|Colin Powell’s Yiddish Soul|
This week America lost one of its most inspiring leaders, Colin Powell. I first became aware of Powell in the summer of 1990. I was doing infantry training in the Israeli Army when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and proudly announced his plan to attack Israel with chemical weapons. Our commanders spent the next weeks drilling us on how to use atropine, gas masks, and how to defend ourselves from “ABCs” (Atomic, Biological and Chemical weapons.) The country went into a massive panic with tens of thousands of people fleeing the large cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (expected targets of Iraqi rockets) for the remote areas of the Negev and Galilee. Israel was preparing for an attack on Iraq.
In the midst of this tense time Colin Powell, the General of the largest army on the planet, was dispatched to Jerusalem to urge the Israelis not to attack as this would cause the Arabs to bolt the coalition America was assembling.
I’ll never forget the Israeli news report of Powell’s first meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. At 75 years-old Shamir wasn’t quite 5 foot tall. In walks General Powell, young, strapping and 6 foot 2, and the head of the world’s most powerful army. Powell wanting to put Shamir at ease says “Mir ken redn af Yiddish.” (We can speak in Yiddish). Apparently, Shamir plotzed. He was utterly shocked that this African-American General could speak Yiddish. Powell then teased him “Du kenst redn a bisl Yiddish yaw?” (You do know how to speak a little Yiddish yes?) Shamir, born in a Yiddish speaking home in prewar Poland was known as an “Achshan,” (very stubborn). Powell’s Yiddish quickly earned Shamir’s trust and respect, and they succeeded in reaching a common strategy that would serve both American and Israeli interests during the Iraq War and beyond.
Powell knew how to speak to people’s hearts. Having grown up with close Jewish neighbors in the Bronx he developed a lifelong empathy for the Jewish community. As America’s first African-American Secretary of State he drafted the “Road Map”, an ambitious plan to lead the Israelis and Arabs towards peace. 25 years later this plan is still the foundation of American policy and hopes for peace in Israel.
Later in life Powell who often says at AIPAC events, “I may not be Jewish, but I have a yiddische neshama (a Jewish soul).
The Jewish community had a true friend in Secretary of State General Colin Powell. May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi David Wilfond