The education of Samantha Power

Israel/Palestine
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Samantha Power is Obama’s nominee to be the UN ambassador. I think Power understands the conflict as clearly as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel does: she is a student of human rights atrocities and has described Israel as a “major” human-rights violator backed by an American lobby with “tremendous… financial and political” clout. She surely recognizes the great cost to the U.S. internationally of our support for the militant Jim Crow state. 

But just as Hagel’s obeisance to Israel during his nomination battle this winter lit up the activities of the Israel lobby — resulting in Saturday Night Live’s deathless skit about politicians offering to fellate a donkey for Israel– it looks like we will get more light during Samantha Power’s audition. An Irish immigrant of great personal presence, she is sure to make a feast of every word she’s ever said against Israel. 

Power has backtracked on the issue before.   

Below are testimonials from several power players that chart Power’s arc. Note that she opened up the White House to a loser rightwing Republican supporter of Israel– which shows that the lobby is bipartisan; the same body has its feet planted in both parties and Obama is incapable of running against it. Note that Alan Dershowitz has supplied a powerful endorsement.

Note Power’s early debt to two then-powerful editors whose whole world is Israel: Martin Peretz (now disgraced by his anti-Arab comments) and Leon Wieseltier (a cowboy-boot-wearing rightwing Zionist fixture of AIPAC conferences).

Let’s start with those excellent gentlemen. In her celebrated book, A Problem From Hell (2002), Power said that “four individuals played pivotal roles six years ago in encouraging me to turn an amateur, sweeping survey of U.S. responses to genocide into a book.” They were schoolmate Miro Weinberger, now mayor of Burlington, VT; the late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, a great critic of Israel; and: 

“Martin Peretz, whose New Republic had given me a voice during the Bosnia war and given U.S. policy-makers an appropriately difficult time, helped convince Basic books to publish it. And Leon Wieseltier, the wisest man in Washington the most stirring moralist around, offered cherished counsel from start to weary finish.”

Power is a philo-Semite. All four pivotal friends are or were members of the Jewish establishment; and in 2008 she married an accomplished Jew, Harvard prof Cass Sunstein, and Leon Wieseltier delivered a brimming toast at their wedding in Ireland, including these memories/insights:

I first encountered Samantha at a pool table most of two decades ago. She was, of course, startling. She had hot, laughing eyes and a free, probing mind and a chronology of the Bosnian catastrophe: a woman of ardor who made conscience seem sensuous. I resolved immediately to help her, and to helped by her, in our common cause of comprehending the savagery in the world and shaming the powers that could still be shamed into acting against it. Her vitality was extraordinary, even a little pathological. As you know, Samantha is either intense or asleep…

As my own generation has grimly shown, youthful idealism is often more a commitment to youth than a commitment to an ideal; but Samantha remains almost giddily unreconstructed in her imagination of justice. She demonstrates by example that idealism is for adults. The foulest consequence of injustice, aside from the suffering that it inflicts, is the damage that it can do to our sense of possibility; but Samantha has risen up to defend that sense, and to fortify it, and to prove it. Her good cheer, properly understood, is itself a call to action.

I remind you, Wieseltier hangs out at AIPAC conferences and bewails the disaffection of young Jews from Israel. “I’m one of those Jews for whom Zionism remains a beautiful word.”

Lately, Alan Dershowitz has come forward in the Algemeiner to testify to Power’s Israel bona fides, and assure us that she will be all for bombing Iran when that good season arrives:

I have known Samantha since she was my student at HLS, occasionally cutting classes to travel around the world while writing her Pulitzer Prize winning book A Problem From Hell.  In that book, she laid out the difficult choices western democracies face when confronted with internal genocides committed abroad.  If only Samantha had written her book in the 1930s, perhaps the world would not have stood idly by the rise of Nazism and the genocides against Jews, gypsies, gays and others.

Yes, she is an interventionist when it comes to preventing genocide.  But she also cautions prudence in intervening for reasons other than the protection of endangered civilians.

To be sure, Samantha has said some things she now regrets—about Hillary Clinton, about Israel and about other controversial matters.  She says what she thinks when she thinks it.  As the United States representative to the United Nations, she will articulate the policy of the Obama Administration.  She will have to be more diplomatic than she was while in private life.  I am confident that she will make our country proud.

I have discussed the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Samantha on many occasions.  As a strong supporter of Israel’s security, I have a high level of confidence that she will do and say the right things.  Indeed, because of her sometimes critical attitude toward certain Israeli policies—some of which I agree with, others of which I do not—she will bring added credibility to her positions at the most anti-Israel location in the world other than perhaps, Tehran.  No one should expect to agree with everything an outspoken person like Samantha has said over the past decades.  But nor should anyone judge her on isolated statements instead of on her distinguished total record.

While serving in the Obama Administration, she has supported Israel’s security and defensive actions against terrorism.  She stands squarely behind President Obama’s pledge never to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, even if preventive military action is required.  She played a pivotal role in persuading the United States and some of our European allies to boycott the notorious Durban II conference, sponsored by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which invited Ahmadinejad to be its keynote speaker.

More cringeworthy moments ahead: Shmuley Boteach is a rabbi who ran for Congress in New Jersey last year as a Republican and lost. His entire platform was pro-Israel. You’d think he’s political roadkill, but you’d be wrong. “Unexpectedly, Samantha got in touch,” he writes in his endorsement at Huffpo:

this week I take my yarmulke off to President Obama for one of the most impressive actions of his presidency, namely, the nomination of Samantha Power to the post of American Ambassador to the United Nations…

I am well aware that many of my colleagues in the pro-Israel camp view Samantha with suspicion and even hostility, accusing her of animus toward the Jewish state.

They are wrong.

In 2011, after being approached by pro-Israel activists in South Africa who were critical of Samantha, I wrote an article expressing my regret that someone whom I respect so deeply could make comments that were unsympathetic to Israel. Unexpectedly, Samantha got in touch. She and I share a close common friend in Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, who, as a Rhodes scholar, was President of my Jewish student organization at the University of Oxford in 1994.

Samantha invited me to the White House where she agreed to go on the record about her comments on Israel and how they had been misunderstood. 

Boteach wrote an article at that time, explaining why Power had uttered the ill-considered judgment that Israel was a major human rights violator and the U.S. might have to defy the lobby and impose a two-state solution. Power made those comments here in 2002. But it turns out she hadn’t meant any of it. The rabbi:

Power, fresh on the national media scene, was baited by the question [from a Berkeley professor] 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.

Now back to Shmuley Boteach’s endorsement this week. He relates Power’s abasement to the lobby in the persons of Michael Steinhardt, the former owner of the New Republic, and Elie Wiesel, and 40 members of the American Jewish community, gathered specially to learn of her devotion to the Jewish state:  

But what happened after the publication of [Boteach’s earlier] article deserves to be shared.

I approached my close friend Michael Steinhardt, founder of Birthright Israel and one America’s most respected Jewish philanthropists, to tell him that I felt that Samantha was being falsely accused of anti-Israel bias. Michael and I often host small briefings for the American Jewish leadership and have played host recently to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, one of the people I most respect in government, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s senior aid[e], Ron Dermer, who was my student at Oxford.

I asked Michael if he would host Samantha at his office and he immediately agreed. About a month later Samantha arrived to address a closed-door meeting of about 40 American Jewish leaders who represented a wide spectrum of our communities most important organizations. I introduced Samantha and said that after her remarks on Israel and the Middle East she would be taking questions.

Typical of her erudition and brilliance, Samantha presented a sweeping view of American policy in the world’s most dangerous region. Then, she directly addressed the accusations that she harbored animus toward Israel. And in the presence of the leaders of our community, she suddenly became deeply emotional and struggled to complete her presentation as she expressed how deeply such accusations had affected her. Tears streamed down her cheeks and I think it fair to say that there was noone in the room who wasn’t deeply moved by this incredible display of pain and emotion. More than a few of the leaders of the room came over to me afterward and said that, based on her comments and her unabashed display of emotional attachment to the security of the Jewish people (it bears mentioning that Samantha’s husband is also Jewish), they would never again question her commitment to Israel’s security.

Later that day I took Samantha to meet my friend and hero Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, only to discover they already had a long friendship and that Professor Wiesel was a strong admirer of Samantha’s work.

Samantha would go on to become a dear friend with whom I would end up discussing parenting even more than the Middle East.

Awed as I always have been by Samantha’s commitment to the infinite value of human life, I suggested that we study Jewish and Biblical sources together related to her famous doctrine of R2P, Responsibility to Protect. She invited Dan Shapiro in to join us at her White House office and explained that he had just been chosen as the new United States Ambassador to Israel. We studied the Torah’s words together…

Tears streamed down her cheeks. I can’t wait for her performance in Congress. 

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