Two influential American Jews praised and criticized for their assertive, sometimes aggressive, style in the public arena died this week. One was a champion of Jewish causes, the other far more problematic.
Elan Steinberg, the former executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress who died at the age of 59, played a key role in the organization’s combating anti-Semitism and promoting the state of Israel. In the top professional post at the WJC from 1978 to 2004, he called for the defeat of Kurt Waldheim, secretary general of the United Nations, in his quest for the presidency of Austria in 1986, noting that the candidate was a former Nazi who lied about his past.
Some Jewish leaders in the U.S. and Austria were concerned over such a confrontational position but Steinberg, the child of Holocaust survivors, countered that Austrians should be ashamed to have Waldheim as their president. (He was elected anyway.)
Perhaps Steinberg’s greatest professional accomplishment was helping to lead the WJC campaign against Swiss banks and insurance companies in the late 1990s, which led to their agreement to pay $1.2 billion to Holocaust victims.
When the WJC spoke out against President Reagan’s plan in 1985 to visit a German cemetery at Bitburg that contained Nazi graves, Steinberg noted that quiet diplomacy, once the hallmark of his organization, no longer fit the times and that his was “a newer, American-style leadership – less timid, more forceful, unashamedly Jewish.”
Mike Wallace, the legendary CBS radio and television journalist born Myron Leon Wallace in 1918 and best known for his probing interviews for “60 Minutes,” was never timid about his journalistic pursuits. But some of his reporting was criticized sharply in the Jewish community for a pattern of casting Israel in a less than sympathetic light.
In a 1989 interview with Yasir Arafat, Wallace asked the PLO leader if had renounced “military operations” in Israel. Arafat said, “any people who are facing occupation or oppression have the right to use all methods.” As the Mideast watchdog CAMERA reported, the usually combative Wallace offered no follow-up question.
Some of his reports on the Mideast conflict, Russian Jewish emigration and on AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, infuriated supporters of Israel.
Wallace’s interview with Syrian Jews during visits in 1975 and 1984 suggested that the community was treated well by the regime. He did not acknowledge that those Jews he spoke to in the presence of a translator (who no doubt served as well as the ears of the government) might have been fearful of criticizing the government in Damascus.
Mike Wallace didn’t back down from criticism. Neither did Elan Steinberg, who had the courage to leave his post at the WJC when others in the group were charged with financial misdeeds in 2004. It was Steinberg who played a quiet role in bringing out the facts, and he was brought back as senior advisor when Ronald Lauder took over as WJC president after the scandal.
Mike Wallace leaves a remarkable record of journalistic work in his long career, though it is tarnished by his Israel problem. Less known to the public, Elan Steinberg will be remembered by those who knew him for his consistent, often fearless, efforts to protect Jewish interests.
As Elie Wiesel stated this week, “whenever Jews were in danger, or Jewish honor offended, he vigorously, yet elegantly, spoke up.”
That is a legacy of pride.