Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

One of the most influential – and controversial – Jews of the 20th century, the Late Henry Kissinger (1923-2023) served as National Security Advisor and as the first foreign-born Secretary of State under presidents Nixon and Ford. As a proponent of Realpolitik, he played a dominant role in American policy between 1969 and 1977, during which time he pioneered the policy of détente, negotiated rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China, and negotiated the SALT I treaty with the Soviet Union. He was known for his strong penchant for duplicity and for being a complex, brilliant, dedicated diplomat who was also secretive and manipulative. His unique style of “shuttle diplomacy” won the respect of President Ford, who utilized his mediation skills to attempt to bring about peace between Israel and some Arab states.

Kissinger’s letter regarding his father’s Judaism.

Kissinger negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, which were to end America’s involvement in Vietnam and, although the Accords were never actualized – the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the agreement – he won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973), an award that proved highly controversial, as two members of the Nobel Committee resigned in protest. After his term, his advice continued to be frequently sought by many U.S. presidents and world leaders, and he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977). He also founded and chaired Kissinger Associates, a respected international consulting firm and is the prolific author of over 12 books on politics and international relations.


In the April 6, 1982, correspondence to Paul Keyes (more on him below) exhibited here, Kissinger, long removed from the fold of Jewish observance, offers a fascinating insight into his perception of his late father, Louis (1887-1982):

I was deeply touched by your memorial gift to my father. He, a good Orthodox Jew but in his heart the most ecumenical of men, would have loved it.

Kissinger was raised in Fürth, Bavaria, where he pleased his passionately Orthodox father through his dedication to Jewish study and practice, which included mastering Talmud and spending hours a day in advanced Bible study at the Israelitische Realschule. He read his entire Torah portion at his bar mitzvah, and one of his Pirchei Agudah leaders in Germany reported that the young Kissinger submitted a brilliant essay arguing that a Jewish homeland is unthinkable unless it is predicated upon the laws of the Torah and Jewish observance.

However, Heinz (as he was originally named) was age 10 when, pursuant to the Nuremberg Laws, his father was suddenly relieved of his teaching duties at an elite all-girls prep school in Germany, a position of some prestige and honor. A kind and gentle soul, Louis never recovered from the indignity he suffered at the hands of the Nazis nor, according to many commentators, did Henry ever recover from being witness to the humiliation of the father he so loved and admired. Though, as we shall see, Kissinger ultimately turned on his father and his people by rejecting all traces not only of Jewish observance – to the point where, even at the funeral of the father he ostensibly so cherished, he adamantly refused to recite Kaddish but also his very self-identification as a Jew – he remained close to Louis even after committing the ultimate act of Jewish betrayal by marrying a non-Jew.

Keyes, the recipient of our letter, was nominated for ten Emmy awards (he won three, including awards for writing and producing Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) and was a most interesting character whose close friendship with Kissinger is not generally recognized. Also not generally known is the crucial role that Keyes played in Nixon’s election as president. After Nixon’s disastrous television appearances, which many say cost him the 1960 presidential election, Keyes worked to redesign Nixon’s television persona, culminating in a September 16, 1968, cameo appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in which Nixon memorably stated only four fateful words, the well-known Laugh-In catchphrase “Sock it to me?”

Keyes, who had been put on Nixon’s payroll eight months earlier and became perhaps his key media advisor, is credited with thereby successfully creating an image of the dour Nixon as a good sport with a sense of humor. According to many political commentators, it was that single five-second spot on the nation’s most popular television show that changed the entire momentum of the 1968 election and led to Nixon’s victory in a very close race, where the popular vote between the two candidates differed by a mere 0.1 percent. (Ironically, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey had turned down a similar invitation to appear on the show.)

Original newspaper photograph of Kissinger meeting with Anwar Sadat on January 14, 1974, at the Egyptian president’s summer home in Aswan, Egypt. They discussed details of a troop withdrawal plan, which Kissinger returned to Israel to deliver.

When Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dubrynin arrived in the U.S. for meetings with Nixon in July 1972, Kissinger contacted his friend Keyes, who arranged for the three to tour the NBC television studios. When they dropped in on a scriptwriting session of Laugh-In, Keyes introduced Dobrynin to the writers by saying “Mr. Ambassador, now you know where our foreign policy is being made.”

In any case, many biographers believe that Kissinger’s Jewish origins and Holocaust experience as a youth are the key to understanding him, and that his refugee soul, which remained central to his psyche throughout his entire life, laid the foundation for his political philosophy and policies. Born at the height of the Weimar hyperinflation, he was nine when Hitler came to power; 10 when his father lost his teaching job; 12 when he was expelled from school due to the Nuremberg laws; a young teen when he was beaten in the German streets and shunned by his friends; and 15 when, at his mother’s insistence, his family escaped to the United States, less than three months before Kristallnacht. He lost at least a dozen close relatives in the Holocaust, including his beloved grandmother, Fanny Stern.

Upon his arrival in America, Henry was a faithful congregant at Kahal Adat Jeshurun (“Breuer’s”) in Washington Heights, a strict Orthodox synagogue that did not reject mainstream American society but rather encouraged fidelity to both Jewish law and secular professional achievement. Henry’s active role in the synagogue included leading a Shabbat afternoon youth group. However, as he became more comfortable with life in America, he ceased believing in many of the basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism, and he more fully abandoned his parents’ religious allegiance after being drafted into the U.S. Army (1943).

When the Americans learned of Henry’s German fluency, they assigned him to the military intelligence section, in which capacity he volunteered for hazardous intelligence duties during the Battle of the Bulge. Reassigned to the Counterintelligence Corps with the rank of sergeant, he was put in charge of tracking down Gestapo officers and other saboteurs, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star. Many people do not know that he worked as a military administrator in the post-war occupation of Germany, a role which involved apprehending and interrogating Nazis, and it may well have been his experience in the Holocaust, both as a child and as an American soldier, that severed his relationship with observant Judaism.

In America, Kissinger played down his Jewish roots and sought to assimilate. When he was sworn in as the first Jewish Secretary of State, he took his oath on Shabbat – his observant elderly parents were therefore forced to walk to the swearing-in ceremony – and on a Christian bible. One of his first acts as Secretary of State was to revoke the standard procedure whereby Jewish employees of the Department of State were excused from work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Kissinger’s total repudiation of his beloved father’s Orthodox faith is perhaps best characterized by critics’ acerbic and cynical reference to “the three S’s:” he married a shiksa on Shabbat while serving shrimp. He further distanced himself from Judaism through bitter and revolting quips, such as his observation that “were it not for the accident of my birth, I would be an anti-Semite”; his comment that “is there a more self-serving group of people than the Jewish community?”; and his monumentally despicable remark that “any people who have been persecuted for 2,000 years must be doing something wrong.”

That Kissinger was a self-hating Jew who turned on his father and his people by consistently acting in a manner inimical to Jewish interests may perhaps best be seen through four important issues that he addressed as Secretary of State: Soviet Jewry, the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” resolution; Israel; and his approach to the Holocaust.

First, Kissinger argued vociferously that it was not in America’s interests to put pressure on the Soviet Union or to intercede on behalf of persecuted Soviet Jews. In a conversation with Nixon shortly after a March 1, 1973, meeting with Golda Meir in which the Israeli Prime Minister pleaded the cause of Soviet Jews, he essentially argued that the possibility of a second Holocaust should not be an American concern:

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. (Emphasis added)

At the time of Golda’s visit, the American public had manifested broad support for the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which sought to refocus American foreign policy away from Kissinger’s favored détente and toward a program promoting human rights. Threatened by the Soviet Jewry movement and furious at having his infallible prodigious genius challenged, the intermarried “messiah” blamed the Jews, advising Nixon that, in selfishly looking out for the interests of their own kind, the Jews were “behaving unconscionably” and “traitorously” in sabotaging American interests.

Second, Kissinger undermined UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s impassioned and noble crusade against the “Zionism is Racism” resolution. The Secretary of State mocked Moynihan by patronizingly and sarcastically explaining to him that “we are conducting foreign policy; this is not a synagogue.” Though America did ultimately vote against the resolution, it was adopted by the United Nations on November 10, 1975. (It was later repealed in 1991.)

Original August 22, 1975, newspaper photograph of Kissinger arriving at Yad Vashem (which he initially refused to visit). Photographers were not permitted inside due to security precautions.

Third, even during his Harvard days, Kissinger is reported to have strongly opposed the creation of Israel, arguing that the existence of a Jewish state is inconsistent with American interests. Much of the controversy over Kissinger’s lack of loyalty to Israel revolves around the turbulent events that began with the Yom Kippur War (1973) when, after strongly opposing the military resupply of Israel (he was subsequently overruled by Nixon) and actively interfering with the flow of support to Israel, he negotiated the end to that war by forcing Israel to let the Egyptian Third Army escape and by pressuring – some, including Golda Meir, say bullying – Israel to cede back to the Arabs land it had captured during the war at great cost. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, he assured Nixon that he would never donate any of the prize money to Israel.

Fourth, upon his first visit to Israel as Secretary of State, Kissinger – himself a Holocaust survivor – refused to visit Yad Vashem until he was advised that other foreign ministers did so as a matter of course. During a visit with his parents to his native Fürth, he remained conspicuously silent about the Holocaust, making no mention of his fellow Jews who were not as lucky as he to escape (only 18 of Fürth’s 3,000 Jews survived Hitler), and he later compounded this disgrace by strongly supporting Reagan’s disgraceful act at Bitburg, where the president laid a wreath at the German military cemetery where SS officers were buried. Almost unbelievably, he opposed the construction of the United States Holocaust Museum, arguing that building the edifice on federal land would call undue attention to American Jews.


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“Peace Flight H. Kissinger Arrives from Moscow to Lod Airport (October 22, 1973)” Originally signed by Kissinger.

As we now know from the Nixon tapes, the president was an antisemite who, in particular, relished making his Secretary of State squirm over his Judaism. Kissinger stood by quietly when Nixon gave vent to anti-Jewish prejudices, and he stood mute when Nixon talked about him to Arab dictators as “my Jew boy.” Once, after Kissinger analyzed an issue relating to Israel, Nixon asked “Now can we get an American point of view?” and, in one of the infamous Nixon tapes, the president, referring to Kissinger, enthusiastically agreed that “it is wrong for the country for American policy in the Middle East to be made by a Jew.”

Many commentators argue that as Nixon’s hofjude – the “Jew in the King’s Court” – Kissinger had to bend over backwards not to be seen as elevating Israeli interests over those of the United States but, in this writer’s view, it is very difficult to support an argument that Kissinger was a friend of the Jews in general or Israel in particular. To quote Rabbi Norman Lamm: “Dr. Kissinger is an illustration of how high an assimilated Jew can rise in the United States, and how low he can fall in the esteem of his fellow Jews.”

Kissinger stamps. (L) Micronesian stamps commemorating Kissinger’s “resolving the conflicts in Vietnam” (R) St. Vincent & The Grenadines commemorating Kissinger’s being awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].