Colin Powell will be remembered in history as the first Black US national security advisor, the first Black military chief of staff and the first Black secretary of state.
He was also the first military chief to speak Yiddish as a second language, and he loved surprising Jews with his skill.
Powell, the former US secretary of state who brokered the “road map” to a two-state peace deal that still informs much of US policy in the region, died Monday aged 84. He died of COVID-19, his family said on Facebook. He was fully vaccinated and, according to news reports, had been undergoing treatments for blood cancer.
Powell made history three times as the first Black man in a senior security position: As president Ronald Reagan’s last national security adviser from 1987 to 1989; as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993 under president George H.W. Bush, who commanded the successful first Gulf War; and as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005 under Bush’s son, president George W. Bush.
Powell, the child of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in the Bronx, was a hero in Vietnam who upon his return stayed in the military and rapidly rose through the ranks.
From the time he was 13 until his sophomore year at the City College of New York, Powell worked for Sickser’s, a Jewish-owned shop in the Bronx that sold goods to new parents — many of them Jews who spoke Yiddish as a first language. He also worked as a “Shabbes goy,” turning on the electricity for Orthodox families on the Sabbath, and picked up the language.
In a 2013 interview, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who passed away earlier Monday at 84, discussed learning Yiddish as a young man while working in a Jewish-owned store. pic.twitter.com/jAuMYKP0yp
— Jewish Insider (@J_Insider) October 18, 2021
In a 2017 speech before the World Jewish Congress, he spoke of the “joy throughout the neighborhood” in the Bronx when David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948.
“Tears flowed, celebrations everywhere, it wasn’t just the Jews who were celebrating, the rest of us were celebrating for the Jews. We all shared in their joy, the joy of having a homeland,” Powell said.
“I came to know and admire fellow soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. I came to understand the commitment of blood we had with Israel. I was a student of the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. And an American professional soldier, I marvel at the professionalism and successes of the Israel Defense Forces.”
When he met Yitzhak Shamir, then Israeli prime minister, ahead of the first Gulf War in 1991, he said, “Men kent reden Yiddish,” we can speak in Yiddish, to Shamir’s surprise. At least twice, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he joked about his Yiddish skills.
Shamir and Powell shared more than a language: In Powell, Shamir found the only senior US national security official who was sympathetic to Israel’s reluctance to hold fire in the face of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on the country. The senior Bush and Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, were baffled that Israel did not want to rely on American protection.
Powell, as a military officer, understood Shamir’s concern that staying out would lower Israel’s deterrence, and his sympathetic ear helped bring Shamir around toward complying with the Bush administration’s demand that Israel lay low throughout the conflict.
We mourn the passing of Gen. Colin Powell, a true patriot and statesman whose life was devoted to America’s security and values.
Colin Powell was a genuine friend of the Jewish people who understood the critical importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. pic.twitter.com/O1F61nrpVg
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) October 18, 2021
Shamir was consistently concerned about Jewish sensibilities; heading a volunteerism initiative under president Bill Clinton, he formally apologized to the Jewish community after the commission’s first summit was held on Passover.
The pro-Israel community, mindful of his history, welcomed his ascension to secretary of state under the younger Bush, a development that accelerated talk that Powell would eventually run for president as a Republican.
There were tensions, however, as Powell at times clashed with the government of then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon over Israel’s actions during the Second Intifada.
Powell was the first Bush administration official — indeed the first US official — to say, in 2001, that the likely outcome of peace talks would be a Palestinian state. The development stunned the pro-Israel community, which had expected the second Bush administration to step back from the intensive Middle East peace brokering that had characterized the Clinton and first Bush administrations.
Powell had the ear of his boss; by the summer of 2002, Bush was speaking of Palestinian statehood, and by 2003, Powell had dragged a reluctant Sharon into endorsing — with caveats — the road map, which envisioned a process culminating in Palestinian statehood.
Sharon was signing onto the very thing he had accused his Labor Party opponents of rushing toward barely a decade earlier, when the Oslo Process, which did not explicitly envision Palestinian statehood, was launched under Clinton. Powell worked hard to bring the US pro-Jewish community on board with the road map, mindful of how opposition among US pro-Israel groups had helped frustrate the Oslo process.
The Trump administration suspended some provisions of the road map, deemphasizing statehood as an outcome for Palestinians. The Biden administration has reinstated its parameters.
In a 2003 speech to AIPAC, Powell called on Israel to “take steps to ease the suffering of Palestinians and diminish the daily humiliation of life under occupation” and called Israel’s settlement building “simply inconsistent” with US peace efforts.
Powell wanted a second term as secretary of state; he forever regretted becoming the leading pitchman for the Iraq War ahead of its 2003 launch, notably with a speech to the United Nations that was later revealed to have included distortions, and wanted to stick around to clean up the mess. Powell clashed with former vice president Dick Cheney over how the war developed.
Bush, however, chose in his second term to let Powell go and elevated his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the job, making her the first Black woman to be secretary of state. Once again the pro-Israel community, noting Rice’s reputation for hawkishness, rejoiced; once again, it was disappointed when she spearheaded pressure on Israel to enter the Annapolis peace process in 2007.
Powell, meantime, disillusioned with the course of the Bush presidency and resigned to the fact that his own presidential hopes were dashed in Iraq, endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2008. He remained a critic of the rightward drift of his party, endorsing Obama again in 2012, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, although he disliked her; Donald Trump, he said then, was a “national disgrace.”
Several years after retiring from politics, Powell found himself in the headlines for a leaked email he wrote in which he doubted Iran would ever use an atomic bomb against the Jewish state since “the boys in Tehran know Israel has 200, all targeted on Tehran, and we have thousands.” While widely accepted as a nuclear power, Israel maintains a policy of so-called ambiguity, neither publicly confirming nor denying the existence of an atomic arsenal. Jerusalem never officially commented on Powell’s remark.