Dear Ms. Rice,
Now that passions on both sides of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress have cooled, I write today in keeping with the Jewish admonition that he who has caused offense in public must apologize in public, too.
Last week our organization took out a full-page ad in the New York Times that accused you of having a blind spot to genocide. The ad focused on the Rwandan genocide and quoted from Ambassador Samantha Power, your successor at the UN, who wrote, in a 2001 article called “Bystanders to Genocide,” that as a member of the National Security Council in 1994, you had resisted using the word genocide to describe the murder of 800,000 Rwandans because it might hurt Democrats in the midterms.
The ad was criticized by Jewish organizations, which said that we had attacked you personally. That was not our intent. We hoped to focus on policy, and we failed. I apologize fully and hope you will forgive me. It is the job of a communicator to communicate. Effectively. And having come up short, I will try again.
When you told Charlie Rose that the Israeli prime minister’s speech would be “destructive” to the US-Israel relationship, I was in Amsterdam interviewing Jacqueline van Maarsen, Anne Frank’s childhood best friend. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the teen’s murder. I had just addressed the Jewish community of Amsterdam which lost 80 percent of its number in the Holocaust. Recently, Jews have been murdered in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, and Copenhagen. I asked my Jewish audience how many felt unsafe in Europe and wished to leave; nearly all the hands went up.
Genocide, unfortunately, is the defining characteristic of my people.
We wish it were not so. We wish we could be known for the light we have brought the nations rather than the darkness that engulfed us in the Holocaust. We wish we would be championed for the Ten Commandments rather than for surviving the decimation of the Crusades. We wish we were celebrated for giving the world the Sabbath rather than pitied for enduring the disembowelments of the Khmelnytsky pogroms. And we wish Israel were acclaimed for its democracy and innovation rather than for its steadfastness in the face of terrorism and rocket attacks.
Now, we face another — potentially genocidal — danger from Iran, which has repeatedly threatened the Jews with a second Holocaust when one was quite enough. I have no doubt that you, President Obama, and the administration are devoted to preventing that cataclysmic outcome. And I greatly appreciate your personal defense of Israel and vetoes exercised in its protection at the United Nations. Not only am I not a foe of the administration, but I vigorously defended Power during her Senate confirmation hearings in July 2013, when she was strongly opposed by other Jewish groups, and was attacked for it. And I did so because of her unwavering commitment to fighting genocide.
But all of that would pale into insignificance if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon with which it could harm Israel or the American people, even if that was never anyone’s intent.
You say that you’re working to prevent that. I believe you. But I have to passionately disagree with your point that Israel’s prime minister threatens to destroy the U.S.-Israel bond simply because he asked Congress to oppose what millions of us believe is a catastrophic deal that puts Israel in great peril. America does not condemn the leader of a threatened nation – especially a great ally – for simply doing his duty and raising the alarm. Can you see how these allegations of Netanyahu’s entreaty being “destructive” could deeply offend?
A Jewish leader’s first job is to prevent the possibility of another Jewish genocide, and that is what Netanyahu is doing. The Atlantic’s reference to you and other Clinton Administration officials as “bystanders to genocide” is, in truth, an indictment of each and every one of us. After all, the world has permitted the Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, Bosnian, Kosovaran, Darfuri and other genocides. Our own government shamefully refuses even to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, whose 100th anniversary is next month.
But breaking from this indifference, you laudably vowed to bring change. After refusing to use the word “genocide” to describe the 800,000 dead of Rwanda, you made a beautiful promise: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Can we not agree that dramatic action in this case means first demanding that Iran publicly repudiate its own vow to destroy Israel and increasing sanctions until it does?
The Munich agreement of 1938 was outrageous not only because it appeased Hitler’s aggression but because Czechoslovakia was not even party to the negotiations held by Britain, France, and Germany about its future. In the same way, it is unthinkable that Israel be left out of the negotiations with Iran.
The 10,000 Jews who were being gassed every day in Europe merited scant mention in the American press at the time. A courageous Jewish leader named Peter Bergson decided to change that by taking out provocative ads in the New York Times and other publications highlighting the plight of Europe’s Jews. He was widely condemned by the American Jewish establishment, who believed he was stoking anti-Semitism. But his tactics succeeded in helping to wake America from its torpor and, together with other efforts, helped to inspire the creation of the War Refugee Board, which rescued as many as 200,000 Jews. For millions of others, the silence of American Jewry was deadly.
This World: The Value Network, the organization I founded, has vowed to never again be Jews of silence. In our own ads, Elie Wiesel alerted the world to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. They also highlighted the murder of gay men in Iran and called out the world for insufficient action against the brutality of ISIS and Hamas.
I was honored that Rwandan President Paul Kagame asked me to deliver a keynote address at the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the Genocide at Kigali’s National Stadium. In it, I referenced the slaughter at Ntarama Church, where I gagged when I saw a row of skulls from the victims. We used that image in our latest ad. It is a shocking and jarring image, as are all images of genocide. But I sincerely regret that the use of the image — not immediately recognizable to people unfamiliar with the Rwandan genocide — lent itself to being misinterpreted as something deliberately disrespectful and macabre.
God has given you significant influence. I ask you to please use that power to protect the Jewish people, Arab children in Syria, Muslim students in Pakistan, Christians in Darfur, women in Nigeria, and the people of the Central African Republic. Criticizing Netanyahu’s right to address Congress, or allowing Iran a robust nuclear program amid their protestations of peace, falls short of that goal.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach