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 protest.

One of the likely reasons that Jonathan's commutation has been denied is that since his incarceration ten years ago, his case has never been on the formal agenda of a meeting between any US president and Jewish organization leaders. 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 danger 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 enough to tighten security and apprehend the suspects, I strongly protested when Menem was given the Statesman of the Year Award by the Appeal for Conscience 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 does!"

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 responded.

The Chancellor asked me to stay on and meet with high school superintendents, the lawyer of the New York school system, and Dr. John Rodgers, principal of Norman Thomas High School. I left this second meeting believing that those present recognized that while I cared deeply about ethnic relations I was not 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 dangers 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 working 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 have constant access should recognize that government leaders do not always necessarily take them seriously. Politicians know that those with access are 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 it 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 was 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 even 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.