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.
Wiesel, whom I was pleased to call a mentor and friend, was the last giant among Jewish leaders, and a source of inspiration to all of humanity who spoke out 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.”
When President Bill Clinton originally stood by while the people of Bosnia were slaughtered, as he would later do in Rwanda, Wiesel 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 Weisel rebuked an American president for inaction was UN Ambassador Samantha Power in her 2002 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Power made her reputation in the world of human rights by following in Weisel’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.
Today, I feel a personal responsibility to make this point: Samantha Power’s failure to stop genocide while in office renders her the wrong person to deliver the Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture.
Power did not condemn Iran for its repeated genocidal threats against Israel, did not recognize the Armenian Genocide on its centenary, and remained in an administration that did not lift a finger to stop gassing of children in Syria.
Her inaction in the face of appalling mass slaughter 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. Now, she appears in danger of going out of office as one of the bystanders 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, her actions are inexcusable.
Throughout her tenure as UN Ambassador, Iranian leaderss 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 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 Secretary of State John Kerry, was in negotiations 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. Perhaps she believed that President Barack Obama’s deal was actually good for Israel. Still, she could have given one speech at the Security Council demanding that Iran stop promising to kill all the Jews.
She did not.
Beyond supporting the deal, Power 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 as her State Department gave an Orwellian explanation to suggest Iran’s behavior was not problematic.
Power has not forcefully raised her voice 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. This legacy is unworthy of The United States Holocaust Museum’s tribute to Elie Wiesel, the face of the martyred six million.
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, even after promising action for crossing a “red line.” 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 civilian population with impunity.
Nearly 400,000 innocent Arab men, women, and children have by now been murdered in Syria. The United States has refused even to implement a no-fly zone so that children cannot be slaughtered from the air. Through all this, Power has stayed loyal to the administration amidst its inaction.
When Power campaigned with then-Senator Obama in 2008, she promised that he 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 in order to placate the 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 the potential mass murder of the Kurds?
When she leaves office, Power will face the all-important question: “Why didn’t you take action when you had the power to do so?”
Power is not the first government official to face the conflict of conscience versus duty, or 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. She should have followed Harris’ example on the Iran deal and Syria.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the country’s most important and respected institutions. Every time I visit, I feel like I am in a sacred space. Elie Wiesel came to embody the memory of the Holocaust.
He deserves to be eulogized by those who do not just preach his gospel, but follow in his footsteps.
Samantha Power should publicly condemn the despicable government of Iran for daring to even threaten a second Holocaust. And she should reach out to the Armenian community 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.
Only then will she be worthy of Elie Wiesel.
And if she feels uncomfortable, in the last few weeks of her ambassadorship, speaking truth to power, then Power should consider doing the right thing by removing herself from the Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture and allowing someone else to take her place.
Shmuley Boteach, “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 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.