WASHINGTON (JTA) — Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who brokered a Balkan peace and who enjoyed talking about his Jewish roots, has died.
Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, suffered a torn aorta last Friday and was hospitalized. The State Department announced his death on Monday. He was 69.
In a statement, President Obama said he was "deeply saddened by the passing of Richard Holbrooke, a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected. He was a truly unique figure who will be remembered for his tireless diplomacy, love of country, and pursuit of peace."
Holbrooke worked in foreign policy for Democratic presidents since the late 1960s, and spent his time out of government as an investment banker.
President Clinton named Holbrooke as ambassador to Germany in 1993. Holbrooke, who became known for his confrontational style, prominently hung a photo of his grandfather in a German World War I uniform at the ambassador’s residence and would point out to German visitors that this proud German patriot also happened to have been Jewish.
As assistant secretary of state for Europe in 1994, assigned by Clinton the task of resolving the Bosnian war, Holbrooke worked tirelessly and would brook no refusals. By the beginning of 1996 he had forged a peace deal, the Dayton accords, that seemed shaky but has endured. A number of Jewish groups honored Holbrooke for his breakthrough.
Both of Holbrooke’s parents were assimilated Jews whose families had immigrated to the United States from Europe — his mother from Germany, his father born to Russian parents in Warsaw.
He became more interested in his Judiasm when his third wife, and widow, Kati Marton, raised a Roman Catholic, discovered that her own parents were Hungarian Jews who hid their identity.
In his 1998 book about the Dayton accords, "To End a War," Holbrooke couldn’t resist comparing the late Yitzhak Rabin to the Balkan leaders he had come to revile.
Rabin "had been murdered because he had been willing to consider a compromise for peace. The reaction of the Balkan presidents was cold-blooded and self-centered; this showed, each said separately, what personal risks they were taking for peace," he said. "None expressed sorrow for Rabin or the Israeli people or concern for the peace process."
In a May, 2008 column in the Washington Post marking Israel’s 60th birthday, Holbrooke wrote: "Israel was going to come into existence whether or not Washington recognized it. But without American support from the very beginning, Israel’s survival would have been at even greater risk. Even if European Jewry had not just emerged from the horrors of World War II, it would have been an unthinkable act of abandonment by the United States. Truman’s decision, although opposed by almost the entire foreign policy establishment, was the right one — and despite complicated consequences that continue to this day, it is a decision all Americans should recognize and admire."