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Elan Steinberg — unyielding in defense of the Jewish people

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NEW YORK (JTA) — Elan Steinberg’s untimely death on Passover eve last week after a brief struggle with a terrible illness precipitated a degree of introspection and considerable reflection about the man, his work and the legacy he leaves for the Jewish people. Elan Steinberg would describe himself best as a simple man with simple passions. 

He loved information. He consumed it by the volumes. But unlike most, Elan did not store information simply to recount its details at opportune moments to create an aura of faux intelligence. Rather, Elan used information — of any variety — as actionable intelligence, tidbits of data to guide action. He was not concerned with debating philosophical principles or theoretical abstracts. 

Elan focused on the here and now, choosing to participate in shaping his world instead of simply living in it, in moving the machine of international politics instead of simply rotating as a cog in it.

Elan also was a master strategist and communications expert. He correctly viewed the media as the very arena in which the game of politics was exhibited, and he played the sport as well as anyone. So powerful was Elan’s ability to craft and deliver his message that the media often reported the outcomes of meetings before they had even concluded, and foreign diplomats never were in doubt as to where they stood with the World Jewish Congress. 

Fair-minded individuals who are able to look beyond the recriminations of the past decade will recognize that the success of the World Jewish Congress in the 1980s and ’90s — in exposing and marking Kurt Waldheim for his Nazi past; fighting to free prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union; achieving Spanish and Vatican recognition for the State of Israel; and exposing the Swiss banks and fighting for a small measure of justice on behalf of Holocaust victims and their families — very much was attributed to three distinct yet inseparable powers. 

Despite their ignominious breakup and subsequent exits, Singer, Bronfman and Steinberg partnered in history.

There was the international cache, principled and decisive leadership, and stately demeanor of Edgar M. Bronfman. The political skill, creativity, intellect, wit and charm of Israel Singer. And the force of Elan Steinberg’s determination and the power of his spear-tipped tongue.  

Together, these three individuals led the World Jewish Congress with a simple creed: justice for Jews wherever they may be.

 They were unafraid to face any foe — not the president of a country, the leader of 1 billion Catholics or the most sacred of all financial institutions. They were the diplomatic Davids of the Jewish people, confronting the Goliaths of the secular world with zeal, vigor and unparalleled results. 

Their collective partnership spanning 2 1/2 decades benefited the Jewish people in ways most cannot fathom. I remember learning an important principle of Jewish leadership from both Israel Singer and Elan Steinberg: Always focus on the external threats and internal opportunities; never engage in fights among Jews. 

These lessons served well for their 25 years working together and led to some of the greatest moments in Jewish history in the latter half of the 20th century.

King Solomon taught that it is better to be present in a house of mourning than to find oneself in a house of levity. So there I found myself among the mourners at Elan Steinberg’s funeral last Friday. 

Just hours before the beginning of the Jewish people’s celebration of redemption from Egyptian bondage, Elan’s three children cried and tried to put words to his life and meaning to their own grief. The frailty of human life and the simple power of every moment we have on this earth was palpable.

As I followed the bereaved and escorted Elan out of the chapel, I thought of all that had been accomplished, all that was left undone and all that might have been. 

It is said that the final positive act that a deceased can perform in the world of the living is for his departure to be a moment of inspiration to those left behind. And so I suppose a message can be found not only in the untimely death of Elan Steinberg and in the sorrow of his wife and three children, but also in the principles and values that enabled him to partner with others in being a guide for the history and benefactor of justice for the Jewish people. 

Those principles and values seem self-evident, but they often get lost in the daily internecine battles of domestic politics: Unite relentlessly to fight the external battles that need to be fought; be unyielding in the defense of the Jewish people; and never turn against a fellow Jew, for in the end we have only each other.

(Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro is the former deputy secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.)

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