There’s a chance — just a chance — that Samantha Power might not today be on the verge of becoming America’s ambassador to the U.N. if she hadn’t played nice with Michael Jackson’s rabbi.
More than two years ago, influential rabbi-to-the-stars Shmuley Boteach sharply criticized Power for “troubling statements” she had made nearly a decade earlier that “maligned the American pro-Israel lobby.” Worse, in the Rabbi’s eyes, Power implied that billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel might be better spent on investments in the “state of Palestine.”
Power had been sharply criticized by conservative supporters of Israel before. But Boteach was different. He was seen as not strictly political (even though he later ran as a Republican for a New Jersey Congressional seat). And he had a rather large soapbox, thanks to his best-selling books and his daily radio show.
So Power decided to nip her Shmuley problem in the bud.
Days after the column appeared, Power placed a midnight call to the rabbi and invited him to the White House to hear her side of the story. “She said, ‘if I’ve lost you then I must have lost many in the Jewish community,’ ” Boteach recalled in a phone interview with Foreign Policy. In their White House meeting, Power “regretted” that her comments may have made Israel look bad but that she felt that her remarks had also been distorted by her critics.
The two met again at the White House to debate the biblical roots of humanitarian intervention, a favorite topic of Power’s. Boteach, who had long admired her writings on the morality of confronting genocidal regimes — including her Pulitzer Prize winning book, “A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide” — compiled a five page document with relevant biblical writings. It included a passage from Leviticus 19 which instructed the faithful, “You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood.”
The meetings represented a turning point for Boteach, and converted the celebrity rabbi into a champion of Power’s cause in Jewish-American circles. “I became intent on transforming the Jewish community’s opinion of her,” said Boteach, who has been invited to attend Power’s Senate confirmation hearing as a personal guest.
Boteach organized a gathering of some 40 influential Jewish leaders at the Manhattan office of Michael Steinhart, an American hedge fund manager, and founder of the Birthright Israel program, which organizes visits by young Jews to Israel. Power delivered a “moving representation” of American multilateral affairs and the president’s effort to prevent atrocities around the globe, Boteach said. “When we got to questions, she began . . . well, there’s no other word for this . . . she just began to cry. For her, these allegations of anti-Semitism . . . were the most painful of her entire life.”
Those charges date back to 2002, when Power — at the time head of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy — appeared on a public access television program in Berkeley, Calif. The host, University of California Berkeley professor Harry Kreisler, asked her how she would respond if she were in a position to advise an American president if, hypothetically speaking, one of the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were on the verge of committing genocide. Power answered that a credible response would require the imposition of “a mammoth protection force — not of the old Srebrenica kind or of the Rwanda kind, but a meaningful military presence.”
“What we need is a willingness to actually put something on the line in the service of helping the situation,” she said, “And putting something on the line might mean alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import,” an obvious reference to the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States.
Power’s critics have also cited a 2003 New Republic article, in which Power faults the United States for applying double standards (what she termed “a la cartism”) in the conduct of its foreign policy. The United States, she noted, complains about the “shortage of democracy in Palestine, but not in Pakistan.”
In the meeting orchestrated by Boteach, Power said those comments in no way made her some sort of Israel-hater. In fact, she added, she had a strong “affinity for the Jewish people.” Not only is her husband, Cass Sunstein, Jewish, she added; he’s a direct descendant of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, a revered 18th century Jewish scholar and leader of the non-Hasidic Jewish community.
“I think a lot of people were persuaded they had the wrong opinion of her,” Boteach recalled.
The outreach was part of a broader courtship by Power to assure leaders in the American Jewish community that she was not out of step with their commitment to Israel. “She aggressively reached out” to American Jewish leaders, said Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, who attended several meetings between Power and the heads of pro-Israel groups, including the meeting hosted by Boteach and Steinhart.
“I would say she succeeded in the sense of explaining and apologizing” for past statements she had made outside of the government, said Foxman who endorsed Power’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Most of us who met with her felt she was sincere, that this was all part of her past; that this is not where she is at today. The overwhelming majority that attended that meeting tended to walk away saying, “OK, accept, move on.”
The effort has helped to blunt far-right critics, including former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, who have mounted a campaign to derail Power’s nomination, citing her criticism of America and Israel’s human rights records. Gaffney and 57 other Power critics — including a retired U.S. congressman, Allen West and Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America — wrote a letter urging lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to oppose her nomination.
“Samantha Power’s record suggests that she is better suited to represent the virulently anti-American UN to the United States, rather than the other way around,” Gaffney said in a statement this week.
But the campaign to block Power’s ascent to the top U.S. diplomatic post at the United Nations seems to have lost steam — if it ever had any to begin with. She has the support of influential pro-Israeli voices, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman. Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., a key Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who last year opposed Susan Rice’s secretary of state candidacy, has endorsed Power’s nomination. Other Republican committee members have made favorable remarks about Power’s efforts to assure them she is the right person for the job.
Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, even took the unusual step of registering support for Power.
Israel “will welcome whomever the president nominates and the Senate confirms as ambassador to the United Nations,” the Israeli envoy told The New York Times last month. “Samantha Power and I have worked closely over the last four years on issues vital to Israel’s security. She thoroughly understands those issues and cares deeply about them.”
“Samantha Power has made it clear going certainly as far as back as 2008 what her views are with respect to Israel: they are mainstream views, they are supportive of having the Israelis and the Palestinians negotiate an agreement between themselves,” said Menachem Rosensaft, the general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. “If ambassador Michael Oren and Joe Lieberman endorse her that means those who express any reservations are outside the mainstream.”
“But more importantly, we have to see Samantha Power in a multifaceted way, not through the skewed lens of a few comments she made,” he added. “The issue that Samantha represents is whether or not prevention of genocide, prevention of atrocities should be a priority for the United States government. Sending her to the United Nations makes the strongest statement that preventing genocide is a priority of the U.S. government.”
Colum Lynch writes Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog. Follow him on Twitter: @columlynch.