He arrived in the United States in 1939, a penniless 15-year-old refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, sent by parents doomed to die in the Holocaust. Five years later, he returned to Europe as an American soldier at Normandy. Richard Schifter, who died at 97 in Bethesda, Maryland, this month, eventually would serve three U.S. presidents.
His was the kind of life Hollywood has turned into epics. The arc of his remarkable experiences spanned and often influenced major events of the 20th century. But the soft-spoken Schifter, with Old World, even courtly manners, would never have told you that himself. The many tributes offered in his memory noted his modesty, decency, and kindness almost as much as the impact of his work as a lawyer, diplomat, and activist.
Schifter graduated first in his class at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and was recruited as one of the famed “Ritchie Boys,” a U.S. Army intelligence unit composed of German-speaking — mostly Jewish — immigrants who undertook important missions in Europe during and after World War II.
After graduating from City College of New York, again first in his class, Schifter attended Yale University Law School. He became a leading attorney specializing in representing American Indian tribes, including South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux, in cases attempting to vindicate their rights against the U.S. government.
A Democrat, he led the party organization in Montgomery County, Maryland, which includes the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Potomac, and others. But when his friend Jeanne Kirkpatrick, also a Democrat yet President Ronald Reagan’s pick as ambassador to the United Nations, called him in 1981 to join her as U.S. deputy representative, he agreed.
Thus began Schifter’s remarkable and influential diplomatic career. He served under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton in a variety of senior posts. These included ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, and senior positions on the National Security Council.
Schifter built a reputation as an implacable foe of communism and as a champion of human rights and freedom around the world. He dueled with Soviet and Cuban envoys at the United Nations and cooperated with democracy movements such as Solidarity in Poland. As a friend and advisor to Secretary of State George Schultz, Schifter led negotiations that resulted in the release of thousands of Soviet Jewish and Christian prisoners of conscience. And as an American official and proud son of the Jewish people, he defended Israel against anti-Semitic slanders at the United Nations.
In retirement, Schifter’s passion for human rights and life-long struggle against anti-Semitism led him to found the American Jewish International Relations Institute in 2006. Using his first-hand experience with anti-American and anti-Zionist propaganda in the international arena, he made it AJIRI’s mission to identify and expose the double standards behind lopsided U.N. votes against both Israel and the United States.
Schifter believed, with the same quietly asserted yet bold optimism that characterized his entire life, that such votes could be turned around by appealing to heads of governments of friendly countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere whose U.N. ambassadors voted against the U.S. and Israel contrary to their own national interests. In recent years, this approach has paid dividends.
He also persistently stressed that Arab-Israeli peace could not be achieved so long as Palestinian leaders—encouraged by the U.N.’s permanent bureaucracy with its Cold War legacy of hostility to Washington and Jerusalem—continued to adhere to the so-called “right of return.” This demand is contrary to the original U.N. resolutions dealing with the issue. It insists on settling more than five million Palestinian “refugees” (it’s estimated that there are today fewer than 50,000 refugees from the 1948-1949 war launched by the Arab invasion of Israel) not in a Palestinian Arab country but the Jewish state.
Schifter’s understanding of the roots of the U.N.’s anti-Israel “automatic majority” cut through years of diplomatic double-speak and double standards. His clarity on and effectiveness in dealing with the U.N.’s anti-peace infrastructure-led Alon Ushpiz, director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, to recall the ambassador as “a symbol of perseverance and strength who achieved much in his lifetime and worked endlessly on improving Israel’s position at the U.N.”
Richard Schifter’s example is an antidote to the cynicism and acrimony prevalent in public life today. His life, conduct, and impact teach us something about who we are and who we can be.
The writers are members of the board of the American Jewish International Relations Institute, which recently has partnered formally with B’nai B’rith International.
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