Newfound Jewish roots gave Kerry a ‘deep’ bond with Israel

Secretary of state, who only learned his grandparents were Jews in 2004, says he understands Israelis’ reluctance to sign a deal

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to an Israeli reporter in an interview aired Thursday, February 20, 2014 (screen capture: Channel 2)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to an Israeli reporter in an interview aired Thursday, February 20, 2014 (screen capture: Channel 2)

US Secretary of State John Kerry says his feelings toward Israel changed 10 years ago, after he found out that that he had Jewish grandparents.

“It’s a connection that’s deep. I lost a great-uncle in the Holocaust and a great-aunt. I never knew that until then. To learn that, after years of being passionate about ‘never again,’ with respect to the Holocaust, and then to understand that you are biologically and personally connected to that, is very moving,” he said in an interview aired on Thursday by Israel’s Channel 2.

“Israel itself has a special connection to me, not just because of that personal, now-known connection, but more importantly because of the amazing journey of the Jewish people,” he said in the interview, which was conducted last Tuesday at the State Department. “And now I’ve learned that, I have got a better sense of that.”

Kerry first found out about his Jewish ancestry in 2004, when he was running for president against George W. Bush. Both his father’s parents were born Jews and converted to Christianity because of anti-Semitism, and they changed their name from Cohen to Kerry when they immigrated to the United States.

Asked by the interviewer, Ilana Dayan, whether he felt that Israelis were still defined by their tragedies to the extent that those events made them hesitant to take the “leap of faith” necessary to withdraw from the West Bank and agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state, Kerry answered in the affirmative.

“But,” he added, “here is what I want to emphasize: I think my job is to try to help create a situation where the realities of the agreement are such that it’s not such a leap of faith. I don’t want this to be a leap of faith. I want this to be a leap of reason. A leap of rationality and of choice, based on a very understandable and tangible set of guaranties about security and other things.”

If that could be achieved, Kerry continued, “then we take some of the emotion away… even though it will be for some always a huge emotion, because some people have very different views about greater Judea and Samaria — I know all of that. But I also know that over 70 percent of the people of Israel believe in a two-state solution.”

The secretary of state said that he sometimes spends hours on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and understands him. But he was hesitant to say whether he believes Netanyahu would agree to the kind of concessions a peace agreement would require. “If we’ve answered all of the challenges of security for Israel, if he has secured the nation state of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, if he has secured recognition and secured the refugee issue — properly dissolved — I hope he will,” Kerry said.

Netanyahu’s primary concern is the security of Israeli civilians, Kerry stressed. “I have said this to [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas: The primary issue for any Israeli is to know that if they make an agreement, they are safer and stronger because of the agreement than they were before they made it. And that goes contrary to past experience in pulling out of Lebanon and pulling out of Gaza.”

Kerry hinted that settlers might not have to relocate under the terms of a peace deal. Asked about the personal price that a settler might have to pay when required to leave his home as a result of an accord, Kerry replied that he was not sure this would be necessary.

“I have no argument with anyone in Israel who says that no deal is better than a bad deal. I say that myself,” he said. “I’m not in the business of trying to put together a bad deal.”

Kerry dismissed criticism of him from right-wing Israeli politicians, particularly Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who said the top US diplomat was “messianic and obsessive.”

“You know, those are judgments that other people may or may not have fun making in this process. I’m doing my job,” he said. Kerry claimed he was not insulted by Ya’alon’s remarks. “I think I am committed, and I’m determined.”

The secretary of state declined to comment on his gut reaction in January to Yedioth Ahronoth’s publication of Ya’alon’s scathing criticism, which targeted the US mediation of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“That’s not the way I operate. I’m an optimist and I am a believer in possibilities,” he said. “People who know me know that when I sink my teeth into something, if I get the bit between my teeth, I try to get it done.”

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