No Holds Barred: Sean Penn, my unlikely hero

"Penn did something recently that blew my mind and, in the spirit of gratitude, I must acknowledge it."

Sean Penn at Tahrir Square 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Sean Penn at Tahrir Square 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
I’ve enjoyed a great number of Sean Penn’s films over the years. Clearly, he’s an incredibly talented and versatile actor, a giant among his kind. His far-left political persuasion, however, I’ve never found particularly entertaining.
In 2002, with America at war in Afghanistan and the entire world still trying to pick up the pieces after 9/11, Penn took out a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post accusing President George W. Bush of fear-mongering and suppressing public debate on the impending war in Iraq. This while Saddam Hussein had murdered, according to The New York Times in January, 2003, approximately 1.1 million people.
In 2006, upon winning the first annual Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award from the Creative Coalition, Penn used his acceptance speech to take his rhetoric a step further, this time calling for the impeachment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Penn regularly touted his close friendship with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a violent dictator who dismantled Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Following Chavez’s death, Penn told The Hollywood Reporter, “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion... I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”
You don’t have to be a recipient of a Nobel Prize in Economics to know that Chavez’s economic policies were catastrophic for his country, much to the detriment of his nation’s middle class. Moreover, he wielded his power authoritatively, perhaps even brutally, as Human Rights Watch notes, “the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda. In recent years, the president and his followers used these powers in a wide range of prominent cases, whose damaging impact was felt by entire sectors of Venezuelan society.”
Penn’s also been open about his equally close friendship with dictator and flagrant human rights abuser and murderer, Cuba’s Fidel Castro. He also met with Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, one of Hussein’s closest advisers, when visiting Iraq in 2003. Then, after returning from a visit to Iran in 2005, Penn referred to Iran in a 2007 op-ed as “a great country.”
In the past, I’ve disagreed vehemently with Sean Penn on a range of issues, including several I’ve omitted in an effort to keep this piece under 10 pages. But Penn did something recently that blew my mind and, in the spirit of gratitude, I must acknowledge it.
Jacob Ostreicher is an American entrepreneur and Orthodox Jew who was arrested in Bolivia in 2011 while overseeing a rice growing venture and held as a suspect in a money laundering investigation. He spent 18 months in Bolivia’s Palmasola prison, an infamous complex described by The New York Times as “a squalid prison,” where Ostreicher claimed he was beaten and humiliated and had to pay off his jailors. Ostreicher was never formally charged with a crime and had been under house arrest until just days ago – that is, until Sean Penn stepped in and took on a cause for justice.
The details of what transpired are minimal and sketchy at best, as is how Penn – who traveled to Bolivia on what he describes as a “humanitarian operation” – managed to sneak Ostreicher across a hostile border and into a safe and currently undisclosed location in the United States where he is reportedly receiving medical treatment with Penn by his side.
What is known is that, as Bolivia now issues warnings calling for Ostreicher’s extradition, Sean Penn may have just played his greatest role to date – bona fide hero. And off-screen, no less. Penn had no obligation to risk his life for Ostreicher. To my knowledge, he has no immediate connection to him. Penn has Jewish lineage on his father’s side, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify either. I’d like to think Penn had a simple and straightforward reason for taking on Ostreicher cause – another human being in need.
The other hero in this story is the Aleph Institute, based in my childhood home of Miami, Florida, and run by my friend Rabbi Sholom Ber Lipsker. Aleph does a great deal to assist Jewish prisoners in the United States and abroad. Ostreicher personally thanked the institute for helping to gain his release by contacting Penn who then traveled to Bolivia and made a direct appeal to President Evo Morales.
There is much other good that Penn has done, including moving to Haiti after the devastation of the January, 2010 earthquake, which I personally witnessed shortly after the cataclysm. Penn started a relief organization which employs 350 people and which is credited with assisting nearly 60,000 displaced persons.
Every year my organization, This World: The Values Network, which I serve as gounder and executive director and which seeks to disseminate universal Jewish values, hosts an international awards gala for those championing Jewish values. Past recipients include Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, America’s Doctor Mehmet Oz and mega-philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
This coming 18 May, corresponding to the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba’omer, we will be honoring, in the 25th year since the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent me and my wife to Oxford, England, to serve as his personal emissaries and establish the Oxford University L’Chaim Society, our student presidents and graduates who have distinguished themselves in public service, most notably Senator Cory Booker, L’Chaim president in 1994, and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, L’Chaim president in 1996. We will also be honoring global anti-genocide campaigner and former director for African Affairs at the National Security Council John Prendergast.
With Sean Penn’s heroic actions on the part of a Jewish prisoner unjustly held, and in celebrating his resolve and determination to save a life that so many had given up on, Penn is deserving of such an honor and, should he accept, we would be honored to add him to the list.The author, whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” will shortly publish Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Like Rabbi Shmuley’s Facebook Page /RabbiShmuleyBoteach.