NEW YORK — There can be no question that the recently released White House recordings by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum revealed one of the ugliest remarks ever uttered in the Oval Office.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger told President Nixon in a March 1973 conversation. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
Immediately after these reprehensible comments were made public, I wrote in The New York Jewish Week that they laid bare not just Kissinger’s quasi-obscene obsequiousness but also, perhaps more significantly, his utter lack of any moral compass.
Kissinger’s words and behavior stand in stark contrast to other American Jews who have held major governmental and political positions.
Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Kissinger “was not the first Jewish adviser to an American president who urged his boss to refrain from rescuing Jews.” Medoff specifically pointed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adviser and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, who opposed the creation of a federal agency to save Jews from Nazi persecution and mass murder during World War II.
True enough. Medoff failed to mention, however, that FDR’s secretary of the treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., successfully fought for the creation of what became the War Refugee Board. Morgenthau also squarely confronted anti-Semites and anti-Semitism within the Roosevelt administration. In “The Abandonment of the Jews, America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945,” historian David S. Wyman, for whom Medoff’s institute is named, described how Morgenthau told Breckinridge Long, the assistant secretary of state responsible for the Visa Division, that “the impression is all around that you, particularly, are anti-Semitic!”
Morgenthau was not the first Jewish American government official to speak out forcefully on behalf of persecuted Jews. Morgenthau’s father, Henry Morgenthau, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1916, called public attention to the plight of the Jewish minority in Palestine. In 1915, the senior Morgenthau also alerted the Wilson administration to the widespread massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces in what he called “a campaign of race extermination.”
One of Morgenthau’s predecessors as U.S. minister to Constantinople, Oscar S. Straus, had similarly used his office to intervene on behalf of Jews who had been imprisoned in Jerusalem and were awaiting deportation. Subsequently, as President Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of commerce and labor, Straus did his utmost to help Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms in the face of restrictive U.S. immigration laws.
“Genuinely proud of his Jewish heritage,” Straus’s biographer, Naomi W. Cohen, wrote of him, “he rarely felt handicapped because of it. Rather than choose between Americanism and Judaism, or even feel required to compartmentalize the two as separate entities, he worked out a different solution to the problem of identity which confronted all emancipated Jews. He fused his Jewish ideals with his interpretation of Americanism.”
While a member of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1930s, Justice Louis D. Brandeis continued to be an outspoken Zionist and pleaded personally on several occasions with President Roosevelt to pressure the British government to ease its harsh restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine.
More recently, after former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim had been exposed as a Nazi who had consistently lied about his past, U.S. ambassador to Austria, Ronald S. Lauder, who went on to become president of the World Jewish Congress, distinguished himself by refusing to attend Waldheim’s inauguration as president of Austria. (In the interest of full disclosure, I ran one of Ambassador Lauder’s foundations in the late 1990s and work with him today at the WJC.)
In his 1919 essay, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of Jews in Modern Europe,” the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen observed that the “intellectually gifted Jew” of his era had acquired “an immunity from the inhibitions of intellectual quietism . . . at the cost of losing his secure place in the scheme of conventions into which he has been born.” Such an individual, Veblen concluded, became “a disturber of the intellectual peace, but at the cost of becoming an intellectual wayfaring man, a wanderer in the intellectual no-man’s-land, seeking another place to rest, farther along the road, somewhere over the horizon. They are neither a complaisant nor a contented lot, these aliens of the uneasy feet.”
Veblen could have been writing about Kissinger whose evident discomfort and discontent with his Jewish identity borders on self-loathing. Brought up in an Orthodox environment, he early on drifted away from any type of Jewish religious or cultural identification. “The experience of freedom,” he wrote in his senior thesis at Harvard, “allows us to rise above the suffering of the past and the frustrations of history.” For Kissinger, rising above the suffering of his personal past apparently required a near total severance of his ties — he appears to have seen them more as shackles — to his Jewish roots.
Traditionally, “court Jews” are supposed to intercede with the governmental authorities they serve on behalf of the Jewish community. The core problem with Kissinger from a Jewish perspective is that he used his privileged position as Nixon’s court Jew primarily if not exclusively to benefit his own interests and career. “If he were 10 percent less brilliant and 10 percent more honest,” Nahum Goldmann, the co-founder and longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, once said of Kissinger, “he would be a great man.”
In retrospect, it turns out that the amount of decency and integrity Kissinger would have needed to approach greatness is much, much higher.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of Law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)