Samantha Power, Jews and Israel

III: Samantha Power (SP), Jews and Israel


Howard Adelman

In my first blog in this series, I tried to suggest what might have been some of the psychic influences on SP. In the second, I tried to indicate that, although she had been appointed Founding Director of a very prestigious school on human rights at Harvard, she did not have a profound respect for scholarly authority. She was an excellent writer, a great narrator of tales and anecdotes and a very moving moral voice. But her intellectual work was sloppy and she ignored, if she ever read them, scholars who offered different analyses than her own.

She certainly did not wrestle with those interpretations, a major point her husband, the legal scholar, Cass Sunstein makes about the importance of keeping a mind open to new ideas. As he wrote, “A democracy needs to ensure competing points of view. For example, it needs to provide accurate, not anecdotal or inflammatory, information about terrorism and other risks.” (Cf. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide, Oxford University Press: New York 2009.) The same principle applies to information about humanitarianism and the risks of intervening with military force for humane purposes. In that sense, her disposition seemed at first to be not very different from those who single-mindedly and actively pursued policies that ensured they would be mindblind about events that might disturb the preformed picture they had constructed of the world.

But that is NOT Samantha Power. She is not scholarly in her thought processes and habits, but that could be a good thing. Scholars usually do not make the best politicians. She is an excellent synthesizer and a very fast learner. As the reader will come to see, she does have an open and flexible mind. This is both true of her attitudes to Israel as well as the fundamental planks that she once articulated on foreign policy. Those views are subject to change because, though she communicates as a person of deep moral convictions, those convictions are malleable, perhaps depending on influences, on opportunities and even on encounters with reality.

In this blog, I want to talk about another dimension in SP becoming the UN ambassador that is mentioned briefly in Evan Osnos’ article, “In the Land of the Possible”. After depicting Samantha as “manipulating the targets of her lobbying without alienating them” and being a superb networker, a capacity which she exercises as U.S. ambassador to the UN in visiting the heads of other delegations in their offices, she used her extensive contacts and manipulative skills in preparation for her confirmation hearings in the Senate to put to rest, or, at least, shunt aside, her past stated views on Israel.

First, as indicated in an earlier blog, SP is married to a very prolific and original legal scholar, Cass Sunstein. She met him as part of Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. Cass Sunstein’s parents were both Jewish, his first wife was Jewish and his second partner was the famous philosopher, Martha Nussbaum. There is no indication that I could find that Cass Sunstein had any connections with Israel or Zionism or any significant links to the established Jewish community. The evidence is to the contrary. Samantha Power herself tells the story that Cass had never heard the term, Shoah, (incredible to believe) and knew nothing about Claude Lanzmann’s film by that name until she educated him. “He looked at me with that smile of his when he has no recognition.” Cass added, “I find the Holocaust really upsetting.” Cass seems to have an emotional blockage about his own Jewish history.

There is another indication that her husband’s Jewish roots will have no influence on her approach to Israel. For Cass and Samantha were married on a very blustery and rainy American Independence Day, 4 July 2008, six months after they met. Perhaps the reason for the short engagement is that they believed that they had been blessed with Irish luck since, though they were 16 years apart in age – Samantha was then 38 and Cass was then 54 – they had been born on the same day of the year, 21 September, the first day of Fall.
The ceremony was a full formal wedding with Samantha in a long lace white wedding dress. What makes the wedding interesting is not the reception for 150 guests at the Waterville Lake Hotel and who were in attendance, but that they were married in the small wood frame Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Waterville, County Kerry, on the south west corner of the Ring of Kerry. My wife and I were in the Ring of Kerry this past June, and if Cass and Samantha wanted perfect weather, they should have invited Nancy to the wedding. Her Irish luck may not guarantee her a stellar political career, but it would have ensured a beautiful day for SP’s wedding.

Bad jokes aside, this story is odd in at least three ways. First, Samantha would have needed a church dispensation to marry a non-Christian in a Catholic Church. Second, Cass would be required to obtain an annulment of his first marriage before a Catholic priest could sanctify a marriage between a single woman and a divorced man. Third, Cass Sunstein is strongly intellectually opposed to any superior authority sanctifying marriage, whether it be the government creating an official license regime or the church. His opposition was publicized in an appearance before the Senate on 11 July 1996 when he challenged “The Defense of Marriage Act”. “Under our proposal, the word marriage would no longer appear in any laws, and marriage licenses would no longer be offered or recognized by any level of government.”

However, my concern here is not to point out any possible hint of hypocrisy let alone to get into greater depth in discussing the legal foundations of marriage. It is merely to point out Cass Sunstein’s tenuous connection to the Jewish community and his Jewishness. A fourth point makes it clear. The couple have had two children in probably what were the busiest and most pressured three years of both their lives – itself a testimony to their stamina and resilience. Their four year old son is named Declan. Declan means “full of goodness” and was the name of an early Irish saint in the fifth century who was beatified for converting pagans to Catholicism. As for their fourteen-month-old daughter, Rian, another name of Gaelic origin meaning king (perhaps the feminine form of Ryan), used for both boys and girls, is, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, a woman of the First House of the Edain in the First Age. Most importantly, she is gentle of heart, a lover of flora, a singer and a composer; she hated war.

Whether in rituals or in child naming, there is absolutely no effort to connect with Cass Sunstein’s Jewish origins even though the children’s last name is Power-Sunstein. All this means is that SP’s attitude to Israel is unlikely to have anything to do with personal attachments.

What about her personal pronouncements on Israel? On this subject, Samantha made some early missteps explaining the strong need to line up rabbis in support of her nomination referred to in Osnos’ article. In fact, she did far more than Osnos suggests. But first her early gaffes.

Early in her career as a public intellectual, in 2002 she was asked a fairly straightforward question about monitoring the potential for genocide in the Middle East, particularly with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. If she were to be appointed as a political advisor on foreign affairs, if either party in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared to be moving towards genocide of the other, what action would she advise the President to take?

SP could have answered by insisting that it is perilous to deal with hypotheticals. She could have prefaced an answer by insisting that the likelihood of such a scenario was so low, it was not worth considering. She could have insisted that universal monitoring, including the Middle East in general and Israel-Palestine in particular, was necessary because otherwise countries like Rwanda, and later the Central African Republic, fall through the cracks, as she continued to insist. She could have strayed into the issue of intervention, even if that was not the question, by answering in a generality: wherever there appeared to be a drift towards genocide, and not specifically the Middle East, the response anywhere should be first to verify what is taking place. If she just had to throw in intervention, she could have said that any action taken should be proportionate to what is taking place on the ground. She could even have said that if either side seemed to be making such a move, a highly unlikely prospect, the first obligation would be to check and double check one’s information and then warn that respective party that if that side did not desist immediately, the United States and its allies would be giving serious consideration of the options available to the international community to stop the genocide.

But SP has a restless tongue. To complicate and bastardize the metaphor, she once had a strong propensity to put both her fists in her mouth. Here is the precise question Harry Kreisler, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Berkeley, asked: “Let me give you a thought experiment here, and it is the following: without addressing the Palestine–Israel problem, let’s say you were an advisor to the President of the United States, how would you respond to current events there? Would you advise him to put a structure in place to monitor that situation, at least if one party or another [starts] looking like they might be moving toward genocide?” It is a question clearly about monitoring, not about intervention.

How did she answer? Samantha welcomed the opportunity to express her views, for the United States needs to make the Middle East safe for the United States. Further, that obligation exists even if it means “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import [that could only mean AIPAC] or investing…billions of dollars, not (my italics) in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.”

She had not simply dropped a bombshell; she had dropped a barrel bomb. First, the long-understood obligation to defend Israel was not in the equation. Nor was there any sensitivity that genocide was a real existential threat to Israel given Iran’s moves to acquire nuclear weapons. Third, her suggestion stirred up images of rich and powerful Jews throwing their money around even to prevent any USA actions against Israel if Israel was, in fact, on the path to committing genocide. She threatened U.S. military intervention against that party – and one could only presume the party to be Israel, given the reference to the rich and powerful domestic constituency. Finally, she suggested that the USA was propping up Israel’s military when that money could be used preferably to help the downtrodden or strengthen Palestine.

These were her precise words in jumping from a question about monitoring to an answer about intervention. She called on the United States to put itself on the line even if it meant “alienating a domestic constituency of tremendous political and financial import. It may more crucially mean…investing literally billions of dollars not in servicing Israeli military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.” Further, that investment of billions of dollars might entail “a mammoth protection force…a meaningful military presence” even when that intervention is fundamentally undemocratic.

Her statement was not an aberration of her usual views. In a 2004 review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, she pointed to the sins of America’s allies as compromising the war on terror. In addition to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan included in that list of sinners, so was Israel. In a 2007 interview, when she was already working for Senator Obama, Samantha claimed that American foreign policy decision-makers deferred “reflexively to Israeli security assessments” and replicated Israeli tactics. As a result, the USA had brought terrorist attacks upon itself. Why? America had aped Israel’s violations of human rights.

These were not one-off comments, even though she herself later depicted them as “weird”. Though she is clearly not an expert on either Israel or the Middle East, and never pretended to be, and has never, in fact, been outspoken and vociferous on the subject, nevertheless these comments form a pattern and reflect widespread left liberal views of Israel. In addition to its concerns with her past anti-Israel expressed views, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) expressed fears that Samantha’s endorsement of humanitarian intervention could be used to interfere with Israel’s self-defence. ZOA feared that international norms intended to protect innocents could be applied to situations like Gaza (where civilians were inadvertently and unintentionally being killed) to stop legitimate Israeli self-defence military action.

So why, in spite of these widely publicized comments, especially by the ZOA, did the few rabbis in Evan Osmos’ article endorse her for her appointment as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations? Further, there were many other prominent Jews and others who came to her defence. And they did so in spite of comments made immediately after her nomination, such as those of Ted Cruz (R-Texas), that she had been “sharply critical of our nation’s strong support of Israel.” In contrast, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insisted that she would be “a strong supporter of the United States’ close ally, Israel.” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, insisted that Samantha had “experienced first-hand the hostility faced by Israel and the abuse of the U.N. bodies to promote anti-Israel bias” and that she understands the injustice of those who “target Israel’s legitimacy.” Josh Block, the Director of the Israel Block, argued that “Samantha has made a commendable effort to build ties with the pro-Israel community and develop deeper appreciation of the issues vital to our interests in the region, Israel’s security, and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

However, recognizing a UN bias against Israel, opposition to those who undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and superb networking with supporters of Israel, does not mean that she either understands Israel, assesses that country’s policies fairly or has adopted reasonable policies in relation to Israel. Perhaps the most insightful comments were made by Martin Peretz and Max Boot back in 2008, long before she would have ever been considered for such a lofty post. Peretz, writing on 4 December 2008 in Commentary, confirmed that Samantha was a good friend and even “uttered some phrases about Israel that I did not like and that I thought were erroneous,” but insisted that, “she truly, truly loves Israel and the people of Israel.” Earlier that year in the same magazine, in the 29 February issue, Max Boot chastised those who accused Samantha of harboring hostile views of Israel. She is not hostile to Israel; she even loves Israel. But what policies does she endorse with respect to Israel?

Last year (Huffington Post, 6 June 2013), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote an article entitled, “Defending Samantha Power on Israel.” Though the rabbi erroneously believes that Paul Kagame ended the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and though he did travel to Rwanda to see for himself and talk to Kagame personally, he may not be an astute observer. Shmuley, an Orthodox rabbi, is a celebrity. He hosted The Shmuley Show on The Oprah and Friends Radio Network and was a Republican nominee for Congress in the 2012 el
ections in New Jersey.
Shmuley is no left liberal. He has a daughter serving in the IDF, champions rather than just defends Jewish “communities” (not “settlements”) in Judea and Samaria, argues that the United States must move its embassy to Jerusalem and should declare Jerusalem to be the undivided and eternal capital of the Jewish people. Though he has policy disagreements with Samantha over Israel, he strongly supported Samantha’s nomination.

The reasons are several. First, when he wrote something critical of Samantha, she reached out to him through a common friend, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark who, as a Rhodes Scholar, was in contact with Shmuley who was president of a Jewish student organization at the University of Oxford in 1994. On Shmuley’s request, Mayor Booker initiated a closed-door meeting of a wide spectrum of 40 American Jewish leaders. After Samantha presented an overview of American policy in the world’s troubled regions, she took on the accusations that she harboured animus toward Israel. In the process, she became deeply emotional and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Will the real Samantha Power please stand up?

In fact, there is really no contradiction. There is NO evidence that Samantha Power is antithetical to Israel and every reason to believe she both appreciates and loves Israel and its people. She is truly and deeply committed to the security of Israel. But she can still share in the left liberal view that Israel is an outlier in attention to human rights, that the country has abused Palestinian rights and has disproportionately mistreated Palestinians far beyond the needs required for its own defence. These perspectives are not incompatible. They are held by many left liberal Israelis. But they do suggest a policy orientation that not only runs antithetical to the direction of the current Israeli government, but reveals significant faults and offers a deformed portrait of Israel.

On the other hand, Samantha is a fast learner. She has mastered the art of diplomatese. She has learned to deflect or disguise her deep beliefs in order to remain within the acceptable norms in Washington in dealing with Israel. She is a fantastic networker. She has both cognitive and emotional appeal. Yet I, who do not support the settlements, who believe that East Jerusalem should be made part of a Palestinian state, am also very critical of her left liberal viewpoint that sees Israel as a significant human rights abuser. I adamantly defend Israel against wholesale and erroneous charges of war crimes, even though Israeli soldiers have committed some. I have become more and more concerned about the contradictions in the progressive approach, an approach that genuinely and truly loves Israel and defends Israel’s security but, at the same time, is quite unjust in weighing Israeli actions when Israel acts in defence of its own security.

So is Samantha Power good for the Jews and good for Israel? Read the rest of the blogs on Samantha and you decide.