Vrosenblum, jonathan
Vrosenblum, jonathan

Putting Kissinger on the couch to analyze his gas chambers comment

The tape of conversations between President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger released last week by the Nixon Library contained some pretty ugly stuff, but no great surprises with respect to Nixon.

In earlier tapes, Nixon described Jews as “born spies” and “disloyal,” and suggested that his administration was “trying to run this town while avoiding Jews in government.”

And yet, Nixon’s White House was filled with Jews: his chief counsel, Leonard Garment; chief economic adviser, Herbert Stein; chief speechwriter, William Safire; campaign manager, Murray Chotiner; and, above all, Kissinger, his first national security adviser and later secretary of state.

Commentators have long been puzzled by Nixon’s contrasts (his evident anti-Semitism and stream of ugly statements vs. his employment of many Jews and his 1973 massive airlift of arms to Israel as the Yom Kippur War raged on).

But, actually, it is not nearly so big a paradox as they make out.

While Nixon was beyond what one might call a genteel anti-Semite — someone who tries to avoid the company of Jews and harbors a number of negative stereotypes —he was not obsessed with Jews. He did not see the world, as did Hitler and other lethal anti-Semites, as a cosmic struggle between the forces of good on one side and the Jews on the other.

What ultimately horrifies in the recently released tapes is not Nixon but Kissinger. The latter had barely escaped Furth, Germany with his family in 1938, and he had witnessed the Nazi brutality toward Jews firsthand. Nineteen close family members died in concentration camps.

And yet in the tapes we hear him telling the president, after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, at which she pleaded for U.S. pressure to secure the release of more American Jews: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

That remark did not come in response to anything Nixon had said. Nor did Nixon ever say anything close to that.

Kissinger’s remark sent me scurrying back to Ambassador Yehuda Avner’s book “The Prime Ministers,” in which he records an incident in which Kissinger is approached in Israel in the midst of a shuttle diplomacy mission by a man who greets him, “Heinz, Heinz.” “Heinz — remember me. Wilhelm Furtwangler from Furth. Remember?” said the man extending his

hand. Kissinger threw him a contemptuous look and strode on.

Wilhelm Furtwangler was by that time a prominent Washington, D.C., psychiatrist going by the name Dr. Willie Fort. Not only had he been Kissinger’s closest school chum in Furth, but the Furtwangler and Kissinger families had both moved to Washington Heights and davened in the same shul. In short, there was no chance that Kissinger did not recognize him.

After the incident in question, Dr. Fort, who had become friendly with Avner when he was at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, sat down and provided him with a psychoanalysis of Kissinger, which he urged him to convey to his boss, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

I generally have a strong aversion to psycho-history, which attempts to explain the actions of historical figures in terms of certain psychological traits shared with millions of others. But Kissinger’s background as a teenage refugee is sufficiently rare, and Dr. Fort’s analysis so dead-on in its predictive value that I cannot resist sharing.

Fort began by denying the possibility that Kissinger’s claims not to remember childhood persecutions in Germany could be true. He was already 15 when the family fled, and by 1938, “Jews were being beaten and murdered in the streets.” Kissinger’s father had been dismissed from a prestigious teaching position and the family had to flee for their lives. That experience could not have been anything but traumatic.

While Kissinger presented “an image of self-assurance, strong will and arrogance,” Dr. Fort noted, the insecurities triggered by his refugee status created a “deeply depressive disposition, an apocalyptic view of life, a tendency to paranoia, and an excessive sense of failure when things did not go his way.” Inner doubts triggered “displays of petulance, tantrums, and temper.” Persons like that are often boot-licking to superiors and tyrannical to subordinates.

To this mix, according to Fort, must be added Kissinger’s deep ambivalence about his Judaism. On one hand, he had completely left the religious observance of his parental home; on the other, he could never shed being identified as a Jew. Dr. Fort reported that the Washington grapevine had it that when Nixon wanted to cut Kissinger down to size, he humiliated him with anti-Semitic slurs and even referred to him as “my Jew boy.”

How did all this affect Kissinger’s role as a mediator between Arabs and Israelis? Fort said that people like Kissinger “invariably over-compensate. They go to great lengths to subdue whatever emotional bias they might feel, and lean over backward in favor of the other side to prove they are being even-handed and objective.”

Dr. Fort concluded that Kissinger’s reaction to him had been neurotic, and that he hated his boyhood friend for hurtling him “back into Jewish memories he had spent a lifetime trying to suppress,” just moments after he had been glorying in the world’s spotlight at a press conference in Jerusalem. “You noted how he bridled at my mention of his name, Heinz. He utterly despised me for that … Tell [Rabin] that he should be wary in dealing with our secretary of state. Tell him that deep inside is an insecure and paranoid Jew.”

Avner told me that Rabin’s relationship with Kissinger was more ambivalent than the above sketch might indicate, and that beside moments of high tension were those of closeness. And some subsequent prime ministers continued to consult with Kissinger on geo-political issues once he was out of office.

But 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 described by Dr. Fort.

Jonathan Rosenblum is the director of Jerusalem-based Jewish Media Resources and a spokesman for Israel’s Orthodox community with foreign journalists.