In this excerpt from Gal Beckerman’s “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, Henry Kissinger is introduced as the main opponent to the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of legislation that would force the Soviet Union to liberalize its emigration policy if it wanted to receive Most Favored Nation trading status from the United States.
Henry Kissinger now woke up to the threat. The Jewish secretary of state — the highest post a Jew had ever achieved in government — was now in the seemingly uncomfortable position of standing up to a bill that the Jewish community had rallied behind in force. But Kissinger, an enigmatic man in many ways whose ideological allegiances were sometimes as hard to pin down as his gravelly, German-accented voice was to understand, was not one to feel the tribal pull. If anything was consistent about his worldview, it was a cold pragmatism that put stability above all else and eschewed the emotional forces that were driving American Jews. Though he took pains not to delve into it too deeply — in public at least — his identity as a refugee who had barely escaped the Holocaust had a lot to do with his adoption of realpolitik. Most Jews of his generation had drawn one lesson from the war — that they would never again abandon their brethren. Out of the upheaval that had intruded on his young life, Kissinger had drawn a different lesson, one that would guide him as he entered this battle and make him impervious to the appeals of his fellow Jews.
Kissinger had grown up in the small Bavarian town of Fürth, the son of a teacher, a comfortable middle-class upbringing as part of a segregated but not yet despised Jewish minority. He was ten when the Nazis came to power. Within five years, in 1938, his family had fled to America, where he began his rise, which took him from the German-Jewish enclave of Washington Heights to City College, the U.S. Army, Harvard, and eventually to the White House. When still at an impressionable age, though, he had observed firsthand the fickleness of democratic institutions, how easily Weimar Germany had crumbled and how no one stood up against the ensuing chaos. It was this experience above all that had seared his consciousness and made him forever wary of democracy’s ability to sustain itself on its own. Experienced hands needed to guide foreign policy and keep it from being dictated by passion. The role of a diplomat — like his great hero Metternich — was to maintain a balance of power in the world, keeping at bay the forces that threatened peace and stability. This also meant being realistic: human rights and ethical considerations could be compromised when dealing with other states. He observed with dismay and annoyance the zeal of those intent on making a giant case out of Soviet Jewry and obstructing détente. It’s not that he didn’t care about Soviet Jews — he thought that behind-the-scenes dealmaking could ease their problems — only that he thought that they distracted from a more significant calculation: how to make the Soviet-American relationship less adversarial, more consistent and predictable. For this goal, which he saw as his mission in government, he was going to find himself opposed to most Americans, who were guided by different imperatives..
When Kissinger, that paragon of Jewish accomplishment, began pressing congresspeople to turn against Jackson, he was effectively trying to persuade mostly non-Jewish lawmakers to ignore the demands of their Jewish constituents.
On March 1, Nixon met with the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, and Rabin. The president tried to convince her that the administration’s tactic of “quiet diplomacy” was more effective than the proposed amendment would be and asked her to lean on the Jewish community to stop supporting the bill. “The problem is that the members of Congress say they are guided by the Jewish organizations here. The future of détente with the Soviet Union is liable to be foiled by the Congress. Personally I can get better results for you,” Nixon told her. Kissinger, who was standing nearby, tried to drive home the point: “Don’t let the Jewish leadership here put pressure on the Congress.” Golda Meir replied: “You must understand my situation. I cannot tell Jews in the United States not to concern themselves with their brethren in the Soviet Union!” Kissinger’s pressure tactics were useless. Israel had decided early on to stay out of the fight publicly; it did not want to be caught between two branches of the American government or to be accused of stirring up Cold War tension. It was hard for Kissinger to believe, but the only ones with the power to stop this snowball were the formerly docile leaders of the Jewish community.
Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s Opinion Editor. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @galbeckerman