Last year I became the first Rabbi to ever win a Republican nomination for Congress (NJ-9) and I have, as a columnist, often been critical of President Obama’s policies on Israel and the Middle East. In particular I have held the President accountable for not doing more to protect the innocent victims of President Assad’s brutal regime.
But 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. As the author of the 2002 Pulitzer-prize winning best-seller, A Problem from Hell, Samantha has emerged as the world’s foremost agitator against genocide and, as a member of a nation who experienced the worst mass slaughter of any in history, I have always been in awe of a woman who has given voice to God’s ancient plea to humanity, “the blood of your brother cries out from the earth.”
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 disappointment 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. Inasmuch as that article defending Samantha has been much quoted and revisited over the past few days, there is no purpose in reprising it here.
But what happened after the publication of that article deserves to be shared.
I approached my close friend Michael Steinhardt, founder of Birthright Israel and one of 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, 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 no one 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 Daniel 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 and Dan has since become a close acquaintance who invited my entire Birthright group the following summer to visit the American embassy once he had been installed as Ambassador. I still remember our group standing outside our embassy in Israel singing Lee Greenwood’s inspirational song, “God bless the USA.”
To be sure, Samantha and I have significant policy disagreements on Israel. She continues to be one of President Obama’s most trusted advisors on multilateral affairs and I continue to be a Republican. I have a daughter serving in the Israel Defense Forces and I believe that the United States must finally move its embassy to Jerusalem and declare the holy city to be the undivided and eternal capital of the Jewish people. I am a regular visitor to, and champion of, the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, where I visited just last week, even as President Obama’s administration has voiced opposition to Israeli settlement. But as a Jew, I am in awe of Samantha’s achievement in emerging as one of the foremost voices against genocide in our time and I absolutely believe in her strong commitment to Israel’s long-term security. One need not agree on every policy point to look up to a woman whose deepest values as to the protection of human life I share and cherish.
Much of my passion to defend God’s children and advocate against murderous regimes that brutalize their people is inspired by Samantha. During my congressional campaign last year I traveled to Rwanda to visit the places of mass slaughter and I have since become friendly with President Kagame, who ended the genocide in 1994, as well as Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. There was also my 2009 campaign to stop Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi from pitching a tent in the house immediately next door to me in Englewood, New Jersey, because of his brutal slaughter of my Arab brothers and sisters in Libya.
In all these actions I have been motivated by Samantha’s tireless efforts to protect innocents and rail and thunder against the mass slaughter of God’s children wherever it transpires. And having a courageous voice in the United Nations, which has so often excused evil and turned the other cheek to genocide, as it did in Rwanda just nineteen years ago, is exactly what that often amoral body finally needs.