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Samantha Power brings to foreign policy an activist impulse that many in the pro-Israel community wish was more prevalent among American diplomats.
Except Power, a former White House national security council staffer nominated this week by President Obama to represent the United States at the United Nations, has at times directed her interventionist inclinations at Israel.
A former journalist and Harvard-educated lawyer known for her work on human rights and genocide, Power presents a rare and polarizing dilemma for the pro-Israel community: Enthusiastically embrace her proclivity for tough U.S. intervention and hope it never manifests in her dealings with Israel? Or block her?
Two conservative Jewish groups, the Zionist Organization of America and Emet, have taken the latter approach. In urging the Senate to kill Power’s nomination, they have cited a 2002 video in which Power appears to advocate transferring U.S. assistance from Israel to the Palestinians and deploying an interventionary force to protect the Palestinians, among other statements.
“The overwhelming evidence of her entire record causes us great fear and concern,” the ZOA said in a statement.
Meanwhile, an array of Jewish groups — including the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly — have endorsed her unreservedly.
The ADL and the Rabbinical Assembly, in separate releases, each used the phrase “champion of human rights” to describe Power, who first came to wide public attention with the publication of her 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which considered American inaction in the face of various genocides.
Notably, two groups that maintain a regular U.N. presence, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International, had no comment. B’nai B’rith’s said it was withholding approval of Power’s nomination until she addressed her earlier remarks under oath during Senate confirmation hearings.
“Israel has few real friends at the United Nations and at the top of the list is the United States, and it is really incumbent on the representative to be prepared, willing and able to rebuff and repel that kind of language,” said the group’s executive vice president, Daniel Mariaschin.
A similar dichotomy is playing out among Republican senators, with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of what he sees as Obama’s gun-shy foreign policy, saying he would support her, and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Tea Party favorite, expressing deep skepticism at the choice.
On Friday afternoon, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a pro-Israel leader in the body, strongly endorsed her on Twitter. “As United Nations Ambassador, Samantha Power will aggressively represent the United States interests in an increasingly hostile body,” he said on one Tweet, and then immediately: “Power will also be a strong supporter of our close friend and ally Israel.”
The difference was pronounced this week even among Republican Jews, with the Republican Jewish Coalition urging senators to ask Power hard questions about past statements and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose failed candidacy last year for the U.S. House of Representatives was heavily touted by the RJC, singing her praises.
“I take my yarmulke off to President Obama for one of the most impressive actions of his presidency, namely, the nomination of Samantha Power to the post of American Ambassador to the United Nations,” Boteach wrote in the Huffington Post.
Power, 42, was born in Ireland, but moved to Pittsburgh as a child. Her coverage of the Balkan wars for a number of American media outlets in the 1990s led to an interest in human rights law. Her 2002 book drew strong reviews and attracted the attention of Barack Obama, who was then contemplating a Senate run. Power joined his 2008 presidential campaign as an adviser and later the Obama White House, where she worked on on multilateral organizations.
Central to critiques of Power is a chat she had with a University of California-Berkeley professor, Harry Kreisler, in 2002, when she headed Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights. Kreisler, hosting Power on his public access program, framed a question about U.S. intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “thought experiment” and asked Power what she would do if “one party or another” seemed ready to commit genocide. At the time, Israelis and Palestinians were mired in the Second Intifada.
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