Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

Many people know about Arthur Joseph Goldberg’s incredible Horatio Alger story: The son of poor Orthodox Jewish refugees, who escaped to America fleeing Ukrainian antisemitic pogroms, rises from poverty to become a nationally renowned labor lawyer, Labor Secretary, a Supreme Court Justice, and a United Nations Ambassador. However, generally unknown is the degree of his shtadlanut (role as an intercessor on behalf of Jewish communities around the world) and his intervening on behalf of Jews everywhere, including Jews in the Soviet Union and Iraq, as more fully discussed below. Goldberg (1908-1990) was a dedicated lifelong Zionist committed to the establishment and advancement of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

Portrait originally signed by Goldberg.

Goldberg’s career was shaped by liberal Jewish social ethics and by his experience as the son of poor Jewish immigrants, and he always proclaimed his pride in his Jewish heritage: “My concern for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, stems for my heritage.” The link between his Judaism and his liberalism was notably reflected in his family Passover Seders, where he would retell the story of the Jewish Exodus as analogous to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He remained active in Jewish and Zionist affairs, serving as president of the American Jewish Committee (1968-69); as chairman of the Board of Overseers of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1963-69); as the honorary chairman of the National Advisory Council of the Synagogue Council of America (1964); and, as discussed below, as Chair for the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust (1980).


Goldberg was born on the West Side of Chicago, the last of 11 children. His father, Joseph, was a fruit and vegetable peddler who drove a one-eyed horse and wagon through the streets of Chicago, and when he died at age 51, eight-year-old Arthur was forced to work at many jobs while attending school, including delivery boy, fish wrapper, shoe salesman, library clerk, construction worker and, his favorite, selling coffee to Chicago Cubs fans at Wrigley Field.

While in night school at De Paul University, Goldberg was inspired by Clarence Darrow’s defense of accused murderers Leopold and Loeb and, determined to become an attorney, he entered Northwestern Law School at age 18 while continuing to work, and finished at the top of his class of 1929, just as the Depression struck. Denied access to top established gentile law firms because of antisemitism, he joined a law firm founded by German Jews, where he specialized in bankruptcy proceedings and other financial matters. However, after developing a keen interest in labor issues and advancing civil rights, he resigned in moral outrage when asked to foreclose mortgages on working-class property owners. Determined to champion the cause of the underdog, he opened a small office and began representing clients in social justice cases, mostly small manufacturers who were often European refugees.

Goldberg came to the public’s attention when he successfully represented the American Newspaper Guild pro bono and, after its strike against the Hearst newspapers in Chicago (1938), won it union recognition. His victory launched him as a workingman’s hero and led to his service as general counsel to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Steelworkers of America, later organizing the AFL-CIO merger and becoming its chief counsel.

With the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, Goldberg became active in fighting the U.S. isolationist establishment and taking on the forces urging America to keep out of the war. After Pearl Harbor, he became determined to serve his country and, rejected from the Marines because he could not meet its physical prerequisites, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), where he rose to the rank of major. His first assignments involved establishing clandestine operations with anti-Fascist trade union leaders behind Nazi lines and generating support from European labor unions; among his most notable accomplishments was arranging a strike at a Swedish company that, notwithstanding Sweden’s neutrality, was secretly manufacturing ball bearings for the Nazis.

Goldberg’s spy network and intelligence gathering operation included a secret mission to Eretz Yisrael, where he worked with Hagana leaders to launch a parachute mission into Italy to gather critical intelligence information. Throughout his work for OSS, he fought for the admission to the U.S. of the thousands of Jewish refugees who managed to escape Hitler, but he was stymied by the Roosevelt administration’s well-known anti-Jewish immigration policies. He always maintained that, but for his parents immigrating to the United States, he would surely have ended up in the Nazi crematoria, and he was disappointed by FDR’s refusal to take action to save the Jews from the Holocaust.

In Goldberg’s view, only the Orthodox Jewish community was sufficiently vigorous in its protests, but it wasn’t nearly enough. In 1943, he was shown photos and affidavits from Auschwitz that had been smuggled out of Poland but, when he showed them to OSS head William Donovan, he was rebuffed. In a controversy that rages on even today, many commentators argue that Goldberg and other Jews in high government positions could have – indeed, should have – done more on behalf of Europe’s Jews. Many were none too pleased by Goldberg’s statement that, although the Allied governments did have some limited power of deterrence that it failed to use, “the verdict is beyond dispute challenge that there is nothing American Jews could do that would have deterred Hitler.”

In June 1981, Goldberg assembled a group of Jewish leaders as an American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust dedicated “to record and publish the truth, as nearly as we could determine it, as to what American Jewish leaders did, and what indeed they might have been able to do in all of the circumstances to mitigate the massive evils of the Holocaust.” He announced that the researchers would probe what American Jews knew about Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jews and when they knew it; what American Jewish leaders and organizations did, and could have done, when they received that knowledge; and whether Jewish lives could have been saved if American Jews had exerted their influence on FDR and Congress.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the effort proved highly controversial, and American Jewish politics and personal prejudices adversely affected the work of the Goldberg Commission. When a professional staff headed by Ambassador Seymour Maxwell Finger released a report called American Jewry During the Holocaust (1984), which presented findings embarrassing to several American Jewish groups, most Commission members refused to endorse the report. After a significantly revised report was released, several Goldberg Commission members complained publicly that “the purpose of this report is to whitewash the responsibility and guilt of the Jewish leadership of that time.” Nonetheless, the thrust of the released 1984 report was that American Jewry and, in particular, American Jewish leaders, did not engage in “a united, sustained campaign for all-out mobilization of American Jews and their organizations on behalf of massive rescue” during the Holocaust. The report continues to be challenged by many historians and commentators, particularly by FDR apologists, who argue that the Report failed to consider the full context of the situation at the time.

Original newspaper photograph of JFK announcing the appointment of Goldberg as Secretary of Labor (December 15, 1960).

After World War II, Goldberg returned to the practice of labor law until 1961, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him Secretary of Labor. Goldberg took a strong activist view of his office, serving as an effective labor negotiator; working to raise the minimum wage and federal unemployment benefits, while simultaneously seeking to implement JFK’s anti-inflationary program by discouraging excessive wage hikes; and promoting programs to eliminate racial discrimination in employment.

Less than two years later, in 1962, Kennedy appointed Goldberg to replace Justice Felix Frankfurter on the “Jewish seat” on the Supreme Court. (Goldberg always personally resisted the very idea of a “Jewish seat” on the court.) Unlike the experience of Brandeis, Cardozo and Frankfurter before him, where antisemitism generated extreme hostility to a Jew on the Supreme Court, Goldberg was confirmed after a perfunctory hearing. He became the crucial fifth liberal vote on the Warren Court, which launched an era of Court activism, and he wrote several leading decisions protecting the rights of Americans.

Original newspaper photograph of Goldberg in his robes during ceremonies in which he took his seat on the Supreme Court (October 1, 1962).

Although Goldberg served on the Court for only three years (1962-1965), he nonetheless had an important and lasting impact on American constitutional law. Perhaps his most significant decision came in the precedent-establishing Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), which served as a precedent for the more famous Miranda case, which established the constitutional right of every arrestee to be represented by counsel during police interrogation. Another historic contribution was Griswold v. Connecticut (the precursor to Roe v. Wade, recently overturned), which nullified a law prohibiting married couples from obtaining birth control devices or information.

In 1965, President Johnson asked Goldberg to replace Adlai Stevenson, who died suddenly, as U.N. Ambassador. To the surprise of many, Goldberg accepted the position, and there is considerable perplexity even among contemporary historians about why he would surrender a prestigious lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. According to LBJ in his memoirs, The Vantage Point, Goldberg made known his restlessness with the sequestered existence of a Justice and indicated that he would step down if offered “a more challenging position.” As LBJ tells the story, when he offered Goldberg the position of HEW Secretary, Goldberg declined, explaining that he was interested in a position involving foreign affairs and indicated that he would accept a position as U.N. Ambassador if offered

Original newspaper photograph of LBJ announcing that Justice Goldberg will succeed the late Adlai Stevenson as U.N. Ambassador (July 20, 1965).

Goldberg’s wife, Dorothy, tells a very different story. In her memoir, she insists that it was the president who initiated the offer of the U.N. ambassadorship; that he was persistent in his efforts to get Goldberg off the Court; and that he promised Goldberg that he would become a major player in American foreign policy. She says that her husband was outraged by the president’s suggestion that he was bored by the court; in fact, when he heard a rumor from a reporter that LBJ had made an off-the-record comment that he wanted off the High Court, Goldberg confronted the president, who denied saying it. Goldberg himself belied any allegation that he was no longer interested in serving on the Court when, upon giving up his seat, he wrote to the president “I shall not conceal the pain with which I leave the Court after three years of service. It has been the richest and most satisfying period of my career.”

The most likely explanation for Goldberg’s resignation is that he was manipulated by LBJ and, as he publicly explained, and ever the American patriot, he simply could not refuse a call from his president to serve his country. Although the U.N. ambassador, who is little more than a mouthpiece for the administration, is generally powerless with respect to formulating foreign policy, the president convinced him that he would play an important role in solving America’s Vietnam problem. In fact, LBJ wanted to nominate his own Justice, and had offered Goldberg’s seat to his close friend, Abe Fortas, even before Goldberg agreed to quit the Court.

Enraged Arab governments characterized Goldberg’s appointment as an act of American contempt for the U.N. In Egypt, the Al Akhbar newspaper minced no words: “The choice of a Zionist for this post is like the choice of a debauched atheist to represent his country at a religious conference called to promote virtue – or the choice of a thief with a police record to sit among Judges at a meeting called to discuss the sovereignty of the law.” In response, the State Department demanded that Goldberg renounce his Zionism, and American diplomats commenced a campaign to convince Arab governments that his pro-Israel positions were personal and did not reflect American policy. Many antisemites and commentators at the time raised the “dual loyalty” canard and held Goldberg up as a paradigmatic test of whether he – and, by association, American Jews – would act with undivided allegiance to the United States or pursue their own parochial interests.

In response, Goldberg asserted that there was no inconsistency between loyalty to the United States and loyalty to Israel and, notwithstanding the general lack of power wielded by U.N. ambassadors, he went on to play a critical role in Israel’s history It was he who, at the height of the 1967 Six-Day War and with peace not considered possible, successfully negotiated an Israeli-Arab cease-fire and, a few months later in November 1967, co-drafted Resolution 242 (November 1967), a trailblazing agreement that has arguably remained the foundation of the Israeli-Arab peace process ever since. In essence, it adopted the idea of “land for peace,” pursuant to which Israel would withdraw from territory it conquered in the war and the Arabs would recognize Israel’s sovereignty and its inherent right to live in peace.

Goldberg, who successfully fought for a cease-fire that would not require Israeli withdrawal as a condition precedent to any peace agreement, recognized that Israel’s pre-1967 borders were all but indefensible as “Auschwitz borders.” As such, and as he later described in great detail in What Resolution 242 Really Said (1988), he purposely drafted ambiguous language in Resolution 242 – the now famous “withdrawal from territories” as opposed to “from all territories.” He later wrote that “No Israeli, dove or hawk, will ever surrender any part of Jerusalem.”

In his concern for the plight of Soviet Jewry, Goldberg had met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and President Kennedy in October 1963, and the president set up a meeting between him and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin. Not surprisingly, Dobrynin resisted any suggestion that Soviet Jews were being mistreated, and JFK’s assassination shortly thereafter temporarily halted any American effort on behalf of Soviet Jews but, undeterred, Goldberg held a meeting on December 19, 1963, with representatives of leading American Jewish organizations to discuss a road forward on the issue.

The meeting is credited with lighting a fire under the Jewish establishment, which had been largely fractured on the issue. For political, financial, and other reasons, the three principal independent Jewish defense organizations – the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress (AJ Congress), and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith – viewed the Soviet Jewry issue as under its exclusive jurisdiction. Other groups had their own specific interests, including several Zionist organizations seeking to bring all Soviet Jews to Israel, and religious organizations, including Agudat Israel and the Lubavitcher movement, who, although deeply concerned about the status of Soviet Jews, insisted on maintaining “quiet diplomacy.” All this changed when Goldberg convinced them that American Jews had to become vociferous activists on behalf of their Soviet brethren.


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By no means was Goldberg’s shtadlanut limited to Soviet Jews. When Ba’athist persecution of Iraqi Jews reached a low point in January 1969 with false accusations that Iraqi Jews were running “an Israeli spy network,” and the public execution of nine Iraqi Jews, he sent an urgent request to Secretary of State William Rogers that the U.S. take concrete action to influence the Iraqi government to permit its Jews to emigrate – and, further, that the U.S. advise the Iraqis that it would admit these Jews to the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joseph Sisco convinced Rogers that the idea “reflects the highest American Humanitarian tradition” and should be pursued, opining that “even if it failed, the impact on world opinion would be very favorable and, in his memo to Rogers, he explained that the Jewish community in Iraq had dwindled to “some 2,500 harassed individuals” and that

there is some slight possibility that Iraq would agree to divest itself of these people, if suitable inducements in cash or kind were offered, and if negotiations were carried on through a proper intermediary and in secret. Israel would probably be prepared to consider some form of compensation for Iraq. Iran would appear to be the most appropriate intermediary. Iraq is anxious to maintain correct relations with Iran because the latter has the capability of assisting the Iraqi Kurds in their continuing resurrection.

The Iraqis would no doubt demand as one condition of any arrangement that none of the refugees be permitted to go to Israel . . . If the President should decide that we should take action along the lines suggested by Justice Goldberg, [Hushang] Ansary [Iran’s ambassador to the U.S.] could raise this sensitive question in a direct and discreet manner.

On February 10, 1969, President Nixon approved Goldberg’s request and American allies – as Cisco indicated, the U.S. could not act directly – succeeded in obtaining the release of Iraq’s remaining Jews.

Goldberg believed that, as U.N. ambassador, he could convince LBJ to withdraw American forces from Vietnam but, frustrated by his inability to make a difference in ending the war, he resigned his ambassadorship and returned to the practice of law in New York City. After losing a run for New York State governor to incumbent Nelson Rockefeller in 1970, he returned to Washington to serve in the Carter administration as Ambassador-at-Large (1977-78), in which post he was an influential advocate for human rights. President Carter appointed him to represent the U.S. at the Belgrade Conference on Human Rights (1977) where, as a lifetime anti-communist, he fought the Russians with everything he had. As head of the U.S. delegation to the Helsinki Conference (1978), he was again responsible for putting the mistreatment of Soviet Jews, this time under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev, at the top of the American foreign policy agenda. In recognition of his lifetime contributions to his country, Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1978.

Copy of page from the Goldberg Haggadah.

Goldberg’s Jewish pride conspicuously manifested itself in the annual Seders that he and Dorothy hosted with members of Washington’s political and intellectual elite as guests. Much of the guest lists, menus, and the family Goldberg Haggadah – in which the story of the Exodus is a model for the civil rights movement – are amongst the Goldberg Papers in the Library of Congress. Exhibited here is a page from the family Haggadah with Arthur and Dorothy’s initials next to assigned readings and a marginal self-reminder note by Dorothy to mention that “one of the best depictions of the Exodus is the great Negro spiritual `Go Down Moses.’”

Finally, my favorite Goldberg anecdote, a story he told at Congregation Emanu-El in Honolulu in the early 1960s: He was visiting his mother, who was active in several Jewish organizations, when the president called to speak to him. When his mother answered the phone and asked who it was and was informed “This is the President,” Goldberg heard her reply: “Nu, president from which shul?”

Photo of Goldberg meeting with Golda Meir. He was awarded an honorary degree by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1968).

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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].