his administration chose to normalize relations with Kaddafi. But one of the few American officials with a President’s ear who advocated punishing Kaddafi for his wickedness was Samantha Power.
Third – and for me most importantly – I have spent a large part of my life fighting Israel’s enemies in public forums. Whether it was the eleven years at the University of Oxford where I brought five Israeli Prime Ministers and endless cabinet ministers to respond to false accusations against the Jewish state or the past eleven years where I have been a defender of Israel on the American airwaves, championing the truth about Israel as a benevolent and liberal democracy has been one of my life’s highest callings. But as important as it is to expose those who are our enemies, it is equally important to exonerate those who are not. A person’s reputation is all they have and I know what it is like to feel unjustly maligned. Samantha Power has done the Jewish people a service by highlighting the crime of genocide and we welcome her repudiation of earlier comments on Israel. They were some time ago; she has expressed her regret for comments that lent themselves to misinterpretation and Judaism teaches that a person is judged primarily by their actions.
Power has lectured all over the world about the holocaust. She has used her influence to prevent a dictator from killing more of G-d’s children. She has highlighted the central role of world Jewry in preventing genocide. These are heroic actions that should be applauded rather than criticized.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ was the London Times Millennium Preacher of the Year and is the winner of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has been on Newsweek’s Ten Most Influential Rabbis in America list since its inception. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.