Elie Wiesel served as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and was a guiding force in the establishment of the United States Holocaust Museum, so it is only fitting that the museum honor him with a memorial lecture, which it plans to do on November 30th.
Elie, who I was pleased to call a mentor and friend, would be deserving of this honor even if he had not been associated with the museum’s creation. He was the last giant among Jewish leaders, and his life and work was held in the highest esteem by the nearly all the earth’s inhabitants. He was a source of inspiration to all of humanity because of his soft-spoken courage and determination to speak out whenever he saw injustice, whenever people were being persecuted for their race or religion, and whenever the rest of the world silently watched their brothers and sisters slaughtered by terrorists or genocidal maniacs.
He was not afraid of speaking truth to power. He stood beside President Ronald Reagan and told him that it was a mistake to visit the German cemetery at Bitburg where Nazis were buried. ”That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel told the president at White House ceremonies honoring the writer. ”Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Elie was a partisan of humanity, not political parties. When President Bill Clinton originally stood by while the people of Bosnia were slaughtered, as he would later do in Rwanda, Elie called him out for his inaction. “Mr. President … I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.” The occasion was the opening of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington on April 22, 1993. The person who reminds us that Elie rebuked an American President for inaction was Samantha Power in her 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell.
Samantha Power made her reputation in the world of human rights by following in Elie’s footsteps and criticizing bystanders to the genocide in places such as Rwanda.
Samantha Power made her reputation in the world of human rights by following in Elie’s footsteps and criticizing bystanders to the genocide in places such as Rwanda. That is why I was honored to stand by her when she was nominated to be Ambassador to the UN and was criticized by many in the Jewish community because of an interview in Berkeley in 2002 where she insinuated that Israel was capable of genocide against the Palestinians. After meeting with her at the White House, I was reassured that she had no animus toward Israel and would be the voice we needed at the UN to oppose genocide.
During her confirmation in 2013, when she asked me for public support, I did not hesitate. I chided her Jewish critics for not supporting one of the world’s foremost voices against genocide. Foreign Policy subsequently wrote that I made her acceptable for American Jews and smoothed the way for her appointment. Power invited me to her Senate confirmation hearings and we all went out for a celebratory drink afterward, suitably in an Irish bar.
At first blush, Power seems a fitting honoree to be the first to be invited to give the Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture. America has just been through a very tough election. It’s time to unite the country. Samantha will be shortly leaving office. I have no intention of criticizing her in these last weeks of her Ambassadorship. But given that I personally took her to meet Elie during her confirmation hearings and then arranged for Power to speak alongside me, Elie, and Prof. Noah Feldman at Cooper Union in November, 2014, I feel a personal responsibility to make one last appeal to her to prove worthy of delivering a memorial lecture honoring the man who became the living face of the holocaust. How so? By filling in the glaring gaps of her tenure by coming out strongly against the genocide of Arabs in Syria, condemning Iran for its repeated genocidal threats against Israel, and finally recognizing the Armenian genocide before leaving office. Not to do so would prove unworthy of Elie Wiesel’s legacy.
Power’s inaction in the face of appalling mass slaughter during her tenure in the Obama administration is incongruent with her life’s work of exposing those who did nothing while innocents were murdered. For so many years she did not have the power to stop the genocide she witnessed. She could only criticize the inaction of others.
That was all supposed to change when Power joined the government. Once she became one of the administration’s principal spokespersons on human rights and implementers of foreign policy, however, she has turned into the same type of bystander she vociferously denounced. I understand that she does not make policy and that as a member of the administration she is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the president. Nevertheless, one cannot escape the conclusion that, having made her reputation demanding that officials in American Administrations who take no action while mass slaughter surrounds them must do something or, if prevented, resign rather than be “bystanders to genocide,” Samantha’s actions seem deeply hypocritical.
Throughout her tenure as UN Ambassador Iranians have threatened to destroy Israel. For example, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in 2015, “God willing, there will not be something named the Zionist regime in the next 25 years.” A few weeks earlier, he said, “Israel will grow less safe day by day whether there is a nuclear deal or not. Bear this in mind that Israel will never be secure….”
The Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was even more explicit in August 2015 when he declared, “We shall proceed with the jihad, resistance and martyrdom until Jerusalem is liberated and the Zionist regime, that stigma among Islamic peoples, is erased.” Through all these declarations, Power, along with John Kerry, was in negotiation with Iran without a single public demand that they stop promising a second holocaust. The Iranian incitement to genocide is in direct violation of the UN’s own 1948 Anti-Genocide convention. Still, Power remained silent lest she scupper President Obama’s catastrophic deal.
Worse, like a good soldier who follows orders, rather than someone like Elie who did not hesitate to speak truth to power, she rationalized the decision to sign the disastrous deal with Iran that may give the radical Muslims in Tehran the means to carry out their threats. In addition to supporting the agreement, she has made excuses for Iran’s ballistic missile tests and violations of the nuclear deal. Even as evidence of Iran’s cheating have been publicized Power has claimed their compliance has been “strong.” When the International Atomic Energy Agency accused Iran of violating the agreement in its latest report, Power was silent while her State Department gave an Orwellian explanation to suggest Iran’s behavior was not problematic.
Jews are only threatened with slaughter, but she is equally silent while people are being murdered every day in the Middle East and North Africa. Shiites and Sunnis kill each other on a daily basis throughout the Middle East while thousands die in Sudan, Nigeria, Libya and Yemen. Christian communities that have existed for centuries in the Middle East are being decimated as many men, women and children are killed or forced to flee. Our UN ambassador is silent.
Most significant, the World Policy Institute declared that Syria’s civil war has become a genocide, conducted by the Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died and become refugees. It was particularly shocking when Power held her tongue after Assad used chemical weapons against his own people and, after promising action for crossing a “red line,” Obama did nothing. Moreover, we’ve learned that the plan Obama trumpeted to remove all chemical weapons from Syria was a failure and the stockpile retained by Assad continues to be used on the civilian population with impunity.
Nearly 400,000 innocent Arab men, women, and children have by now been murdered in Syria by the Assad genocidal regime. The United States has refused to even implement a no-fly zone so that children cannot be slaughtered from the air. And Samantha has remained a loyal soldier, committed to the Administration’s inaction.
Perhaps she has been seduced, as so many have, by holding power in Washington.
In her book Samantha did not hesitate to label the Turkish slaughter of Armenians as genocide and when she campaigned with Obama in 2008, she promised that President Obama would not lie to the Armenians. On the one-hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide, however, she and Obama were silent, toeing the politically convenient and historically inaccurate line that Turkey did not wage a genocidal war against the Armenians in order to placate the Turkish Tyrant Erdogan.
How can we trust public officials to have the courage to stop genocides today when they are too cowardly to recognize those of the past? Is it any wonder that the Turks now feel emboldened to take the first steps toward potential mass murder of the Kurds?
I suspect that when she leaves office, Power will write another book on genocide and the bystanders who allowed them to happen. Like so many former State Department officials, she’ll become a professor or pundit and pontificate about the failures of others to take action while taking no responsibility for the genocides that occurred on her watch when she had the power to try to stop them. She’ll be invited to give lectures around the world about human rights abuses. But before she does so, we all the right to ask her today, “Why didn’t you take action when you had the power to do so?”
Samantha is not the first government official to face the conflict of conscience versus duty, morality versus political loyalty. She could have spoken up for the victims, and if President Obama respected her as a defender of human rights, he would have allowed her to speak out and listened to her admonition to take action.
In the past she criticized officials who turned a blind eye to genocide out of political expediency and praised others who did stand on conscience, such as Marshall Harris, who resigned in protest over the Clinton administration’s failure to take action to stop the genocide in Bosnia. I believe she should have followed Harris’ example if she could not persuade the president to stop the genocide in Syria.
Perhaps she has been seduced, as so many have, by holding power in Washington. That does not excuse her silence, however, while genocidal threats are made against Israel and genocide is carried out in Syria.
How can the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, an invaluable institution that I have great respect for, choose someone who so blatantly disregarded the values that Elie stood as the first person to give a lecture in his honor? This will be a black mark for the museum and an insult to Elie Wiesel’s memory.
This honor may satisfy Samantha’s ego, but it will not soothe her conscience for all her years of inaction. The honorable thing would be for Power to decline the recognition so it may be given to someone more deserving.
The Washington Post calls Shmuley Boteach “the most famous Rabbi in America.” He is the founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including The Israel Warrior, which has just been published. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.