"It’s a shame you’ll never use it," the examiner told Gil Kulik when he passed the Hebrew proficiency test after joining the U.S. foreign service in 1966.
The State Department didn’t send Jews to the Middle East — especially to Israel.
So Kulik received the requisite pay raise for foreign-language skills and, like scores of other Jewish foreign-service officers, prepared for a career elsewhere.
But the examiner was dead wrong.
Kulik landed on the team that prepared Samuel Lewis for his confirmation hearings to serve as U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Impressed with the young foreign-service officer, Lewis, who served in Tel Aviv from 1977 to 1983, made Kulik the first Jewish political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Many current and former Jewish diplomats credit former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — though not deeply identified as a Jew — for paving the way for Jews in the foreign service.
"Kissinger ended the isolation of Jews in the foreign service," said Arthur Berger, who, like Kulik, was told he would never go to Israel.
In fact, Berger, too, was posted in Israel — as a spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in 1982.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former Jewish State Department officials and diplomats reveal the increased opportunities available to Jews now entering the foreign service.
The State Department would not release figures on the religious makeup of its staff, but one official said American Jews — including observant and committed Jews — are flocking to diplomatic careers.
If Kissinger broke the glass ceiling for Jewish diplomats, Kulik’s boss cleared away the remaining shards.
By the end of Lewis’ tour, three of the four officers assigned to the embassy’s political section were Jews.
Today, Kulik, who serves as director of communications at the New Israel Fund and Berger, director of communications at the American Jewish Committee, are watching from afar as President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — who discovered her own Jewish roots earlier this year — complete the process of opening all doors to Jews.
History was made recently when Martin Indyk was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs.
Indyk’s appointment comes on the heels of Stuart Eizenstat’s swearing in as undersecretary of state for economics.
Indyk, a former official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the first Jew to serve as ambassador to Israel, is also the first Jew to serve in the top Middle East policy post.
Not since Kissinger has an American Jew had such a strong say in overall U.S. Middle East policy.
Taken alone, Indyk’s meteoric rise from academia to the State Department’s seventh floor is quite a feat.
But Indyk now is one of more than a dozen American Jews in top State Department positions — positions that were once off-limits to Jews. Among the others are:
Dennis Ross, who heads the U.S. peace process team as special Middle East coordinator and counselor to Albright;
Aaron Miller, deputy special Middle East coordinator; and
Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
Other Jews currently serving in senior foreign-policy posts, include:
Marc Grossman, assistant secretary for European and Canadian affairs;
Princeton Lyman, assistant secretary of state for international organizations;
Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs;
Jeffrey Davidow, assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs; and
James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, spokesman.
In addition, Jewish career foreign-service officers and political appointees hold the post of current or immediate past ambassadors to Switzerland, Brazil, Nepal, Romania, Spain, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Morocco and Malaysia.
But deeper than numbers lies a historic shift taking place for Jews in the United States’ diplomatic machine.
Gone are the days when American Jews looked on with envy as presidents named Italian Americans as ambassadors to Italy and Irish Americans as ambassadors to Ireland.
Gone are the days when so-called Arabists determined U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Indeed, an article in the October issue of the professional journal of the American Foreign Service Association, Foreign Service — headlined "Where’ve the Arabists Gone?" — laments the changes taking place.
"If any other group had taken over, there would have been a big storm, but with the Jewish-American takeover, nobody has the courage to speak," William Rugh, a former ambassador to Yemen, was quoted as saying.
A new term, "Jewish Arabists," has cropped up in right-wing circles to describe their view of the Jews who lead the Middle East peace process team.
During Indyk’s tenure as ambassador to Israel, a member of Knesset from the hard-line Moledet Party, Rehavam Ze’evi, referred derisively to Indyk as "that Yid" during a Knesset debate in which he was critical of American Middle East policy.
Almost all those interviewed — career officers as well as political appointees — credit the Indyk-Ross peace team with silencing charges that Jews cannot serve U.S. interests when conflicts arise with Israel.
Ross, along with Kurtzer and Miller, began his work in the Bush administration and stayed on under Clinton. Indyk joined the Clinton administration in 1993.
This distinction suggests that the time has come when it doesn’t matter whether the administration is Democratic or Republican, or what the degree of warmth is between Israel and the United States.
It took years of hard work to prove that Jewish diplomats serve America first – – above Israel and Jewish interests, officials say.
Indicative of the still-sensitive nature of one’s Jewish place at the State Department, however, one senior official who refused to be interviewed for this article groaned, "No good can come from this. Especially because there are so many of us."
Many of the Jewish diplomats at work in the field today vividly remember the impact that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard had on their careers.
The official said many are still recovering from the trauma Pollard caused when he was caught spying for Israel in the United States.
Ironically, Arabs are now complaining of a Jewish bias.
After a rough patch in the peace process, the Palestinian justice minister accused the United States of a "Zionist conspiracy." They point not only to the many Jews at top State Department posts, but also to the National Security Council, which is run by Sandy Berger.
Eizenstat vehemently refutes the charge.
"The peace process is not being made by Jews; it’s being made by Americans," Eizenstat said in a recent interview. "Any suggestion of bias is totally inappropriate and inaccurate.
"Obviously, people bring their perspective," he said, adding that some of the Palestinians "would prefer that perspective would not be shaped by any Jewish background."
Although many current Jewish State Department officials dismiss discussions about the Jewish character of the State Department as fodder for anti-Semites and anti-Israel activists, some have privately acknowledged that one’s upbringing can influence policy decisions.
"All of my life experiences make me who I am," said one official when asked whether Judaism affects his work. "You could ask the same question of any ethnic or religious group."
For Eizenstat, his Jewishness clearly intersected with policy when he served as the top domestic policy adviser in the Carter administration.
He recalled that immediately following the 1979 revolution in Iran, tens of thousands of Iranian Jews trying to get into the United States were stopped by U.S. immigration officers in places such as Vienna and Rome.
So Eizenstat stepped in and convinced President Carter to "order the counselor officers to admit some 50,000 Iranian Jews," rather than send them back because they didn’t have the appropriate visas.
"On issues like that, you do bring your perspective and your background," he said, citing in contrast "what happened during the Holocaust when Jews were kept out."
Although Jews were excluded from top posts until quite recently, one retired foreignservice officer also used his background to help his co-religionists 40 years ago.
William Frost, now the president of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, which supports Jewish studies at the university level, was stationed in Salzburg, Austria, in the 1950s to assist the flood of refugees following the Hungarian revolution.
Frost managed to break through to a former street-car conductor who would speak to no other investigators.
"He asked me if I was Jewish. When I said yes," he felt at home.
Frost arranged for visas to the United States for the man and his family.
Eizenstat, like many Jews in the State Department, continues to face situations where their roots intersect with their official duties.
Cited as the first ambassador to keep a kosher embassy residence when he served in Brussels, Eizenstat’s portfolio now includes a multitude of issues surrounding Nazi gold. He also serves as special envoy on property restitution in Central and Eastern Europe.
Eizenstat is not alone.
Madeleine Kunin, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, was astonished to find her mother’s name on a list of dormant Holocaust-era Swiss bank accounts published earlier this year.
And Albright made a special visit to the Czech Republic during the summer to visit the concentration camps where the Nazis killed her grandparents.
But perhaps one of the most surreal times that faith and duty crossed paths came during the marathon Hebron negotiations in January at Indyk’s official ambassadorial residence in Israel.
Miller, the No. 2 official on the U.S. Middle East peace- process team, called a break during the talks to gather a minyan from the U.S. and Israeli teams to say Kaddish for his mother.
Five of the Americans in the room were Jewish. Together with the Israeli team, they retired to the corner to say evening prayers.
Instead of protesting, Palestinian officials later said they had gained respect for Miller’s devotion to his Judaism.
If the Palestinians were surprised by that unexpected break in their negotiations, imagine the guests at the 1995 Bat Mitzvah of Ross’ daughter who found themselves socializing with the Israeli and Syrian ambassadors.
Call it Bat Mitzvah diplomacy.
(JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.