Hyman Bookbinder (1916-2011), the legendary long-time Washington Representative of the American Jewish Committee died yesterday at the age of 95. Known to everyone as Bookie he was the most passionate moderate I have ever known. Fair and intense, he was fierce in his convictions, but equally committed to civility and decency.
I first met Bookie when I came to work on the President’s Commission on the Holocaust during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. Elie Wiesel had been appointed chairman, Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the Commission’s Director and I served in Washington as Deputy Director. At that time, none of us had had any Washington experience and Bookie served as a masterful tutor, schooling us in the ways of the nation’s capital and in the protocols of both public life and Jewish life in Washington. He rolled his eyes as we made rookie mistakes, but never embarrassed us and never lost faith that we could learn.
During his era under the leadership of Bert Gold, AJC had assembled the most impressive staff of Jewish professionals. They were pioneers in their fields and each excelled and extended the reach of the organization and its effectiveness. Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum headed its Interreligious Affairs Department, Irving Levine worked on ethnic relations and Milton Himmelfarb was in charge of research. Each worked in their own fiefdom – only Bert Gold could see how they worked together—and made the most of their independence and their talent.
Bookie was the AJ Committee’s face in Washington. His contacts were legendary. Senators and Congressmen were his personal friends; he appeared routinely on television and talk radio, writing for the Washington Post and the New York Times. The walls of his office were filled with pictures of National and International leaders warmly inscribed to “My friend Bookie.” His autobiography was entitled Off the Wall as these photographs had to be taken down when he retired to make way for his successor.
He was the “go to” guy on Jewish affairs, more influential behind the scenes and in solving problems that in his significant public contributions. He solved so many problems that the nature of his considerable success was not always manifest. He did not like to brag and he took pride in other’s achievements. He also pressed his organization to make sure that Jews were using their influence creatively and compassionately tilting toward the liberal side of the debate.
He worked with all sorts of coalitions on the issues that were of primary concerns. The issue of Civil Rights was central in those days and he was instrumental in sustaining the Black-Jewish Alliance in Washington, which remained strong, even as it was fracturing on the Streets of New York or Detroit and Los Angeles. He juggled another coalition for the cause of Soviet Jewry and yet another in support of Israel. He used his government experience wisely. Drawn to Jewish communal service in the aftermath of the 1967 War, he had previously been in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and played an important role in the War of Poverty and the creation of the Great Society. Earlier he had worked for the AFL-CIO and for Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, once the most Jewish of all unions. His ties to Labor were deep and personal. He had an important back channel to the Carter Administration as Vice President Mondale was both an admirer and a personal friend.
Bookie played a central role in the President’s Commission on the Holocaust seeking to bridge a divide between Survivors of the Holocaust who wanted the Museum to be exclusively Jewish and those who wanted to maintain the singularity of the Jewish experience while including other ethnic groups that perceived themselves as victims of Nazism even if their record with regard to the Jews was quite questionable. He pressed that their respectful and truthful inclusion in the Museum as essential if the Museum was to be located in Washington and not New York. He intuitively understood how to mediate and negotiate and how to compromise without sacrificing principle, words that sound quite strange in today’s polarized Washington. He could disagree without being disagreeable and his disagreements were issue oriented and never personal.
His singular contribution to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the insistence that the Museum create a Committee on Conscience, comprised of moral leaders of the nation “who would warn of impending genocide.” Having lost 80 relatives in Poland during the Shoah, he felt that remembrance of the past entailed responsibility for the future.
His proposal might seem quaint today. But remember back 32 years before the Internet and faxes, before Facebook and Twitter, before email and You Tube, when Cable Television was but in its infancy. It was assumed that if only the world knew what was happening then men and women of conscience would have insisted that something be done. Little could he imagine then that information was be instantaneous and that what was lacking even among people of conscience was the political will to do something about genocide. Little could he fathom that the President of the United States or the Secretary of State would deliberately call a series of attacks genocide and then say: “but this will not change American policy.”
Bookie was persistent. When the Museum was reticent to engage in such social action or when there were fears that it would become a “second State Department” and put itself in a situation at odds with the Administration, Bookie kept pushing and when leadership changed, he engaged the new chairman and get off pushing for the Committee on Conscience, now a vital part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and indeed its voice of conscience.
Bookie was not without his critics. One nasty comment heard from a rival leader of the young and uncompromising, more militant generation was that he had “perpetual knee pads,” which roughly translates as he sought compromise rather than confrontation. He was someone who could find a middle ground so that both sides could come away with something. In our era, such voices of moderation are few and far between and more often than not because of that both sides come away with nothing.
Bookie married twice, both times happily. After his first wife died after a long marriage, their longtime friend Ida Levick, who herself had been widowed became his companion and later his loving and ever so caring wife. They shared political passions and a love of Yiddish. Bookie read many papers each day and watched all the Sunday morning shows. He was a political junkie did what he loved and loved what he did. He had a special passion for Yiddish, the language of his parents, the immigrant generation. It was a tie that linked him to survivors
He was not a religious man in the conventional sense of the term; only in old age did he join a synagogue out of concern for his funeral and burial – he will be buried out of Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Capital’s largest. His Jewishness was all encompassing and the content of his Judaism was Tikkun Olam, to repair the world, fragment-by-fragment.
He was an original. I grew to respect and revere the man, to cherish him as a mentor and a friend, a source of wisdom and sanguine advice. I am not alone. Throughout the corridors of government and in the inner reaches of many Jewish organizations, there are men and women of my generation who are proud to claim Bookie as a mentor, a friend, a model and a conscience.