No Holds Barred: Is support for Israel determined by personal friendships or political interests?

"The Jewish community learned this year, especially regarding the catastrophic Iran deal, that relationships made little difference when it came to elected official’s interests."

Obama and Rivlin at the White House Hanukka Reception. (photo credit: screenshot)
Obama and Rivlin at the White House Hanukka Reception.
(photo credit: screenshot)
The other night the American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, invited me once again to her Christmas party. This year I was surprised at the invitation, given the criticisms I have made about Power and the Obama administration’s position on the Armenian Genocide, unilateral Palestinian pursuit of statehood at the UN, and the Iran nuclear agreement.
Attending the party as well was my friend Bret Stephens, the noted Wall Street Journal columnist and my former editor at The Jerusalem Post, who has likewise been a critic of Obama administration policies.
I’ve got to admit, it was a classy move by Power to invite us, demonstrating that even in this hyper-partisan political climate there are administration officials who have the guts to be around critics. She is nothing if not tough, open-minded, and broad-shouldered.
I was treated warmly by all present, especially by Mia Farrow, the renowned actress and humanitarian. Indeed, oddly enough, the only person who accosted me was a Wall Street Journal editor named Warren Bass who began to immediately attack me over our New York Times ad concerning Susan Rice’s comments about Israel and Iran. Bass conveniently forgot to mention that he had been an employee of Rice at the State Department, but in the spirit of holiday cheer I chose to respond respectfully to him, amidst this bizarre breach of politeness and etiquette.
For years I have been a huge fan of Samantha Power. I appreciated her outspoken criticism of leaders who turned a blind eye to genocide. In speeches I applauded her bravery and was one of her foremost advocates.
In 2011 while praising Power to the Jewish community of South Africa an audience member approached me with alleged negative comments she had made about Israel. I wrote a column calling on Power to clarify her remarks. To her credit she got in touch with me and invited me to meet her at the White House. The meeting directly addressed the comments quoted in which she explained that they were made in response to a hypothetical question about genocide. She seemed genuinely and deeply pained by the perception that she was not a friend of Israel.
I approached my friend Michael Steinhardt, founder of Birthright Israel and one America’s most respected Jewish philanthropists, to tell him that I felt that Power was being falsely accused of anti-Israel bias. I asked if he would host her at his office and he agreed. About a month later Power arrived to address a closed-door meeting of about 40 American Jewish leaders who represented a wide spectrum of our community’s most important organizations. After hearing her speak, more than a few of these leaders approached me afterward and said they would never again question her commitment to Israel’s security.
In regard to that meeting, Foreign Policy magazine wrote, “There’s a chance – just a chance – that Samantha Power might not today be on the verge of becoming America’s ambassador to the UN if she hadn’t played nice with Michael Jackson’s rabbi.” That’s probably overstating the case, but it does capture the extent to which I went to bat for her at the time of her nomination by President Obama.
Power and I became friends. In November of last year my organization held a lecture event with her and Elie Wiesel in which I praised her effusively for the speech she had given in Germany days earlier at an international conference against anti-Semitism.
There can be no question that Samantha Power is, and remains, a friend and supporter of the Jewish people.
But then came the Obama administration’s continued inaction against the indiscriminate slaughter of Arabs in Syria and the murder of Arab children by poison gas. And of course, there was Power’s support for the Iran deal, which I found astonishing given the regime’s repeated statement of genocidal intent against the Jewish state. She also stood with the administration in not recognizing the Armenian Genocide on its centenary last April. And she said she would not necessarily invoke the US veto at the Security Council to protect Israel against unfair resolutions.
Ironically, I learned from Power herself and her literary masterpiece, A Problem of Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, that one cannot remain silent about genocide, even if it frays relationships, even if it gets in the way of friendships.
As I look back on some of the battles I’ve waged this year over a moral American foreign policy, Israel, and especially the Iran deal, I have been pondering whether at the end of the day relationships or interests are the ultimate deciding factor in policy. David Remnick wrote a recent article in The New Yorker about John Kerry that gave me some insight into this matter.
Remnick described Kerry as having “an abiding faith in the value of personal relationships and of his capacity to persuade.
All he has to do is get the parties in a room and he can’t lose.” Remnick also writes how Henry Kissinger once told Kerry, “The difference between you and me is that I think that personal relations don’t matter much.
I think interests matter.” Kerry replied to him, “I think interests matter, of course, but I think personal relations can help matters – they can be influential.”
So who is right? On the one hand we learn in the Talmud of the close relationship that Judah the Prince had with the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pious and how this friendship allowed Rabbi Judah special privileges to help the Jewish community and save it from harsh decrees. There is also the well-known story of Eddie Jacobson who was able to use his close friendship with president Harry Truman to influence and convince him to recognize and support the newly founded State of Israel.
But the Jewish community learned this year, especially in its near-complete failure to avert the catastrophic Iran deal, that relationships made little difference when it came to elected official’s political interests.
How many senators and congressmen who supported the deal had close personal relationships with Jewish friends and supporters who implored them not to overlook Iran’s stated intention of destroying Israel? And what did those friendships amount to? The Jewish community was unable to leverage close personal relationships to oppose a deal that funded the terrorist-government of Iran and gave it money they will surely use to murder innocents everywhere.
In the end we may have to tip our hat to the wisdom of Henry Kissinger, however cynical. You can be the best of friends, but interests are the ultimate deciding factor.
This truth was perhaps best summed up by the 19th-century British prime minister Henry John Temple when he once quipped, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.”
Which is why I come to this conclusion: The Jewish community must demonstrate in the coming year that our lobbying for Israel is not based on personal friendships with the powerful. Rather, it is based on vital American interests and American values. America has thrived because it is a moral nation, dedicated to the freedom of humankind. Great personalities like Samantha Power made their international reputations by insisting on morality and ethics in American policy.
And Israel is the fortress of democracy, human rights, and American values amid a sea of tyranny and a cesspit of human rights abuses. Israel, like America, is the light.
God bless America. Long live the Jewish state.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 30 books. He will shortly publish The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.