We’ve become almost numb to revelations about President Richard Nixon’s anti-Semitism and the climate of bigotry he created at the White House, but last week’s release of still more White House tapes was something different: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew whose family fled Nazi Germany in 1938, was heard offering the most callous imaginable assessment of U.S. policy toward those Soviet Jews who were also seeking freedom from tyranny.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” he told Nixon. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
It’s bad enough that the leader of the free world was a raging anti-Semite. What was worse, in some ways, is that he drew the White House staff into his bigoted paranoia. Apparently contempt for Jews and Jewish issues was a kind of Nixon loyalty test, and, sadly, Henry Kissinger seemed to have passed.
While criticizing Kissinger’s remarks, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman said this week that his “contributions to the safety and security of the U.S. 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.”
The concept of hakarat ha-tov, expressing gratitude to others, is a strong Jewish value. But does support for Israel excuse every prejudice, every misguided policy?
In response to the released tapes, Kissinger insisted his remarks should be “viewed in the context of the time” and defended the Nixon administration’s role in raising the emigration levels of Soviet Jews, saying it was able to do that because it “dealt with it as a humanitarian matter separate from the foreign policy issues.”
But the admittedly complex foreign policy realities of that era do not excuse Nixon’s flagrant anti-Semitism or Kissinger’s horribly insensitive words, reflecting his own conflicted, if not tortured, Jewish identity. Isn’t some version of realpolitik the justification of every government that perpetrates or chooses to ignore horrific human rights abuses and even genocide?
The central lessons of the Holocaust are that prejudice in high places can never be tolerated and that stopping genocide must be a priority of every government that claims to be civilized. We ignore those truths at our own peril, and at the peril of new generations of potential victims.
That’s why more than 36 years after Nixon resigned in disgrace, it is still important that we expose and understand the prejudice and contempt that were just as much a part of his administration as his foreign policy accomplishments — including his role in having the U.S. send arms to Israel at a pivotal point in the Yom Kippur War.
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