No Holds Barred: A frank discussion with Samantha Power

The US senior adviser on human rights is being dismissed as an enemy of the Jewish state based almost entirely a fragment of a single interview.

Samantha Power 311 (photo credit: Eric Bridiers)
Samantha Power 311
(photo credit: Eric Bridiers)
In my column last week I shared my disappointment in discovering that one of the people whose thoughts and books has 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 I have quoted on countless occasions. As a member of a people that just 60 years ago faced total annihilation, 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 be one of the world’s most important.
She currently serves as President Barack Obama’s senior adviser on human rights. She was also credited with being one of the most influential voices in his decision to prevent Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering more of his people (although in my meeting with her, she adamantly denied this). In short, Power is and has been one of my heroes.
SO IT caused profound sadness when, in recent lectures to the Jewish communities of Australia, South Africa and New York, I was approached by audience members citing alleged negative comments she had made against Israel. I responded with a column quoting the comments and calling on Ms. Power to clarify them lest she be seen as insensitive to a nation that has an army solely for selfdefense.
To her credit, Power invited me to meet her in the White House. The meeting directly addressed the comments I quoted. She was personable and accessible, and exhibited a humility uncommon to those in power. She seemed genuinely pained by the perception that she is not a friend of Israel.
The principal comments attributed to her come from an interview she granted in 2002, when she was asked to respond to a “thought experiment” regarding what she would advise an American president if it seemed that either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were moving toward genocide. Power, fresh on the national scene, was baited and answered that preventing such a genocide could entail being prepared to alienate a powerful constituency – by which she meant the American-Jewish community – and sending in a protective force. From these comments – putting Israel and the possibility of genocide in a single sentence – Power has been conflated with other enemies of Israel.
In our conversation, she rejected utterly the notion she had any animus toward Israel and acknowledged that she had erred in offering hypothetical comments. She said opponents of Obama had unfairly taken her disorganized comments further and characterized them as “invade Israel” talk. She said that if she really believed Israel could even be remotely accused of genocide, then the correct forum for that view would have been in the 664 pages of her book, wherein she details all the genocides of the 20th century.
Listening to Power face-to-face and hearing her clarification, 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. Most significantly, she would later indeed become a senior adviser to a president, and not only would she never remotely identify Israel as a genocidal power but she would use her influence to advocate military action against a genocidal Arab dictator who is one of Israel’s most outspoken enemies.
In addition, some leading members of the American Jewish establishment told 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 UNsponsored Israel hate-fest.
THERE HAVE been other comments by Power that have been interpreted as hostile to Israel, but the interpretations rely on the presumption, generated in 2002, that she is anti- Israel. Based on Power’s clarification – and much more importantly, her actions – I believe this perception to be without merit.
I would be remiss if I did not mention my personal stake in the rehabilitation of Samantha Power’s reputation in the Jewish community. First, it seems incongruous that a woman who has done more in modern times to highlight the atrocity of genocide than anyone else should be ostracized from the community that has experienced its most tragic effects. Indeed, in our meeting, Power told me that the Jewish community is by far the most vocal against genocide. Likewise, in A Problem from Hell, she writes of the Jewish community’s role in mobilizing military intervention in Bosnia.
Second, Gaddafi 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. I have done everything in my power to oppose Libya’s brutal dictator ever since he announced plans to occupy the home and pitch a tent next door to me. I have lobbied mayors, governors and congressmen. Finally, despite my deep respect for President George W. Bush and his efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East, I was disappointed that his administration chose to normalize relations with Gaddafi. But one of the few American officials with a president’s ear who advocated punishing Gaddafi was Power.
Third – and for me, most importantly – I have spent a large part of my life fighting Israel’s enemies. But as important as it is to expose our enemies, it is equally important to exonerate those who are not. Power has done the Jewish people a service by highlighting the crime of genocide, and we welcome her clarification of earlier comments on Israel.
Power has lectured all over the world, emphasizing the central role of world Jewry in preventing genocide. These are heroic actions that should be applauded rather than criticized.
Shmuley Boteach 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 10 Most Influential Rabbis in America list since its inception. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.