What Else Would You Ask a Secretary of State?

‘A’ for Effort: Misha Lerner, a fourth grader at a Jewish day school in Washington, poses a tough question on torture to former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
RON SACHS
‘A’ for Effort: Misha Lerner, a fourth grader at a Jewish day school in Washington, poses a tough question on torture to former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

By Jeremy Gillick

Published May 06, 2009, issue of May 15, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Misha Lerner speaks softly but carries a big stick.

At 10 years old, the sandy-haired, fair-skinned boy, his broken arm in a cast, seemed cherubic and unthreatening sitting among some 40 students who were listening to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital on May 3.

Rice had come to speak at the school as part of JPDS’s annual Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture.

Lerner, whose mother, Inna, left Moscow for the United States in 1996, and whose father, Mark, works as a lawyer for the Department of Labor, had been taught not to pull any punches.

So, amid questions for Rice about figure skating, Led Zeppelin and even growing up under Jim Crow, Lerner’s stood out. “How do you feel about the things the Obama administration has said about the ways you got information from prisoners?” he asked her.

The hard-hitting question won the fourth grader from Bethesda, Md., immediate fame. But reports that the school had asked him not to use the word “torture” drew suggestions that Lerner had been censored. The original question, “If you would work for the Obama administration, would you push for torture?” seemed much tougher.

David Zimand, the school’s director of general studies, who helped Lerner and other students formulate their questions, called the charge “mind-boggling.”

“We let him ask the question,” he said. “Misha’s not this crusading political person. He’s a quiet, shy, sweet, thoughtful little boy. And nobody put him up to this, either.”

Although the question was modified at the behest of Zimand and Naomi Reem, the school’s principal, Zimand said the decision to do so was not political —“There was no chance that Rice was going to work for Obama,” — and that Lerner was happy to rephrase it.

“I told him, ‘I really want you to have an opportunity to ask this question, but I want to make sure we ask it in a way that will give her a chance to answer and to feel respected, even if we’re pressing her,’” Zimand said. He confessed that he and his colleagues “didn’t put a ton of thought into this,” because “we didn’t even remotely think that he was going to be talking to [National Public Radio’s] Robert Siegel and on the third page of The Washington Post.

“We reframed the question together,” he related. “I said: ‘Are you comfortable with this? Is this a question you want to ask? Is it your question?’ And he said yes.”

Lerner himself appeared to confirm this, saying that the removal of the word “torture” from his query “didn’t really matter.”

Asked how he initially came up with the question, Lerner said, “Mr. Zimand came to our classroom and talked about Condoleezza Rice’s background and history, and he also mentioned that there was some controversial stuff about her, and he talked a little bit about torture.” Lerner said he also had “heard about it in the news… So I decided to do my question based on that.”

Inna Lerner, a stay-at-home mom, was surprised when her son popped the question to Rice. “He likes history and politics, and he’s very good at art. He likes physics now; I don’t know where that came from. He likes to write, and he likes to swim. He’s constantly doing research and learning — between playing computer games — and he seems to enjoy that. But I haven’t discussed torture with him,” she said. “I was surprised by the subject.”

Rice, who has come under fire recently for telling Stanford University students that waterboarding was legal because “it was authorized by the president,” didn’t seem surprised at all by Misha’s question. “One of the hardest things about being in government,” she told the students, is criticism from “people outside of government who really don’t have to deal with the daily struggles that you do and aren’t trying to solve really difficult problems. They’re just sitting out there, commenting and criticizing. I don’t think that’s really fair.

“We were all terrified of another attack on this country, but even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal, and I hope people understand that we were trying to protect the country.”

Lerner isn’t sure that he understands. The Bush administration used torture, he says, which “is basically like robbing someone. Like you put a gun to someone’s head and say, ‘Gimme the money,’ but you’re doing it with torture and information, not a gun and money,” the boy said. For him, Rice’s answer just wasn’t good enough. His mother agrees. “I didn’t expect anything else,” she said.

Contact Jeremy Gillick at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.