WASHINGTON -- It should have been ancient, if unsavory, news: A cavalier reference to gassing Jews, an aside in a conversation nearly 40 years old.
But the aside was pronounced by Henry Kissinger, a German-born Jew who fled Nazi horrors as a child and who has been honored by multiple Jewish organizations as one of Israel’s saviors during its darkest days, when he was secretary of state to former US president Richard Nixon.
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“If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Kissinger is heard saying on the latest batch of Nixon-era Oval Office tapes released by the Nixon Library.
Following its publication Saturday -- buried deep in a New York Times
story that focused more on Nixon’s well-known bigotries -- a shock
shuddered through the Jewish community and led to calls to shun
Kissinger, and then to calls to forgive him.
Kissinger in an e-mail to JTA would brook no request for an apology and
did not even directly address his gas chambers remark. Instead he
appeared to insist on context: His frustration at the time with the
insistence of the Jewish community and US senators such as Jacob Javits
(R-N.Y.) and Henry "Scoop"Jackson (D-Wash.) on attaching human rights
riders to dealings with the Soviets.
“The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation
with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time,”
Kissinger wrote to JTA.
He and Nixon pursued the issue of Soviet Jewish emigration as a
humanitarian matter separate from foreign policy issues in order to
avoid questions of sovereignty and because normal diplomatic channels
were closed, Kissinger wrote.
“By this method and the persistent private representation at the highest
level we managed to raise emigration from 700 per year to close to
40,000 in 1972,” Kissinger wrote. “We disagreed with the Jackson
Amendment, which made Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue. We
feared that the amendment would reduce emigration, which is exactly what
happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again
until the Soviet Union collapsed. The conversation between Nixon and me
must be seen in the context of that dispute and of our distinction
between a foreign policy and a humanitarian approach.”
In fact, the historical consensus is that while it was true that what
became known as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment -- named for Jackson and
Rep. Charlie Vanik (D-Ohio) -- at first inhibited emigration, it formed
the basis for the late-20th century politics of making human rights a
sine qua non of statecraft. That resulted not only in the mass
emigration of Soviet Jews 15 years later, but also in contemporary
efforts to end internal massacres in countries such as Sudan.
Kissinger, however, was dedicated to realpolitik -- the art of securing
the grand deal, even at the expense of the moral and ethical
considerations of the moment -- and his disdain for human rights
activists knew few bounds.
Gal Beckerman, a historian of the Soviet Jewry movement, told Tablet on
Tuesday that this even led Kissinger to suppress a letter that might
have helped salvage a deal with the Soviets to release Jews under the
Similar considerations led Kissinger to press Nixon during the 1973 Yom
Kippur War to delay delivering arms to Israel by a few weeks. Their
conversations at the time show Kissinger arguing that Anwar Sadat,
Egypt’s president, needed an unadulterated victory to make peace
concessions. Nixon argued -- correctly, as it turned out -- that Sadat
was already able to claim a victory, and that it was more important to
stanch an ally’s casualties in a war that would claim 3,000 Israeli
In a 2009 review of the period in The Jewish Press,
top Nixon aides Alexander Haig, the chief of staff; Leonard Garment,
the White House counsel; and Vernon Walters, the deputy CIA chief, all
recall the same dynamic: The time for hanging Israel out to dry had
"Both Kissinger and Nixon wanted to do [the airlift]," the Press quoted Walters as saying. "But Nixon gave it the greater sense of urgency. He said, 'You get the stuff to Israel. Now. Now.' "
The image of Kissinger as a cold-blooded sociopath has long been a
staple of his most virulent critics, and the newly revealed quote was
like manna to their theories.
“In the past, Kissinger has defended his role as enabler to Nixon's
psychopathic bigotry, saying that he acted as a restraining influence on
his boss by playing along and making soothing remarks,” said
Christopher Hitchens, who has said Kissinger should be tried as a war
criminal for his role in ordering the bombing of Cambodia and for
enabling Latin American autocrats. “This can now go straight into the
lavatory pan, along with his other hysterical lies.
"Obsessed as he was with the Jews, Nixon never came close to saying that
he'd be indifferent to a replay of Auschwitz. For this, Kissinger
deserves sole recognition.”
Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish
Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, reached a similar conclusion
after reading accounts of the newly released Nixon tapes.
“Now that Kissinger’s true nature has been exposed, the Jewish community
and Jewish institutions must draw the appropriate consequences,” he
wrote in an op-ed in The New York Jewish Week.
“We now come to the realization that as far as he was concerned, human
rights in general were an irrelevancy,” Rosensaft said in an interview
with JTA. “He needs to know that when he is in the company of Jews, we
will know precisely who he is and we hold him in contempt.”
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that approach goes too far.
The ADL issued a statement saying that Kissinger’s comments show a
“disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet
Jews” and are a reminder that “even great individuals are flawed.” But,
it noted, “Dr. Kissinger’s contributions to the safety and security of
the US and Israel have solidly established his legacy as a champion of
democracy and as a committed advocate for preserving the well-being of
the Jewish state of Israel."
Foxman elaborated in an interview with JTA.
“He worked in an atmosphere that was intimidatingly anti-Semitic toward
Jews,” the ADL leader said of Kissinger. “We need to understand the
intimidation under which it occurred.”
Beckerman wrote in a review of a book that examined Kissinger’s
psychology that his upbringing -- the horrific transition, at age 10,
from a world of safety to one of chaos -- helps explain an ideology that
places order above all as the salvation of humanity. Kissinger,
Beckerman wrote in the Forward in
2007, “was guided by the sense that the world needs a strong America --
led by versatile statesmen -- that will stand as a bulwark against the
disorder and disequilibrium that he experienced as a child.”
How did Kissinger’s Jewish identity play out in the White House? It was a complex matter and not always consistent.
In September 1972, when Kissinger was still the national security
adviser, he and his arch-rival, secretary of state William Rogers, had a
bitter exchange at a cabinet meeting over whether the government should
lower flags to half mast for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the
Munich Olympics. Nixon took Kissinger’s advice and lowered the flags.
Nixon regarded Kissinger as his truest aide, although he also noted, in
another tape released recently, the “latent insecurity” of Kissinger and
his other Jewish advisers.
On the eve of Nixon’s August 8, 1974 resignation, the result of scandals
besieging his administration, Kissinger could not help himself and
burst into sobs, according to Robert Dallek’s account, Nixon and
Kissinger: Partners in Power.
Nixon, too, joined him in weeping. In what has become an icon of how the
isolation of power brings strong men to their knees, both men kneeled
in the White House living room and prayed.