Honoring the President’s Mensch


By Masha Leon

Published July 23, 2004, issue of July 23, 2004.
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“As a Jew I have found myself becoming angrier and angrier at the current times we face,” declared Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the board of the America-Israel Friendship League at its July 1 lecture — “Agenda Setting in the Middle East: Media, the Third Party in the Conflict Between the Israelis and the Palestinians”— held at the offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

“When it comes to the PR war, we’re doing a lousy job,” admitted Gideon Meir, deputy director general for public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The camera is used as a weapon,” said Meir, who then offered a video presentation of rage-fueling images. Meir stressed: “We do not have a unified message…. The foreign press can cover anything…. There is no censorship…. We pay a price for having a democracy.”

Citing the “[never-happened] massacre of Jenin with its Nagasaki-like photos,” Meir pointed to a photo enlargement: “See… if the lens were opened, it would show the [miniscule] area that had been demolished.” The full-scale picture never received the front-page coverage that the alleged “massacre” did. “Our job is to take the policy of the Israeli government and market it around the world,” Meir said.

* * *

“Yiddish was my first language,” said Bernard Nussbaum, who, with his wife, Toby, was honored at the June 22 Jewish Community Relations Council of New York dinner gala at The Plaza. “We are a very diverse umbrella organization,” touted Toby Nussbaum, a JCRC vice president. “Politically we go left to right…. We serve the full spectrum — Ashkenazi, Sephardi, new arrivals… reach out to other ethnic and religious groups [on] issues of common interest.”

Bernard Nussbaum, a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, was a senior member of the staff of the House Judiciary Committee, which conducted the 1974 Watergate Impeachment inquiry, and White House Counsel to President Clinton until he was forced out during the Whitewater investigation. In December 1993, when he was honored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Nussbaum said: “To be honored for my commitment to Jewishness is a little like being praised for breathing.”

He then told the 600-strong YIVO crowd that he’d recently received a copy of the Yiddish Forverts profile, “Dem prezidents mentsh.” “I rushed into [the First Lady’s] office,” Nussbaum recalled. He said: “‘Hillary, look… someone has a good word to say about me!’ Hillary looked up, she looked down and we both had a good laugh.” His mother, Molly, later told me: “Call him in Washington.” I did, and said, “Bernie, I’ll do an interview that Hillary can read.” A few weeks later, the English Forward’s “The President’s Mensch” was on Mrs. Clinton’s desk.

Nussbaum’s father, Feyvel, was a union organizer, active in The Workmen’s Circle and the Jewish Labor Committee. He also was a member of the Forward Association.

* * *

The elegant Neue Galerie museum — housed in the former Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue — was an ideal setting for a June 22 reception, hosted by Jo Carole and Ronald Lauder, for Warren Kozak’s new book, “The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser” (Harper Collins). It was ideal because from 1955 until its 1994 move to the Center for Jewish History, YIVO’s books, memorabilia and archives of Eastern European life — the world from which Rabbi Besser sprung — had filled its rooms.

Kozak’s book reads like a thriller-with-soul punctuated with harrowing by-the-skin-of your-teeth escapes and life-saving encounters that culminated in the bashert meeting of the rabbi with [then] Ambassador Ronald Lauder in Vienna. The outcome, thanks to the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, was a post-World War II Jewish renaissance in Central and Eastern Europe: schools, camps, synagogues.

Watching Besser fans line up for autographed copies, I tried to reconcile this white-bearded, 80-year-old Hasidic rabbi (who loves classical music) with the trim brown-bearded young man pictured skiing in St. Moritz in 1960. At the reception: Malcolm Hoenlein, Samuel Norich, Carolyn Hessel and Poland’s chief rabbi Michael Schudrich and Poland’s consul general in New York, Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska.

* * *

At the July 14 Bastille Day celebration at the French Consulate, Richard Duque, the consul general, noted the presence of representatives from the World Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League. Among the crowd: Harriet Mandel, JCRC director of Israel and international affairs; Matthew Maryles, incoming JCRC president; new JCRC board member Vladimir Kvint, a professor of international business at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration; and (medal presenter to an American World War II veteran) Guy Wildenstein, president of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor, Inc.

Consul Duque cited the tragedy of September 11; lamented “[American] French-bashing”; and thanked the “fidelity of [its] American friends.” And in a demonstration of Franco-American amity, the assemblage joined in singing, a capella, “La Marseillaise” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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