by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Whatever you may think of Henry Kissinger, he has been the most influential secular Jew by birth (outside Israel), in world affairs in recent times. Regardless of the merits of the cases for and against, there is no doubt that he equaled many of the achievements (and compromises) of the Court Jews of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.
Both because of his brilliance and his diplomatic skills, his talent has been harnessed in one way or another by every American president since 1969 and he has continued to play a role as an independent diplomatic advisor ever since. Kissinger received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, primarily for helping to bring the Vietnam War to a close.
He insisted that the US stand firm and show strength against tyranny and totalitarianism. And yet when it came to American interests, he had no problem interacting with and supporting tyrants. He believed in what is called Realpolitik or pragmatism. Kissinger pioneered a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, opened up diplomatic relations with China, negotiated an end to the Yom Kipur War, and brought Sadat and Begin together. He negotiated the end of the Vietnam War. On the debit side, he was associated with bombing Cambodia, the 1973 Chilean Military Coup, Argentina’s military Junta, and supporting the Pakistan genocide in Bangladesh. He supported Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery where the SS elite is buried.
At the age of 99, he has just published a new book Leadership: Six Studies in World Leadership (Jun 2022) describing the careers of leaders he admired, Konrad Adenauer, of Germany, Charles De Gaul of France, Richard Nixon, of the USA, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and Margaret Thatcher of the UK. Controversial leaders, who polarized their societies and yet had definite and largely successful visions for their homelands, despite their imperfections. Significantly he points out that they were all deeply religious, with the possible exception of Lee Kuan Yew.
He says that faith in the future is the indispensable quality for a successful leader and the elevated purposes they claim to inculcate. And that no society can remain great if it loses faith in itself or if it systematically impugns its self-perception. He laments the erosion of moral purpose and the religious belief that often underpinned western societies and looks aghast at these divisive destructive features of American politics today.
In 2015 Niall Ferguson published the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s authorized biography which was criticized for being too apologetic because he rejected the claims that Kissinger was evil, Machiavellian, and personally responsible for every mistake in American foreign policy.
Ferguson makes a persuasive case that he did indeed have ideals but that he realized that without pragmatism those ideals could and would be subordinated and undermined, as now seems to be the fate of liberal European and American idealism. Kissinger admired Immanuel Kant. His Harvard thesis, still the longest ever submitted, examined the contributions of the nineteenth-century European powerbrokers, Bismarck, Castlereagh, and Metternich. It argued for stability and practicality over revolution and uncontrolled idealism. His early contribution to the political debate was the concept of limited use of the nuclear option if it helped prevent a far greater catastrophe.
Kissinger remains a controversial and polarizing figure in U.S. politics, venerated by some as a highly effective U.S. Secretary of State. Condemned by others as a war criminal (I’d love to know which Secretary of State has done a better job). Ferguson ends the volume before the Yom Kipur War. Opinion is still divided as to whether Kissinger was the hero or the villain in that crisis and whether it was General Hague who in practice ensured that Israel would have the arms to recover and win.
Although some Jews like to claim him as one of ours, his whole career seems to have been an escape from everything Jewish. The Nixon tapes have recorded him remaining silent as his master excoriates Jews in general. When he returned from the war in Europe, he told his father, “Certain ties bound in convention mean nothing to me. I have come to judge men on their merits.” He told Golda Meir he was an American first, a Nixonite second, and a Jew last.
She replied that in Israel they go from Right to Left! In Israel, he was not liked because he was perceived as pressurizing Golda Meir more than the Arab states and the Palestinians. It was felt that his policies ignored the role of the PLO in fomenting violence and avoiding peace. Putting all the onus on Israel which, over the years has only extended the violence instead of ending it.
In his nineties, he attended a Holocaust event for the first time. But in recent years he has been seen in Orthodox Synagogues on the High Holy Days. Surprisingly he now laments the erosion of moral purpose and religious belief.
Kissinger’s moderation between idealism and pragmatism is a very Jewish position. It is a balance between the extreme of idealism and the extreme of pragmatism. Neither is always right. Judaism allows its principles and laws to be sacrificed to save a life, except in the three cases of murder, adultery, or cursing God. Survival trumps all the rest. Idealism can be self-defeating if taken to extremes. Pacifism is not a Jewish value. Idealism can also be a threat when it may lead to the ultimate betrayal and defeat of Western values, by both fascism, Marxism, and religious barbarism, all of which claim to be idealists. This seems to be the way things are going in the world. Capitulation to bullies on both sides instead of interaction, moderation, and cooperation.
As Kissinger writes that faith in the future is the indispensable quality for a successful leader and the elevated purposes they hope to achieve. And that no society can remain great if it loses faith in itself or if it systematically impugns its self-perception. This applies to us too.
Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.