Why Henry Kissinger Never Got the “Jewish Nobel Prize“

In the days following the passing of the eminent Jewish-American statesman, as well as in prior years, my colleagues and I were often asked why Kissinger was never awarded the Genesis Prize. Here is why.
December 6, 2023
Genesis Prize Co-Founder Stan Polovets meets with Dr. Kissinger in August 2019

In the days since the passing of Dr. Henry Kissinger, numerous articles have been written about his legacy, his brilliance, and his impact on US foreign policy and the Cold War.  He advised twelve US Presidents, and, according to the New York Times obituary, was “considered the most powerful secretary of state in the post-World War II era.”  “[His] enduring capacity to bring strategic acumen and intellect on the emerging challenges […] led President, Secretaries of State, National Security Advisors … to seek his council, including me,” said Secretary of State Tony Blinken, adding that “few people did more to shape history than Henry Kissinger.”

Amid such praise, my colleagues and I have received multiple inquiries asking why he was never awarded the Genesis Prize and whether our foundation would consider honoring him posthumously.

Indeed, Dr. Kissinger can be rightfully viewed as one of the most consequential statesmen on the world stage in the post-World War II era, and certainly the most influential Jewish American in foreign affairs in our country’s history. And since the Genesis Prize celebrates Jewish achievement, how could someone with Kissinger’s accomplishments have been overlooked?

It is a reasonable question, especially considering all of the other awards bestowed on Dr. Kissinger, including the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor of the United States – awarded by President Ford in 1977, the Medal of Liberty from President Reagan in 1986, the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and a slew of other honors and awards from governments and private foundations.

So why didn’t Dr. Kissinger receive the Genesis Prize, which TIME Magazine called “The Jewish Nobel Prize” and Haaretz described as “the most prestigious award in the Jewish world?”  What makes Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Natan Sharansky and ten other laureates who received the Genesis Prize since it was established in 2013 more deserving?

The answer lies in the fact that the Genesis Prize is about more than Jewish achievement.  It is also about pride in Jewish identity and appreciation of the Jewish value of tikkun olam – making the world a better place, and unwavering support for the Jewish State. And this is where Dr. Kissinger fell short.

Henry Kissinger was not a proud Jew. “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic,” Kissinger said in 1973, according to the authoritative 1992 biography by Walter Isaacson, citing Oval Office recordings. “Any people […] persecuted for two thousand years must be doing something wrong.”

In 1975, after he visited his childhood home in Germany and failed to utter a word about the Holocaust, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then Chancellor of Yeshiva University, encouraged Jews to disassociate from Kissinger: 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.”

Another argument against awarding the Genesis Prize to Dr. Kissinger was his ambivalent policies towards Israel and his lack of clear moral stance when the wellbeing and security of the Israeli people were in jeopardy.  Many historians and former Israeli officials, for example, have accused Kissinger of delaying military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which they argue needlessly prolonged the war and led to loss of countless Jewish lives. Memoranda of Kissinger’s telephone conversations from October 1973, uncovered by the National Security Archive, provide blunt and fascinating vignettes from a significant moment during the Nixon presidency.  In one recording about the Yom Kippur War, the Secretary of State candidly tells Soviet envoy Anatoly Dobrynin that it would be a “nightmare” if either side won.

While Kissinger angered many Israelis in 1970, he was disdained by Soviet Jewish refuseniks, who felt betrayed by the Jewish Secretary of State. Kissinger did not believe that the struggle for freedom of Soviet Jews was a foreign policy priority for the United States, and called US Jewish activists who championed the cause “self-serving bastards.”

Kissinger strongly opposed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which made American trade with the USSR conditional on free Jewish emigration. “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger told President Nixon in remarks made public when one of the batches of the White House tapes were released in 2010. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”  The late Eli Wiesel, founding member of the Genesis Prize Committee, refused to speak to Kissinger after learning of this comment.

As a practitioner of realpolitik – a school of thought that focuses on balance of power and disregards moral considerations – Kissinger did not follow the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam and appeared blind to human rights and social justice. This framework enabled policy decisions which led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Asia and Latin America – from strategic bombing campaigns in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, to his support for Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

Of course, we cannot be oblivious to the historical context. Kissinger was the only Jew in the top echelons of US power, working for a president who was known for his antisemitic views. Certainly, Kissinger’s statements – as well as some of his policies and diplomatic maneuverings – reflect not only Kissinger’s deep personal insecurity about his Jewish roots, but also his desire to fit in and have the kind of influence he was able to wield all over the world, including the Middle East.

After he left government, Kissinger sought to clarify his position on Israel and his Jewish identity. In 1977 he said that, “The security of Israel is a moral imperative for all free peoples.”  And in an interview only three months ago given to Avinoam Ben-Yosef, President Emeritus of Jewish People Policy Institute, published in Maariv, Kissinger said: “I am Jewish, so … I take the survival of the Jewish people and of the Israeli state as a personal objective.”

And it seems that towards the end of Dr. Kissinger’s long life the Jewish world started coming to terms – at least partially – with the controversial diplomat. Shimon Peres presented Kissinger with Israel’s Presidential Medal of Honor in 2012 for his “significant contribution to the State of Israel”.  Two years later, the World Jewish Congress awarded Kissinger the Theodor Herzl Award for bringing “an unusual combination of knowledge, brilliance and skill to the office of Secretary of State.” Reacting to his passing, President of Israel Isaac Herzog issued a statement, noting Kissinger’s “love and compassion for Israel.”

And while the Jewish community welcomed Kissinger’s personal “détente” with his own Jewish identity, our foundation felt Kissinger could have done much more for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel when he was at the height of his power – as Secretary Blinken is doing today.  He didn’t, which is why this great statesman and one of the most brilliant Jewish minds of the post-WWII era never received the Genesis Prize.

Stan Polovets is the Co-Founder of the Genesis Prize.

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