Don't be Seduced by Access to Power
July 14, 1995 - NY Jewish Week OpEd
The day after President Bill Clinton rejected the request to commute
Jonathan Pollard's sentence to time served, he met with leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. No one present mentioned
Jonathan's name. The president no doubt assumed that the Jewish community
concurred with his decision - or at the very least was not too deeply
troubled by it. Otherwise someone would surely have raised a voice of
One of the likely reasons that Jonathan's commutation has been denied is
since his incarceration ten years ago, his case has never been on the
agenda of a meeting between any US president and Jewish organization
We cannot expect the President of the United States to do what we do not
demand of him.
It is too often the case that those who speak to people in positions of
power temper their views, soften their language. Their primary goal is to
ensure continued access, but integral to access is the burden of
responsibility that must accompany it. A basic principle of activism is that access should never lead to a compromise in integrity.
I know first hand the enormous challenges and dangers that the principle of
"access responsibility" poses. After the bombing in Buenos Aires a year
ago, I traveled to Argentina to give comfort to the injured and families of
victims. A friend arranged that I meet Argentine president Carlos Menem.
As the private hour-long meeting closed, Menem told me that in order to
elaborate for me his efforts to apprehend the terrorists he would convene
an extraordinary cabinet session that afternoon, carefully scheduled to allow
me to return to my hosts prior to Shabbat.
As I sat at Menem's side during the cabinet meeting, I felt myself in
of being seduced by the access I had received. I had to remind myself over
and over that the honor I had been accorded should not deter me from
protesting if I determined that Menem was insincere.
Soon after, convinced that the Menem government was in fact not doing
to tighten security and apprehend the suspects, I strongly protested when
Menem was given the Statesman of the Year Award by the Appeal for
Foundation this past October in New York. I was told afterward that Menem
was incensed. "I give this man honor," he declared, "and this is what he
More recently, I was again obliged to deal with issues growing out of the
principle of "access responsibility." This occured when we threatened a
protest immediately after NY School's Chancellor Ramon Cortines decided to
allow the Norman Thomas High School students who wrote anti-Semitic mail to
participate in graduation. The next day, following our announcement of our
intentions to demonstrate, Cortines agreed to meet with me. As our meeting
closed, I told him: "You may not intend it, but you're coming down on the
wrong side of the issue and leaving the impression that you give license to
this kind of stuff." "That's precisely what I'm worried about," Cortines
The Chancellor asked me to stay on and meet with high school
the lawyer of the New York school system, and Dr. John Rodgers, principal
Norman Thomas High School. I left this second meeting believing that those
present recognized that while I cared deeply about ethnic relations I was
going to flinch in the face of racism and anti-Semitism. Indeed, since that
meeting, Rodgers has asked me to conduct sensitivity sessions on the
of these problems for students and teachers. Dr. Rodgers told me that he
couldn't understand the outcry from the community because he had been
with the Anti-Defamation League since the incident took place, and they had
expressed satisfaction with his handling of the situation.
There is one other access principle that must be underscored. Those who
constant access should recognize that government leaders do not always
necessarily take them seriously. Politicians know that those with access
often the ones who compromise on speaking the truth.
The truth is, that those who are on the inside often don't say it the way
is. And those who are on the outs, at the gates, are often able to speak
more powerfully and honestly.
* * *
Present at that meeting the day after Clinton denied Pollard commutation
one of Jonathan's supporters. He was asked why the Pollard issue was not
raised leaving the impression that business was to be conducted as usual
folllowing the president's rejection of Jonathan's petition. He responded
that he wasn't given a chance to ask a question.
As I related the incident to my congregation the following Shabbat, in
exasperation I said, "Whatever the protocol, if one cares enough about the
issue, shouldn't you jump to your feet and say, ' Mr. President, we protest
your handling of the Jonathan Pollard case.' "A close friend called out, "
That's why you're not invited to such meetings!"
But if the price of such invitations is to compromise on the truth, then I
prefer to stand outside the gates. My voice is much louder from there.