At around 6 a.m. on Sunday, my flight from Sao Paulo landed at Newark International Airport. Stuffed in a middle seat towards the back of the plane, I did not get any sleep during the nine-hour flight. It did not help things that I had spent the previous two days shacked up in a hotel room with a virus that gave me aches, chills, and a nasty sore throat.
As my mom and I made our way to customs, I saw that a United flight that had pulled into the gate next to ours. I heard some Hebrew and put together that it was probably a red eye from Tel Aviv. Shuffling toward Passport Control, I made a fuck-up that I will think about for the rest of my life.
About 20 feet to my right, there was an older gentleman with a beard and glasses, waiting to be ushered through some special line for people who are spared the indignity of going through the general passport inspection process with hordes of plebes. The man looked somewhat familiar. Did I know him from temple? Was he my professor in college? Then it clicked. The man was Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel. Wearing a handsome grey coat and clutching his phone, he looked like any other business class traveler; like he has more money than me.
The legacy of Barak, who was prime minister from 1999 to 2001, is defined by many things, including blowing up negotiations with Palestinians in 2001 and his iffy comeback to Israeli politics more than a decade later. But his legacy also includes an association with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and child sex-ring operator who allegedly died by suicide in prison this summer, and this is the thing about Barak that lingers in my mind.
This past summer, the Daily Mail and the Daily Beast reported that as recently as 2016, Barak was a frequent guest at Epstein’s Upper East Side mansion — eight years after the financier pled guilty in Florida to sex-trafficking charges. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz, adding fuel to the flames, separately reported in July that in 2015, Epstein “financed a considerable part” (an estimated $3 million) of Barak’s security startup Carbyne. Last month, Haaretz  further found that Epstein had given $40,000 in 2017 to support Barak’s Israeli political ambitions.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Barak copped to having visited Epstein on his private island, and said that he had met with Epstein “more than 10 times and much less than 100 times, but I can’t tell you exactly how many. I don’t keep count.” The publication of these reports was particularly damning for Barak, who was running for political office in Israel on a campaign touting his record of responsible leadership, in contrast to that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted soon on multiple counts of fraud and corruption.
Although it appears Barak is no longer flying private these days — or at least he wasn’t on Sunday morning; the private plane airport where Epstein was arrested this summer is in Teterboro, about 18 miles north of Newark — he’s not exactly easily accessible. He is, after all, solidly in the .01 percent of the global elite, as evidenced by his 2012 sale of his north Tel Aviv apartment for roughly $7 million. Like many other named associates of Jeffrey Epstein, he is very rich, so much so that he is mostly untouchable. Beyond occasional unfriendly emails and phone calls from journalists, Barak and people like him do not inhabit the same reality as the rest of us. It is an alienation that permits him to say things like “I never met Epstein in the company of women or young girls,” when practically every press account of meeting with Epstein describes the man as never without the company of “women,” many of whom looked like young girls. Barak may not win an election in Israel, but what further consequences will he face? Epstein is now dead, after all, and many of his secrets have gone to his grave with him.
This was what occurred to me at about 6:30 a.m. in the passport line at Newark Airport, as I stood, bleary-eyed and half-sick, staring at Barak. I whispered to my mom, “I should go up to him and say something, maybe ask him why he was friends with Jeffrey Epstein” (Barak claimed to the Daily Beast that he was introduced by former Israeli president Shimon Peres). My mom, supportive and wise, said that I should go and do just that.
Instead, I balked. I was exhausted and afraid that I would fuck it up. What if I sounded like an idiot, delirious to the point that I could notform complete sentences? What if it just appeared that a disheveled bearded man was screaming at an old man waiting to be led through customs?
These were stupid concerns, but they led to a moral failure, I think, on my part, at least as a journalist. It was a wasted opportunity to hold an execrable one-percenter — a former world leader, no less — accountable. With Epstein dead, we will likely never know the full extent of his crimes and the circle of men and women with which he committed them. We have some names — Prince Andrew, Les Wexner, Glenn and Eva Dubin, Jean-Luc Brunel, and, of course, Ghislaine Maxwell. And while we have some excellent reporting that lays bare what some of these people have done, there is no full picture and there will likely never be one.
This makes it all the more necessary to demand crumbs of accountability where we can find them. As a journalist, this should be 101-type stuff. But there exists a similar ethical basis for people — citizens, not journalists — confronting officials like former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who have thankfully had some trouble eating their meals in peace, we can at least read a constant stream of articles about what they are doing, why, and with whom.
Little transparency exists in the world of Epstein and his interlocutors, most of whom have faded into obscurity. Maxwell, Epstein’s alleged madam, and Brunel, an Epstein associate and modeling scout, are reportedly hiding out in Brazil (although I didn’t see them there). Perhaps one day they will be caught and prosecuted for their purported crimes. But until then, and even after such a point, when we encounter characters from the Epstein drama in the wild, we must ask them why they were associated with the man and what they profited from it. I was in Brazil last week for Yom Kippur, and here is some belated penance: I was not a good journalist that Sunday in Newark at 6 a.m.