During a White House meeting with Israeli officials in 2009, Samantha Power, like any other proud mother, pulled out a photo of her infant son. In speaking to the admiring crowd, she added a surprising detail: Her son, she said, is a descendant, from his father’s side, of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, the 18th-century Jewish sage who is considered the greatest talmudic scholar of his time.
This impressive lineage — a product of Power’s marriage to prominent law professor Cass Sunstein — offers some insight into Power’s personal sense of connection to Jews. But it is not the key to understanding her strong backing within the Jewish and pro-Israel communities, despite past statements that have been seen as critical of Israel and of the American lobby that backs it.
Power, who was recently chosen by President Obama to serve as the next ambassador to the United Nations, has made inroads to the community, thanks to her hands-on work in support of Israel at the United Nations and at other international forums.
“Her starting point has always been, ‘How do we work together to overcome obstacles and to ensure that both the United States and Israel get out of these U.N. situations with the least damage?” said Dan Arbel, who served as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Arbel described his work experience with Power as “very collegial, friendly and frank.”
It is a practical approach that has blunted much of the ideological debate over Power’s views and thoughts on Israel, and on Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank. Thanks to Power’s concrete track record, her confirmation hearing in the Senate is unlikely to involve confrontations over Israel of the sort that recently flared during the hearings to confirm Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, former Senator Chuck Hagel, who also had a record of statements critical of Israel.
Israeli counterparts have found in Power a close ally, though they note that her efforts on Israel’s behalf do not necessarily signal blind support for its policies, especially as they relate to the issue of exclusive Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Middle East wasn’t Power’s area of expertise before she joined the administration. A renowned writer and activist on genocide prevention, Power, 42, began to focus on the region only in 2009, after assuming the position of senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council, a role that complements that of the U.N. ambassador and offers the perspective of the White House on issues relating to international bodies.