I cannot remember reading anything as despicable or callous as Henry Kissinger's observation, captured for posterity on secret White House recordings newly released by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, that "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."
Kissinger, then National Security Adviser, made the odious remarks on March 1, 1973, to President Nixon after Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had requested American intervention on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Nixon's response was no less disconcerting. "I know," he said. "We can't blow up the world because of it."
Kissinger and Nixon would have been right at home with the most extreme elements of the America First crowd who desperately wanted to keep the United States out of any European conflict during the 1930's and early 1940's.
"Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?" asked the hate spewing Father Charles Coughlin in January of 1939.
Along the same lines, Charles Lindbergh, reaching essentially the identical basic conclusion as Kissinger would 31 and a half years later, declared in a speech in Des Moines on September 11, 1941, that "the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war."
The literary critic George Steiner once wrote that if Hitler had ceased his territorial expansionism after the annexation of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, "Dachau, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt would have operated in the middle of twentieth-century civilization until the last Jew had been made soap. There would have been brave words on Trafalgar Square and in Carnegie Hall... But no foreign power would have taken action."
Kissinger's mindbogglingly perverse 1973 comments validate Steiner's thesis. Since the United States had not yet become a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention during the Nixon years -- Congress did not ratify it until 1988 -- Kissinger clearly did not believe that the United States had even a moral obligation to implement the Convention's spirit. In his utilitarian conception of American foreign policy, "if they put Jews into gas chambers... it is not an American concern."
Kissinger's attitude toward his Jewish identity has always been, to say the least, conflicted. On his first visit to Israel as Secretary of State, he was reluctant to visit Yad Vashem and only agreed to go to the country's official Holocaust memorial when it was pointed out to him that other foreign ministers did so as a matter of course. In 1985, he publicly supported President Reagan's controversial decision to lay a wreath at the German military cemetery at Bitburg where members of Hitler's Waffen-SS lie buried. He opposed building the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., warning ominously that having such a museum on federal grounds would constitute "too high a profile" for American Jews and would "reignite anti-Semitism."
The crux of the issue, of course, is that Kissinger, in addition to being the quintessential court Jew, is also a hypocrite. He obviously has no problem with the fact that he and his family were given refuge in the United States when they fled Nazi persecution in 1938. Unlike the biblical Joseph who used his position of power in Egypt to save his people from famine, the motto Kissinger lived by seems to have been, "hoist the lifeboat's gangplank now that I'm on board."
Indeed, Kissinger has consistently been far warmer toward his native Germany, which he and his family fled in 1938, than toward the people into which he happened to have been born. Upon receiving a medal in 2007 from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, for example, he euphemistically referred in passing to "the difficulties of my childhood" before bestowing lavish praise on Germany and German society. Not a word about Nazism. Not a word about having been a persecuted Jew. Not a word about the millions of Jews murdered by Germany during World War II.
Still, Kissinger has disingenuously exploited his refugee status when it suited his purposes. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, quotes him as telling Jewish leaders, "How can I, as a Jew who lost thirteen relatives in the Holocaust, do anything that would betray Israel?"
In 2007, Kissinger was the keynote speaker at New York City's annual citywide Holocaust commemoration at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Presumably, had the organizers known that he considered the prevention of another genocide against Jews to be no more than "maybe a humanitarian concern," he might not have been invited.
Now that Kissinger's true nature has been exposed, the Jewish community and Jewish institutions must draw the appropriate consequences. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, and the Weizmann Institute should strip him of the honorary doctorates they bestowed on him. Similarly, the American Jewish Committee should demand that he return its American Liberties Medallion, and the ADL should rescind the America's Democratic Legacy Award with which they honored him.
Sheer intellect, without more, is not enough for statesmanship. Perhaps our fascination with a man whose moral compass turns out to have been non-existent has finally come to an end.
(This article was first published in The Jewish Week)
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants