Kissinger Satisfies Few With Apology for Comment on Jews in Soviet Gas Chambers

Jewish historians are dismissing an apology by Henry Kissinger, offered over the weekend in response to a 1973 recording of him saying that sending Jews to a Soviet gas chamber "is not an American concern."

The 37-year-old comment by the former secretary of state followed immediately after a conversation Kissinger and President Richard Nixon had with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

In the meeting, Meir asked the U.S. to pressure the Soviet Union to release its Jews. Nixon and Kissinger declined.

"The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy," Kissinger is reportedly heard saying on the tape. "And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern."

"I know. We can't blow up the world because of it," Nixon reportedly replied.

Writing an op-ed that appeared Sunday in The Washington Post, Kissinger said it was unfortunate that his words were taken out of context.

"The conversation at issue arose not as a policy statement by me but in response to a request by the president," Kissinger said, explaining that Nixon had wanted two senators to withdraw an amendment to trade negotiations that would have tied Jewish emigration to most-favored nation status. The amendment, known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment, passed into law anyway, chilling the detente that Nixon had pursued with the USSR.

"My answer tried to sum up that context in a kind of shorthand that, when read 37 years later, is undoubtedly offensive," Kissinger wrote.

But Jewish historians claim Kissinger's attempt to rebrand history not only is inaccurate, it undermines his stature.

"Henry Kissinger can apologize but he cannot erase the historic horror of his comment. He can explain it away, but he cannot make his new legacy go away," said Edwin Black, author of the newly released "The Farhud," a book that details the history of Arab violence against Jews and eventual Arab-Nazi collaboration.

Black said Kissinger, whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, has now defined himself as "the archetypal assimilationist Jew" who could never help his people because he hid behind immoral platitudes.

"What he failed to understand is that you cannot distance yourself from your heritage because that distance will not be determined by you but by others," Black said.

In his apology, Kissinger argued that it was because of Nixon's policies that Jews were able to get out of the Soviet Union.

"Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union had never been put forward by any administration as a formal American position, not because of moral insensitivity but because intense crises imposed other priorities. In 1969, we introduced it into the presidential channel as a humanitarian issue because we judged that a foreign policy confrontation would lead to rejection and an increase of tensions with the Soviets," he wrote.

"As a result, Jewish emigration rose from 700 a year in 1969 to near 40,000 in 1972. The total in Nixon's first term was more than 100,000. ... To maintain this flow by quiet diplomacy, we never used these figures for political purposes," Kissinger added.

"Everybody wants to take credit for helping the Jews out, but never in that time did I think I'd hear Henry Kissinger take credit," said Gal Beckerman, a staff writer for the Forward newspaper, a Jewish publication, and author of the newly released "When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,"

"It's just objectively wrong, there's no figures to back that up at all," Beckerman said.

Beckerman concurred with Kissinger that immediately after Congress passed the disputed amendment tying trade to Jewish emigration that the Soviets clamped down on the Jews. But he said Kissinger refused to acknowledge that the crumbling Soviet Union eventually buckled when it realized it needed to let the Jews leave if it wanted to make deals with the United States.

President Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, realized the power of the linkage, he said.

"For Reagan, actually, this cause was tailor-made in some sense. Reagan was a cold warrior, and what better poster children to express that concept than these Soviet Jews. ... It spoke to him on a very fundamental level that this is what's wrong with this society," Beckerman said.

Abe Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, refused to pass judgment on the 1973 recording.

"Here's President Nixon, who came to the defense of Israel, who intervened time and time again to protect Israel. He understood that Israel is part of America's national security interests and yet he was bigoted against Jews, he was a bigot, he was an anti-Semite. And so when Kissinger, in that type of intimidating atmosphere, I'm not ready to judge. I’m sure he wishes he hadn't said it," Foxman is quoted telling

Asked about the subsequent op-ed, ADL told "We've expressed ourselves on the content of the comments quite clearly and directly, and we prefer to leave the debate on what was, or wasn't, to historians."

Several other organizations expressed similar dismay at the secretary's remarks but Beckerman said responses like Foxman's are a "pop-psychology explanation" of Kissinger's actions.

"It speaks to someone almost overcompensating. 'I have to please my anti-Semitic boss and prove to him I'm more loyal to him than my people,'" Beckerman said.

In reality, Beckerman said Kissinger didn't believe morality should be a factor in trying to take down the Soviets.

"He believed that you made a distinction between American foreign policy and American interests, it's not about American ideals. It seems obvious to me that's where he's coming from -- 'I'm not going to let moral issues destroy this web I'm building with the Soviets,'" he said.

Black added that Kissinger's logic then and now is faulty because separating the morality of events from political objectives already proved disastrous in World War II.

"No one is better when anyone is gassed," Black said. "And the idea that the gassing of a community stops at a border was proven erroneous by Adolf Hitler."