Henry Kissinger, diplomat extraordinaire, is 87 years old and still commands attention. Just a few weeks ago, he joined other former Republican statesmen in penning an opinion piece for The Washington Post urging ratification of the nuclear arms treaty with Russia currently being held hostage by their GOP compatriots in Congress. He remains engaged in the present. But it’s his past that haunts him.
On the newly released tapes from President Richard Nixon’s Oval Office, we hear the unguarded Kissinger, defiantly separating himself from those American Jews who disagreed with his realpolitik approach to foreign affairs. He callously shrugged as he conjured up the hypothetical prospect of another genocide, egging on his boss’s despicable anti-Semitism.
Kissinger apologists — and there are many in the upper echelons of the organized Jewish community — argue that his egregious comments ought to be weighed against the good he did for Israel and the Jewish people. Curiously, these are the same people who pounce on any hint of anti-Semitism in others, and too often conflate valid criticism of current Israeli policies with crude anti-Zionism. Their willingness to excuse Kissinger as a victim of his times misses the point. He shaped his times. He was the court Jew with tremendous access to power in Washington and around the globe. Just think of the good that he could have done if his worldview wasn’t so corrupted by egotism and prejudice.
It’s a telling lesson. The image of the Jew who rises to power and influence in the non-Jewish world is as old as the story of Joseph in the Bible, and as complicated. We may not know from the outside what sort of compromises are necessary to achieve and maintain that power, and what sorts of threats or intimidations accompany those lofty positions.
But it’s hard to imagine Henry Kissinger initimidated, even by a foul-mouthed president and the ugly environment of a White House that saw itself as perenially under siege (until, in fact, it was under siege by the lies and obfuscations of Watergate).
There’s another point the Kissinger apologists miss: The guts of the disagreement. His nasty comments about American Jews were directed at those who supported the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, the first successful legislative attempt to link American foreign policy with human rights concerns. Its eventual passage helped more than the beleaguered Jews held behind the Soviet Union’s iron curtain; it wove humanitarian concerns into the DNA of diplomacy, and serves as a continual prod to use American might for the good of people in Sudan, Iran, wherever.
That a Jew whose family fled Nazi Germany should oppose this concept is one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish power. Kissinger may be pitied, but he should never be excused.