No Holds Barred: Stop the Syrian genocide or cancel the Elie Wiesel Lecture
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 30.
Elie, whom 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 were 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 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 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 US 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.
Power made her reputation in the world of human rights by following in Elie’s footsteps and criticizing bystanders to genocide in places such as Rwanda.
That is why I was honored to stand by her when she was nominated to be America’s ambassador to the UN and when she 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.
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 her to speak alongside myself, 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 to the man who became the living face of the Holocaust. How? 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, as a journalist and academic, 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. After she became one of the administration’s principal spokespersons on human rights and implementers of foreign policy, however, she appears to have become one of those bystanders.
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, having made her reputation demanding that officials in American administrations who take no action while mass murder occurs resign rather than be “bystanders to genocide,” Samantha’s actions seem inconsistent.
Throughout her tenure as UN ambassador the Iranians have threatened to destroy Israel. 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 Guards 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 Secretary of State John Kerry, was in negotiations with Iran and made not a single public demand that it 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. Perhaps she believed that President Barack Obama’s deal was actually good for Israel. Still, she could have given one speech at the UN Security Council demanding that Iran stop promising to kill all the Jews.
She did not.
Beyond supporting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Samantha has further made excuses for Iran’s ballistic missile tests and violations of the nuclear agreement. Even as evidence of Iran’s cheating have been publicized Power has claimed its 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 for why Iran’s behavior was not problematic.
Jews are only threatened with slaughter. But Power has not forcefully raised her voice while people are being murdered every day in the Middle East and North Africa. Shi’ites 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.
Power, to be worthy of Elie Wiesel, should be saying so much more.
The World Policy Institute declared that Syria’s civil war has become a genocide, conducted by the Assad regime and backed by Iran and Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died and become refugees. After Assad used chemical weapons against his own people President 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 genocidal Assad regime. The US has refused to even implement a no-fly zone so that children cannot be slaughtered from the air. Through all this Power has stayed loyal to the administration.
I don’t wish to sound harsh. I’m sure it’s not easy breaking with President Obama or trying to push policy toward stopping the slaughter. But in the book that made her world-famous Power clearly holds to account members of previous administrations that were, in her words, “bystanders to genocide.”
Rather than face charges of hypocrisy, she should speak out and take action before this administration ends. Indeed, the memorial to Elie at the Holocaust museum might just provide the opportunity to do exactly that.
When Power campaigned with then-senator Obama in 2008, she promised that a president Obama would not lie to the Armenians and would recognize the Armenian genocide. 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, to placate Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Public officials can only be trusted to stop genocides today if they have the courage 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? When she leaves office Power will no doubt face the all-important question: “Why didn’t you take action when you had the power to do so?” The Elie Wiesel lecture at the Holocaust museum gives her the opportunity to condemn the mass murders that have taken place on her watch once and for all.
Power 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.
But while it’s late in the game, it’s still not too late. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the country’s most important and respected institutions.
Every time I visit I feel like I’m in a sacred space. Elie Wiesel came to embody the Holocaust.
I have deep affection for his wife Marion and count his son Elisha among the people I most look up to in the world, a truly worthy successor to one of modern history’s greatest men.
He deserves to be eulogized by those who do not just preach his gospel, but follow in his footsteps.
Samantha Power can use this unique opportunity to correct the omissions of her ambassadorship. It befits her own stature, as well as that of Elie.
She should speak about the appalling American failure in Syria and how the nations of the world must stop the carnage and slaughter. She should express her unending friendship with Israel and the Jewish people and publicly condemn the despicable government of Iran for daring to even threaten a second Holocaust. And she should reach out to our Armenian brothers and sisters and tell them that as a member of Obama’s cabinet she publicly acknowledges the genocide they experienced at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
And if she feels uncomfortable, in the last few weeks of her ambassadorship, speaking truth to power, then she should consider doing the right thing by removing herself from the Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture and allowing someone else to take her place.
I trust that one way or another, Power, as someone who has devoted her life to crying out against genocide, will do the right thing.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is 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. The winner and record holder of The London Times Preacher of the Year competition, he has also received the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Follow him on Twitter @ RabbiShmuley.
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