NEW YORK (JTA) — ‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except, of course, Henry Kissinger’s publicists and strategists who decided that the slowest news day of the year was the perfect time for him to apologize, sort of, for telling Richard Nixon in 1973 that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”
They may finally have realized – an apt epiphany given the season – that by not issuing such an admission of regret earlier, Kissinger had violated his own maxim that “whatever must happen ultimately should happen immediately.” They probably also hoped that no one would pay attention over a holiday weekend and that what has become the most embarrassing contretemps (that’s French for public relations train wreck) in the former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s illustrious career would fade into oblivion.
Not so fast.
For almost two weeks since the now infamous Oval Office remarks first appeared in The New York Times, Kissinger had refused to acknowledge that he had said anything inappropriate. He at first tried to get out from under his predicament with a disingenuous statement that “The quotations ascribed to me in the transcript of the conversation with President Nixon must be viewed in the context of the time.”
Without expressing any contrition whatsoever for what even some of his Jewish defenders deemed to be a “disturbing and even callous insensitivity toward the fate of Soviet Jews,” Kissinger’s statement contended that he and Nixon had, in fact, raised Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union “from 700 per year to close to 40,000 in 1972.” He and the president feared, the statement continued, that efforts to make “Jewish emigration a foreign policy issue” through Congressional legislation – to wit, what became the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment – “would reduce emigration, which is exactly what happened. Jewish emigration never reached the level of 40,000 again until the Soviet Union collapsed.”
Unfortunately for Kissinger, he seems to have gotten his facts wrong. As Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the Reagan administration, pointed out in the Forward, “Kissinger’s analysis is not reflected in the actual emigration data. He was close on the 1970 emigration figure, which was 1,027. His quiet diplomacy during detente did increase that number to an annual average of 20,516 from 1971 to 1974. But after Jackson-Vanik’s passage in 1974, the average for 1975 to 1978 dropped only slightly to 18,271 annually. Then, in 1979, the number of emigrants jumped to 51,320, much more than anything achieved under the Nixon-Kissinger policy.” According to Schifter, it was only after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ensuing “serious deterioration of U.S.-Soviet relations” that Soviet Jewish emigration figures “dropped sharply, reaching a low of 876 in 1984.”
When the furor over the “gas chambers” remarks not only failed to subside but also produced a Clyde Haberman column in The New York Times that considerably raised the temperature, three prominent American Jews wrote a letter to that newspaper chastising Kissinger’s critics. “Never,” they insisted, “have we heard him speak in a disparaging way about the Jewish community.”
The bleeding didn’t stop. During a protest demonstration outside Kissinger’s Manhattan office, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio denounced Kissinger’s remarks as “monstrous,” and the next wave of Anglo-Jewish weeklies across the country brought new excoriations. Jonathan Rosenblum observed in j., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, that “in the cold contemplation of Jews going to the gas chambers, we hear clearly both the desire to curry favor with superiors, even anti-Semitic ones, and the over-compensation to hide an emotional identification.” More acerbically, Michael Berenbaum concluded in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles that Kissinger “was crawling on his hands and knees, betraying his family, his people. He lacked elemental dignity and decency. Those who have called him a ‘court Jew’ are giving Court Jews a bad name.”
It was then and only then that Kissinger bit the bullet and did what he should have done in the first place. In a Washington Post Op-Ed posted online last Friday, Dec. 24, and published on Sunday, Dec. 26, Kissinger wrote, “References to gas chambers have no place in political discourse and I am sorry I made that remark 37 years ago.” His comments, he went on, were “in a kind of shorthand that, when read 37 years later, is undoubtedly offensive.”
What are we to make of this reluctant quasi-apology? To be sure, the requisite expression of remorse, albeit palpably grudging, is there, almost like the allocution a defendant has to make in open court before the judge accepts a guilty plea. And yet, terminal damage to Kissinger’s reputation has, I think, been done.
Why not just move on? Because the one thing Kissinger never did was to tell his boss that he, Kissinger, found Nixon’s bigotry against African-Americans, Irish, Italians and, yes, Jews offensive. Because we don’t know what other nuggets may emerge from the remaining, still unreleased Nixon White House tapes. Because we need to make clear to our leaders and ourselves that pragmatism or opportunism at the expense of conscience and integrity must never be tolerated.
Still, he did say the magic words: “I am sorry.” Kissinger, after all, never publicly expressed any qualms for his acquiescence in the massacres in East Timor, or his covert role in the violent overthrow of the Allende government in Chile. Perhaps we can all be at least a little grateful for small favors.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law at the Cornell University Law School, a distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and a vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)