It’s commonplace to greet a hero’s passing with extravagant claims that the mold has been broken, that his like will not be seen again. In the case of Max Fisher, the Detroit philanthropist who died March 3 at age 96, every word of that would be true.
Fisher towered genially over American Jewish communal life for nearly four decades, acknowledged universally — at least among insiders and machers — as the community’s “dean.” He sat on the boards of just about every significant communal agency, from the American Jewish Committee to the United Jewish Appeal, and headed the most important ones at least once. He led the deliberations over the 1971 reconstitution of the Jewish Agency for Israel, converting the world’s largest Jewish institution from an arm of the World Zionist Organization into an instrument of the Diaspora philanthropies that pay its bills.
At the same time, his role as a top Republican fund-raiser and presidential adviser gave him a unique status in the increasingly interlocking worlds of Jewish communal affairs and global policy. His was an era when Republicans dominated presidential politics — five of the last seven presidents have been Republicans — and when Jewish concerns, from Israeli security to Soviet tyranny, were the stuff of international drama. Fisher was the bridge between those worlds. He could walk into the Oval Office almost at will and present the concerns of his community to the most powerful man in the world. With equal ease he could present the concerns of the White House to a Jewish community known for its combative liberalism. His interventions repeatedly made the difference between life and death: during the desperate hours of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, during the Ethiopian Jewish rescue operations of 1984 and 1991, and at other times less storied but no less fateful.
He was effective because all sides trusted him to tell the unvarnished truth. He was equally blunt with American presidents, Israeli prime ministers and Soviet dictators. Above all, he was a unifying figure within the organized Jewish community. Despite his unabashed political loyalties he never used his leadership positions to press his partisan views or to skew debate. That, more than any other, is a mold that’s been broken.
Late in the Reagan-Bush era, arguably the height of his influence, Fisher was approached by a journalist and asked how it felt to him, as a Republican, to be the leader and spokesman of one of America’s most liberal political constituencies. The exchange came shortly after he had chaired, for the umpteenth time, a business meeting of the Council of Jewish Federations, the organization with which he was most closely identified. He had overseen the adoption of a raft of policy statements, from national health insurance to immigrant rights, that could have come from a socialist rally. How, he was asked, did that square with his own beliefs?
Fisher shrugged, grinned and replied: “What can I say? Those are my people.”