GOP’s Max Fisher, Tireless Advocate For World Jewry

By Jacob Stein

Published March 11, 2005, issue of March 11, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Max Fisher died March 3 in Detroit at age 96, the American Jewish community lost a towering leader, whose likes we will not soon see again. The political world lost a wise voice of moderation and compassion. I lost a good friend, someone who shared my views, mentored me and walked down some important roads with me over the course of five decades.

I first met Max in 1960, when he reached out to me to become involved in the Republican Party. There weren’t many of us then, and Max felt it was important that our community be represented there.

We were both committed to the party’s moderate wing. Max came into the national spotlight in 1962 as finance chairman of George Romney’s Michigan gubernatorial campaign. Six years later, when Romney lost the presidential nomination to Richard Nixon, Max signed on with Nixon and drew me into the campaign.

During the next few years we worked together on some of the most difficult fights the Jewish community ever faced, including the struggle for Soviet Jewish emigration and the effort to re-arm Israel in the early days of the Yom Kippur War. It was a time of great passions — at times we had to stand nearly alone, pushing the administration to move faster, urging the community to avoid confrontation. It’s a mark of Max’s leadership that he emerged respected as the senior figure in Jewish community life and as a trusted friend and adviser to every Republican president, up to George W. Bush.

Throughout the years I saw Max at work on numerous fronts. We flew together to Israel in 1988 to confront Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over the “Who is a Jew” legislation. In 1984 Max played an important role in convincing the White House to help in Operation Moses, the Israeli rescue of Ethiopian Jews trapped in Sudan. When the exodus broke down the next year, Max stepped in and helped convince Vice President George Bush to visit Sudan and to arrange the rescue of the last few. In 1991 he called again on Bush, who was now president, to help organize an airlift of the remaining 20,000 Ethiopian Jews. Bush was a president who helped us in many ways, despite his reputation in some circles. Max understood that.

When the Ethiopian regime demanded $35 million in ransom, Max hit the phones and raised the money in a few days. He was very determined in his quiet way. It was hard to say no to him.

We were not much alike, Max and I. He was a Midwesterner, raised in a small town in Ohio, largely untutored in Judaism; I was a New Yorker, raised in the synagogue. After attending Ohio State University on a football scholarship, Max moved to Detroit, made a fortune in the oil business and threw himself into the world of federated Jewish philanthropies, becoming national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in 1965 and president of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1969. I was a real estate developer, on my way to becoming president of United Synagogue of America and eventually chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Max’s energy was prodigious. Early in the Nixon presidency in 1969, he was working to create a volunteerism office in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was headed by Romney. That spring, after a police shooting in Detroit prompted violence and polarized the city, Max personally faced down the hotheads on both sides and hammered out compromises as chairman of an urban coalition called New Detroit.

During those same months he was getting his first taste of international diplomacy, bringing Nixon together with Israel’s new prime minister, Golda Meir, to forge what would become an essential alliance. Those were also the years that he led negotiations on behalf of the Jewish federations to win a sweeping reconstitution of their Israeli partner, the Jewish Agency, which he served as founding chairman of the new board of governors. Many consider that reform his crowning achievement.

My most vivid memories are the tense months in 1973 when I was chairman of the Presidents Conference and the two of us negotiated with Soviet leaders for freer Jewish emigration. Much of the community was supporting Senator Henry Jackson, who had drafted an amendment linking American-Soviet trade relations to free emigration. Nixon and Kissinger, pushing for détente with the Soviets, opposed the amendment. Max and I needed to keep the channels open.

Several times we were invited to sit with Soviet leaders over meals to discuss the community’s concerns. We faced a lot of opposition when we accepted, but we believed we had an opportunity to make our case directly. Max was able to look the Soviets in the eye and tell them straight out how our community felt.

He could be just as direct with the White House. When the Yom Kippur War broke out that October, Israel was on the defensive and badly needed military re-supply, but Washington was not acting. Max took a letter from the Presidents Conference, got on a plane and handed the letter to Nixon. “I’ve worked hard for you,” he told the president. “Please send the Israelis what they need. You can’t let them be destroyed.” Nixon assured him that Israel would get what it needed. It took nearly a week of phone calls to break down the bureaucracy, but the airlift finally took off a week after the war began. Max Fisher had accomplished his goal. He nearly always did.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • 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.