There’s a chance — just a chance — that Samantha Power might not today be on the verge of becoming America’s ambassador to the United Nations 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.”