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.