Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Happy Birthday, Mr. Kissinger

The influential former secretary of state—courtier, careerist, proud American, conflicted Jew—turns 90

Print Email
Former Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger in Washington, D.C., circa 1975. (Owen Franken/Getty Images)
Related Content

Q&A: Edward Luttwak

The military strategist talks about Israeli security, Henry Kissinger, the Arab Spring, and the death of Osama Bin Laden

National Insecurity: The Case for Jonathan Pollard

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

Henry Kissinger, who turns 90 this Monday, May 27, is one of the most influential Jews in American history—and one of the most controversial. In the 1970s, if Woody Allen was all about using Jewish smarts to manage the world’s insults and sorrows, Henry Kissinger was all about using Jewish smarts to manage the world.

This brilliant refugee from Nazi Germany with the gravelly voice, Teutonic accent, and thick Poindexter glasses, embodied the pinnacle of a certain type of Jewish aspiration and achievement in 20th-century America, becoming a Harvard professor in 1954, Richard Nixon’s foreign-policy mastermind in 1969, and the first Jewish secretary of state in 1973, as well as the era’s most surprising sex symbol. For the past four decades, he has remained the dean of America’s foreign-policy establishment, advising presidents and foreign governments alike. Just this month, at the Atlantic Council, Hillary Clinton wished him an early happy birthday. “Everywhere I go,” she said, “people talk to me about Henry.” Yet at the same time he remains a profoundly polarizing figure. In the last few years alone bloggers have called him a kapo who should have been gassed, and the late Christopher Hitchens pronounced him a “vile creature.”

Jews have similarly ambivalent feelings about the man. The Richard Nixon tapes released in 2010, in which one can hear Kissinger advising the president that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” triggered a new round of denunciations. Indeed, just as Kissinger has long struggled with his Jewish identity, Jews have long struggled with him.

The particularly Jewish indictment of Henry Kissinger features four major aspects: attacking Kissinger as a non-Jewish Jew who was actively ashamed of being Jewish; for his Machiavellian manipulations during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that critics believed spilled more Israeli blood than necessary; for his insensitivity to the plight of Soviet Jewry; and for undermining U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s heroic fight against the General Assembly’s infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution out of a cowardly fear of being “too Jewish.” That each of these charges is backed up by vivid, epigrammatic, self-incriminating statements from Kissinger’s own mouth is not surprising, considering Kissinger’s rhetorical rowdiness in his heyday. Yet each situation was actually more complex than Kissinger’s devastating one-liners suggest and must be understood in the context of Kissinger’s own tragic, traumatic, and yet surprisingly characteristic nine-decade Jewish journey from Fürth to Fifth Avenue.

***

In the 1970s, many traditional Jews considered Henry Kissinger the ultimate contemptible German-American hofjude, the court Jew who succeeded in the world by betraying his people—and himself. In this popular Jewish narrative, Kissinger seemed to imagine that the price of his journey from persecuted Bavarian Jewish teenager who fled the Nazis in 1938, to Washington Heights immigrant yid, to Harvard whiz kid, and then to the White House was to deny his Jewish identity. Critics grumbled about the three S’s: that he married a shiksa on Shabbes and served shrimp—a pained judgment on his second wedding to the tall, blonde, well-bred WASP Nancy Maginnes. Kissinger fueled perceptions of self-hatred by rudely ignoring old friends who called him “Heinz” or tried to “bagel” him—today’s shorthand for the Jewish tendency when out in public to connect, subtly or otherwise, with a fellow member of the tribe. But, as befits an intellectual swashbuckler who coined memorable phrases such as “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” Kissinger distanced himself from his Jewish roots with damning wisecracks. “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be anti-Semitic,” he once quipped, and “any people who has been persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.” Another time, he told a friend, “I was born Jewish, but the truth is that has no significance for me. … America has given me everything.”

In fact, in a sense, Kissinger was right: He needed to negate his identity to climb as high as he did in the Nixon Administration. White House tapes capture Nixon’s contempt for Jews generally—and for his “Jew boy” foreign-policy maven particularly. Especially when Kissinger was national security adviser, Nixon tried banning all Jews from Middle Eastern matters, doubting their objectivity. At one point, after Kissinger analyzed an Israel-related issue, the president crudely asked: “Now, can we get an American point of view?” John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest aides, would recall that “For Kissinger, being Jewish was a vulnerability as he saw it, and he was not fond of being vulnerable. But Nixon liked him to feel that way.”

Yet despite Nixon’s contempt, he also needed Kissinger. Kissinger was the superstar diplomat who helped establish détente with the Soviet Union and Communist China, ending decades of isolation. Kissinger—perhaps the most influential, famous, and talented secretary of state since Thomas Jefferson—was, in foreign-policy circles, both pop star and powerhouse. And later, as the administration imploded in scandal, Kissinger became even more important, reassuring worried Americans and foreigners that all remained normal and functional—even when it was decidedly not.

This rivalry between Nixon and Kissinger—and its toxic turn, thanks to Watergate—provides the essential context to the Yom Kippur War. After Egypt and Syria surprised Israel on its holiest day, Kissinger can be heard saying on the tape that the “best result would be if Israel came out a little ahead but got bloodied in the process.” He believed an Egyptian-Israeli “standoff” could produce a “viable peace agreement.” These comments, as well as Kissinger’s two-and-a-half-hour delay before telling a vacationing Nixon in Key Biscayne, Fla., about the “war dangers,” impute to Kissinger an omnipotence he never had. Israel was so “bloodied” it almost collapsed, suffering 2,656 dead. Kissinger eventually jump-started the Middle East peace process with his “Super-K” peace shuttling that enhanced his legend and established the groundwork for 1979’s Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

All this evidence can be marshaled in a way that blames Kissinger for delaying Israel’s life-or-death military resupply to advance his Machiavellian vision. But that harsh interpretation overlooks the war’s chaos, Nixon’s Watergate distractions, Washington’s bureaucratic torpor, and America’s historic, generous resupply effort—all of which took place within one week. The official who truly resisted the resupply was a different neurotic Marrano with a Germanic-sounding last name—James R. Schlesinger, Nixon’s secretary of defense and Kissinger’s main rival within the administration. Schlesinger, who was born into a middle-class Jewish family of Lithuanian origins and converted to Lutheranism, initially doubted that Israel needed help, so confident was he—like most—that Israel would win easily. Kissinger and Schlesinger clashed over the timing, the volume of weaponry, and America’s direct involvement in the 1973 war. As historian Robert Dallek concludes in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, Kissinger “persuaded Nixon to ignore Schlesinger’s advice and allow him to begin a large-scale resupply of Israel that would allow it to achieve a balanced outcome to the fighting.”

Kissinger’s role in the Soviet Jewry and Zionism-racism struggles is equally morally problematic, while also historically more complex. Having written his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the 19th-century Austrian Prince Metternich and the balance of power, Kissinger sought to teach realist doctrines to the American foreign-policy elite. This practitioner of realpolitik believed that countries have no friends, only interests, and that America should resist sentimental crusades. He viewed emigration as an internal Soviet issue and less pressing than the threat of nuclear destruction—even as he was proud that “quiet diplomacy” had boosted Soviet Jewish emigration levels from 700 in 1969 to almost 40,000 emigrants in 1972.

Kissinger made his offensive remarks while opposing the Henry Jackson-Charles Vanik amendment, which linked America’s granting “most favored nation” trade status to a country’s emigration policy. Kissinger abhorred such intrusive legislative grandstanding, leading to this tone-deaf exchange with Nixon: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Nixon replied: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Other zingers—which I recently publicized in my book on Daniel Patrick Moynihan—include Kissinger mocking Moynihan’s passionate defense of Zionism by saying, “We are conducting foreign policy. … This is not a synagogue,” joking about whether the Irish-Catholic Moynihan wished to convert to Judaism, and dismissing Israel’s leaders during heated negotiations as “the world’s worst shits.”

***

As a conflicted Jew, a proud American, and a driven careerist perfectionist, Kissinger felt contradictory tugs when issues involving Israel crossed his desk. He had built his career as the German intellectual, not the striving Jew. His status as a Nazi refugee and a U.S. Army sergeant who helped de-Nazify Germany during World War II made his Germanic manner proof of brilliance, not a mark of Cain. The outsider even as an insider, he endured the president’s anti-Semitic rants—and then endured the same contemptuous cries of “Jew-boy” from harsh critics in Israel.

As both courtier and careerist, as both traumatized Holocaust survivor and crafty Run-Sammy-Run, Portnoy-like, all-American striver, Kissinger absorbed the anti-Semitism around him and encouraged it, seemingly to prove his independence from his “co-religionists.” In late 1974, while briefing the president aboard Air Force One, speaking of American Jews, Kissinger said: “Their power in the United States derives from campaign financing. It is not easy to explain to the American people why we must oppose 115 million Arabs who possess all the world’s oil, permanently, on behalf of a nation of 3 million.” Kissinger’s words unconsciously, pathetically, echoed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George S. Brown, who explained “Jewish influence in this country” and American support for Israel by looking “where the Jewish money is.”

But it was Israel’s own behavior that most frequently frustrated Kissinger. At one point, he condemned Israel’s leaders as “a sick bunch” for their backstage maneuvering against him with reporters and members of Congress; and as an ambitious American leader trying to save the world, he resented this small country’s disdain for his country’s big-picture needs. In one of many Oval Office tantrums President Gerald Ford’s stenographers recorded, the secretary of state denounced the Israelis as “fools, “common thugs,” and “the basic cause of the trouble.” “This is terribly painful to me,” the ever-melodramatic Kissinger confessed. “I am Jewish. How can I want this? I have never seen such cold-blooded playing with the American national interest.” When accused of bullying Israel, Kissinger was not above playing the Shoah card, asking: “How can I, as a Jew who lost 13 relatives in the Holocaust, do anything that would betray Israel?”

In his legendary post-government career as consultant, author, and elder statesman, Kissinger has been much less insecure personally and much more focused on guaranteeing Israel’s security. In what might be seen by some as his own form of penitence, Kissinger has over the past three and a half decades used his unique perch to champion the American-Israel relationship as good for America—not just for Israel. Shortly after leaving office in November, 1977, Kissinger declared: “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples.” Thirty-five years later, upon getting one of Israel’s highest civilian honors from his friend Shimon Peres, Kissinger spoke about Israel being “in many respects an island of stability and of domestic cohesion at a moment of upheaval everywhere else, although you couldn’t necessarily prove that from debates going on sometimes in the Knesset.”

While reflecting most Jews’ still surprisingly insecure odyssey in America, Henry Kissinger nevertheless embodies the American dream. You did not have to flee Nazi Germany as a young man to perceive pressures to fit in, to act “normal,” to abandon your unique religious and ethnic heritage in order to enjoy America’s bounty—or to delight in how far you have traveled socially, economically, culturally. “Can you believe she is a member of the Colony Club and wants to marry me?” Walter Isaacson quotes Henry Kissinger as saying in his 893-page biography, about his second wife, Nancy.

In fact, American Jewish history is filled with more Gatsbyesque Henry Kissingers than Wiesel-like Joseph Liebermans, Jews who remained religiously pious and flamboyantly Jewish while rising politically. American Jewish life is also filled with many older men and women who, having succeeded—and aged—recalibrated their internal identities and remade their external images to incorporate more Jewish elements into their lives. At his worst, of course, Kissinger was far too European, brutally sacrificing his dignity and his country’s conscience in implementing amoral policies. But at his best, he used realpolitik to advance American ideals that made the world, including America and Israel, a better, safer place—while the utopianism that underlies those ideals has been the key to much American Jewish success. This underlying American optimism helps explain Kissinger’s enduring greatness and influence, providing a deep sense of vision, mission, and security, even amid all our—and his—blind spots, shortcomings, and insecurities.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
Noah Efron says:

This is a terrific short portrait of a complicated and tragicomic figure. A subject, perhaps, for Troy’s ninth book?

Nanush says:

When Heinz Kissinger was a member of Ezra, the “modern” ultra Orthodox youth movement in Germany, he wrote an article in the groups newsletter: “Palestine Must be a Torah State.”

I remember his parents at the Poalei Agudas Israel synagogue in Washington Heights. Of course, many apples roll far from the tree, yet I once heard this story from its protagonist: On a helicopter flight during Begin’s premiership, Kissinger was handed a file from Yad Vashem, with the fates of all of his family members murdered in the Holocaust. He remained silent and lost in thought.

In addition to all that, Kissinger is reviled by the far left as a “war criminal”. It takes some talent to make yourself odious to both the far right AND the far left!

Henry Kissinger will always be a source of pride and shame for us. His Metternician view of Realpolitik is the source of many Anti-Israel screeds. Yet, the Egypt-Israel peace holds. Who can say? Not me.

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel (הלל) (born Babylon traditionally c.110 BCE, died 10 CE. So help bring these Longhorns home to Israel to help defend the Ranches and farms, and help the herds with their desert genetics http://longhornproject.org/

Nola Baar says:

A war criminal…supporter of regimes in South America that murdered thousands, including many Jews…engineer of the 1973 coup in Chile that resulted in more bloodshed and suffering…Cambodia…Vietnam…friend of tyrants…Mazal tov!
At least he loves soccer.

This from an Indian,..H.K is a dark blot on the name of…the good people of Israel whom i will always wish well

and who have been persecuted in Europe and elsewhere for no reason…shalom

musia schwartz says:

excellent article. complex portrait drawn with elegant grace and ease. evocative, insightful trying not to judge. salutes Gil Troy.

Nola Baar says:

http://www.counterpunch.org/2002/04/28/henry-kissinger-wanted-man/
for a taste of what this “statesman” is made of. A simple search on the web will reveal the life is this murderer.

ronaldkoven@gmail.com says:

An aide to Kissinger when he was Secy. of State recounted that at a meeting he had with Jewish leaders in NY Kissinger said to them: “Don’t ask for special treatment because we all know what ‘special treatment’ means.”

The man should have been tried as a war criminal in the Hague. Period.

Michael Kadin says:

Henry Kissinger and his deeds speak. He did so many cruel political horrors all in the name of United States Security.

I’m sorry his old friend Klaus Barbie couldn’t be here to celebrate with us.

DavRPeters says:

Henry the K, probably the only Jew who would be shot on sight were he to set foot in Israel (my mother-in-law would have used dull bullets), was not only a conflicted Jew but disgraceful example of an amoral American political animal. He resented the Israelis because they outmaneuvered him, which tells you that it was his glory he was interested in.

He made a statement once that he saw himself as a Knight Shining Armor, riding in to save the day. This, while he was Secretary of State; it was in fact his own admission that he could not manage affairs well enough to prevent matters from coming to a head. If ever there was a confession of incompetence, I have never heard one more openly stated.
He may have had a great career afterwards, but that merely proves that he was neither a good Jew or a good American; he was and is simply, Henry the K.

Mike says:

War criminal. That’s all. Just a war criminal. An article like this that does not mention his role in Chile and Vietnam is not a serious appraisal of the man. Since he’s never claimed to act as a Jew, or for Jewish reasons, I suppose it matters not at all that he began his life as a Jew. But he is truly one of the evil ones of the 20th century – if you feel that he is in some way a member of the tribe, then he can only be a source of shame.

Do Jews really have “ambivalent feelings” about him? I doubt very many do.

jadezakozyl says:

мy вeѕт ғrιeɴd’ѕ ѕтep-мoтнer мαĸeѕ $85/нoυr oɴ тнe coмpυтer. ѕнe нαѕ вeeɴ oυт oғ worĸ ғor 10 мoɴтнѕ вυт lαѕт мoɴтн нer cнecĸ wαѕ $1З445 jυѕт worĸιɴɢ oɴ тнe coмpυтer ғor α ғew нoυrѕ. reαd мore oɴ тнιѕ weв ѕιтe Zap2­2­.c­o&shym&shy

Natan79 says:

Kissinger was an enemy of Israel and remains a filthy bastard.

Natan79 says:

I hate Kissinger but don’t come with Counterpunch here. They are Nazis.

Natan79 says:

Kissinger is not tragic. He’s a piece of shit career murderer. A truly evil man.

Natan79 says:

Not for long. Then he used it to act against Israel. May his memory be erased.

Juanvictor says:

And the not so far left! In addition to his culpability in Vietnam, Cambodia and Chile, there was his “tilt” towards dictatorial Pakistan in its war with democratic India over the independence of Bangladesh. And there was his support for the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Quite a record, one way or another!

ajweberman says:

Dirty pig genocidal scum. Nixon was more pro-Israel

Habbgun says:

Is it just me or does HK have the same ugly vibe as George Soros?

RS81 says:

What a vapid, evasive article. While Kissinger may have made some positive contributions to US foreign policy such as the rapprochement with China and his role in Mid East shuttle diplomacy, he has an abysmal overall record of actively supporting and abetting fascist murders and torturers from Greece to Indonesia, Chile to Vietnam. How any intellectual could write an article in good faith about the man’s legacy without seriously grappling with, let alone mentioning, this well know record is beyond me. There are reasons most American Jews have ambivalent feelings about Kissinger that have nothing to do with him marrying a shiksa or even his characteristically callous attitude towards Israel and Soviet Jewry. Most American Jews dislike Kissinger for the same reasons that they opposed the murderous Vietnam War, the Southern Cone dictatorships, and support civil rights and human rights principles – principles which Kissinger has time and again proved to be a shameless enemy of.

ignacio illenberger says:

Realpolitik defined: A condition where substance technical, the core the surrounded by the emotions peripheral, struggles to break free.

one. How in the hell is he a dark blot on the name of the people Israeli is not a Israeli he is a American you anti-Semitic dog

I think your left-wing loon. I think Kissinger is a great American

don’t blame Kissinger for what Chilean military did.they got rid of the Marxist government that acting unconstitutional three times Supreme Court of Chile said the government was breaking the law. And they did need to be removed. Chilean military overreact. Yes. You blame FDR for the millions Stalin murdered was our ally in a war against Hitler vaccine murdered more people than Hitler. In time a war, my enemies enemy is my friend as Winston Churchill said if Satan would join me in this battle against Hitler. I would try to say some kind words for him

the Vietnam War was a good and honorable war, which America with Kissinger’s help were victorious. till traitors like Kennedy and other Democrats stop all aid to South Vietnam government and broke our word would not even given medical aid. Even North Korean generals said they lost the war militarily. But thanks to American traitors the South lost

i am pro semitc you moron…….i will back israel through thick
and thin……..but you are a disturbed degenrate idiot …who
needs to buy a dildo asap and satisfy your frustrations

hopefully, you’ll contract some slow-acting but deadly cancer

it’s just you projecting your hatred and ignorance

The one thing Kissinger never failed to prove was that he was always the most brilliant man in the room.

He could be reviled; he could be mistrusted; and he could be called a traitor to any and all causes.

But you could never call him a fool

ajweberman says:

get AIDS and die

HolylandIsraelTours says:

Kissinger may be a great American but he is a double crossing self hating Jew who was responsible for close to 3,000 Israeli deaths in 1973. We will never forgive him.

Juanvictor says:

So, if Kissinger isn’t to be judged by his ethics but by his “brilliance”, what, in terms of Realpolitik, was his most significant achievement?

US fostering of China’s emergence as a now rival superpower

The rest of his legacy is like the sands of the desert, blown hither and thither by the winds of subsequent events.

Some genius! Even his hero Metternich did better.

Natan79 says:

This says little about Kissinger, who is pretty stupid. It does say however a lot about those he spent time with. Were you in the room with him?

Natan79 says:

My plastic broom is smarter than you.

Natan79 says:

Hopefully you will die soon and painfully.

Natan79 says:

You’re a shitty anti-Semite. What are you doing here? Go worship Kissinger where he belongs, at Stormfront.

Natan79 says:

Kissinger is an evil man and a proven and true anti-Semite.

Natan79 says:

Go fuck yourself, cretinous troll.

Natan79 says:

Go screw your dog once more, you Nazi.

CiporaJuliannaKohn says:

Kissinger’s sin is his insufferable insecurity which he hid under an even greater narcissism and hubris. His overtly anti-Semitic remarks are the result of a deep character flaw. If he succeeded, he did so despite these flaws, not on account of them.
Kissinger is a cold, pathological man, a man without manners or refinement but with an outsized ambition. He did not understand that the role of the United States was to be an example and symbol of freedom for the individual. He therefore did not understand that among nations realpolitik becomes diminished without American idealism. He is very lucky indeed that better men than he strongly advocated for Jewish emigration from the USSR and that Soviet Jews did not suffer a final solution.

Kissinger has some accomplishments as a diplomat, but as a man he is deeply flawed. His intelligence was not suffused by wisdom or by what Jews call chessed. Kissinger is neither likeable nor truly admirable.

Lone Crusader says:

Yes. Masterminding the US Defense Department’s laboratory manufacturing of HIV as part of his Population Control strategy as one of his unspoken of antics.

Raymond_in_DC says:

“At one point, he condemned Israel’s leaders as “a sick bunch” for their backstage maneuvering against him with reporters and members of Congress; and as an ambitious American leader trying to save the world, he resented this small country’s disdain for his country’s big-picture needs.”

In other words, Kissinger wanted Israel to sacrifice its own interests, rights and well-being for the “greater interests” of the US. Would he have expected any other country, especially another small, vulnerable country, to so sacrifice itself? Did he similarly believe Czechoslovakia should have willingly sacrificed its interests for Europe’s big-picture needs?

Morrissey says:

War criminal.

Morrissey says:

“Don’t blame Kissinger for what the Chilean military did.”

???!!!?!?!?

Gentlemen, I believe we have just witnessed the stupidest statement of 2013.

Oh hang on! She then immediately supercedes that comic classic by claiming the democratically elected government that Kissinger and Nixon conspired to destroy was a “Marxist” government.

Perhaps if Hannah Blazewick actually did some reading, she might write something that made sense. But I’m not very confident she has enough, or any, respect for scholarship or truthfulness.

Morrissey says:

“the Vietnam War was a good and honorable war”

You are a lunatic.

lumiss says:

Great article. Thanks!

Kissinger is one of the most evil men who has ever walked the planet earth! He is directly responsible for the death or displacement of millions of citizens, from creating the conditions for Pol Pot cambodian killing fields and Pinochet’s 17 year reign of terror in Chile. If he is allowed to go to the grave un-disgraced it will be to our shame!
please check out my campaign at indiegogo . com “try Kissinger as a war criminal” where I am trying to raise funds to support a legal team to have this sickening man brought to justice before a global tribunal. 22,000 of the dead soldiers form the vietnam war are directly attributable to his policies as he sabotaged Johnson’s peace arrangement and caused the war to rage on for another 4 years, this also led to the extended wars in Indochina and destabilized cambodia which in turn created the opportunity for Pol Pot’s revolution. Kissinger created war and unrest everywhere he went and deserves to be hanged. public embarrassment will, however suffice!

richard berube says:

why don’t you go read on the web, on The Campbell-Bannerman report of 1907. You will discover the real reason for the creation of the state of Israel. It is not for the jewish people but more to use them as a war machine to destabilize the region, to continuesly fight war with his neibourg in order to protect the area for his europeans friend….

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Kissinger

The influential former secretary of state—courtier, careerist, proud American, conflicted Jew—turns 90

More on Tablet:

The Right Hand Washes the Left

By Toby Perl Freilich — How ultra-Orthodox Jews and the secular left are forging an unlikely peace coalition in Israel