Max Kampelman, Voice for Soviet Jewry, Evolved But Never Changed

Appreciation

Death of a Diplomat: Max Kampelman played a key diplomatic role in enabling the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union.
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Death of a Diplomat: Max Kampelman played a key diplomatic role in enabling the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union.

By Allan Gerson

Published February 04, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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Max Kampelman, who died on January 25 at the age of 92, was lauded often as one of the great men of our times for his role as chief U.S. arms control negotiator in the Reagan administration. He won no less praise for his diplomatic role in enabling the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union.

Much less noted about this humble man was the profound evolution he underwent over the course of his life.

During World War II Kampelman, who served as a conscientious objector, volunteered for the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. As part of this University of Minnesota project, Kampelman allowed experiments to be performed on him that were vital to a better understanding of how people deal with and recover from starvation — an issue the Allies were preparing to confront on a mass basis as part of the war’s immediate post-liberation phase.

But later, Kampelman rejected the pacifism of his youth in favor of support for a strong U.S. foreign policy to better promote human rights and secure peace in the world.

He grew up as the son of a butcher in the Bronx and went on to earn his law degree at night school at New York University — and then a master’s and a doctorate in political science at the University of Minnesota. It was there that he met Hubert Humphrey, who was then the mayor of Minneapolis, and, like Kampelman, a progressive social democrat. Humphrey would become a senator and a presidential candidate. Max Kampelman was with him every step of the way.

When that period of his life was over, Kampelman became a skilled practitioner of law in Washington as a member of a firm that bore his name as a senior partner. But he was always more than a mere lawyer. Max could incorporate into his very being the ability to get along with nearly everyone while making his point with deft determination.

Government service called him back when President Jimmy Carter asked him to lead talks in Madrid aimed at drawing Soviet bloc nations into the Helsinki Accords, which were signed in 1975, and which enshrined among other rights the freedom to emigrate.


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