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Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Cagy KGB Rabbi

A little silliness in the face of so much grim news.

As noted on too many occasions, I took part in several US delegations to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission in the mid-eighties. Most of our effort--ultimately successful--was aimed at getting a UN reporter named to investigate human rights abuses in Cuba under the Castro brothers. It was tough work, which required seemingly endless hours of meetings, plotting, and developing strategies to get the votes needed. I have described all that before (here, here, and here, for example) and won't bore with it, again.

Aside from our efforts on Cuba, we also went after the rest of the Soviet-bloc. We, for example, hammered the Romanian regime for its persecution of the Hungarian minority, and the GDR for its persecution of everybody. We saved special ammunition, however, for the Soviets. We tried never to miss an opportunity to underline the economic, political, moral, and humanitarian disaster that was the USSR.  We went after them, in particular, on religious persecution and anti-semitism. We brought with us, on one occasion, Natan Sharansky, free after years in the Soviet Gulag, who gave a powerful speech blasting the Soviets on their persecution of dissidents and of Jews, in particular.

This drumbeat had an effect on USSR foreign policy. Gorbachov recently had assumed power, and sought to present a new face of the Soviet Union to the West. The Soviets tried to show us as fanatical Cold Warriors out of touch with the new reality. The Soviet Ambassador took to calling us children, and "Reagan's kids."

One Friday morning, with grand fanfare the Soviet delegation let us know both privately and in an announcement at a morning session, that a "very prominent Moscow Rabbi" would address the Commission later in the day as part of the USSR delegation. I went to see my contact on the Soviet side, Igor Yakolev, a good guy for a representative of the worst regime ever to exist, to find out more about this rabbi. I asked Igor, "Who is he? When and where did you find him?" Igor, who rare among the Soviet delegates had something of a sense of humor, told me, "I knew you would be suspicious, but he is a real Orthodox Jewish rabbi. He's not a KGB rabbi." The label "KGB rabbi" stuck, and became our shorthand for discussing USSR efforts to show that it was not an anti-semitic cesspool.

Well, as often happens at UN meetings, the afternoon session dragged into the evening. At about nine o'clock, we saw coming down the aisle to the USSR delegation, which was one over from us--the UK stuck between us--a stout, bearded, yarmulke-wearing man, with various other accoutrements meant to show that he was an Orthodox rabbi, a serious man not one to be messed with. I had the mike for the US, and leaned back to my colleagues, and noted softly, "Why is an Orthodox rabbi here on a Friday night? He should be praying and refusing to do any work. I am going to embarrass him when he speaks." One of our junior colleagues, however, could not resist blabbing. He leaned over to one of the junior Soviet dips, just before the Rabbi was about to take the floor, and asked, "Why is an Orthodox rabbi here on a Friday night? We're going to ask when he starts to speak."

The young Soviet diplomad reacted as though a cattle prod had been placed in some private part. He bolted from his chair, and began whispering in his Ambassador's ear, Igor listening in. The Ambassador went pale, and looked at me. I smiled back, although furious at my colleague for having spoiled what would have been a great moment. Igor sat in his chair directly behind the "rabbi" with his face in his hands.

The Ambassador grabbed the microphone before the "rabbi" could speak. He whispered to him in a harsh tone, and ripped the speech from his hands. The Ambassador then informed the Commission that the rabbi, of course, could not deliver the speech because he could not work on the Sabbath. The Soviet Ambassador proceeded to read the speech for the rabbi, stumbling over some phrases in Hebrew, and generally just barely containing his rage. While this was not the great moment I had wanted, it was still pretty good. Our delegation kept smiling, laughing, and shaking our heads. The Soviet diplomats livid, angrily talked among themselves, and stared daggers at us. The speech was a disaster; most other delegates got up and began leaving, preferring the paltry Geneva nightlife to the charade underway in this stuffy conference room. When the Soviet Ambassador finished, the UK Ambassador said to him, "What was the point of that nonsense?"

As the meeting broke up, Igor came to see me. Before he could say anything, however, one of my friends said, "Lewis, don't you dare use that stupid line!" Igor said, "This was not nice what you did. It was a dirty childish trick." My friend shook his head and kept whispering "No! No! Don't say it!" I couldn't resist, and launched the most stinging rebuke ever given the USSR during the Cold War; I attribute our victory over the Soviets to my, "Oh, silly rabbi, don't you know, tricks are for kids?"

I don't know if Igor caught the reference to an old US cereal TV commercial, but my colleagues threatened to murder me if I ever said anything that stupid and unorignal again.

28 comments:

  1. And I always thought these meetings were where wit and intelligence went to die. Heh, Heh, Heh, Heh!

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    Replies
    1. I can understand your displeasure with your loose lipped colleague, a chance such as this was probably very rare.

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    2. I forgave. He as a tremendous officer. Everybody makes mistakes.

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    3. You're a better man than I. I could forgive him making a pass at my wife, she is after all a stunning beauty. I would have traded him to the Romanians for can of fake caviar.

      Oh, and if he made a pass at my wife, she likely would have shot him. She carries.

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  2. Delicious. Did no one in the Soviet delegation know enough about the Jewish religion to anticipate this farce ? Apparently not. It's the equivalent of misspelling "Reset" on a button.

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  3. Was great up until the end... not sure even the soviets deserved that. :)

    - reader #1482

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  4. Float like witty butterfly, sting like a cagey bee.

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    1. paul vincent zecchinoMay 25, 2014 at 7:35 PM

      I saw what you did there; breathed new life into the meaning of 'sublime'.

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    2. Thank you, Mr. Zecchino.

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    3. cagey bee

      arrrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh

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    4. Of course, not everyone is equally happy with the result.

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  5. ........

    That sudden realization that good diplomacy is at least half trolling the enemy.

    Well played sir.

    Ugh, just realized we have Liberals in charge of the entire state now and they suck at trolling, logic, reason, and history..no wonder no one takes us seriously

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    Replies
    1. Ah thats the word they use. Well were I am from we have another word for people who are overly "sensitive".

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  6. paul vincent zecchinoMay 25, 2014 at 7:33 PM

    How would the sovs explain this? "New Soviet Man Rabbis don't do Shabbos, itself a decadent practice of the running dogs of degenerate western capitalism' or some such?

    This is too funny. Caught. Delicious.



    "I said Premier Kissoff is a degenerate, atheistic commie."
    - General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott)
    "Dr. Strangelove", c. 1964, Hawk Films, Ltd.

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  7. Oh!! I hurt myself by laughing so HARD!!! Wonderful, Sir!
    Dave

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  8. As a former JO myself, I think the guy who couldn't hold himself in for his Soviet counterparts should've been fired on the spot. I would've loved to have heard what might have happened had your dirty trick not been let out until after the "rabbi" had started to speak.

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  9. Great story Dip. Hope you took your loose lipped colleague outside and reamed him a new one.

    As for the "Rabbi" he could have tried the I flew west to east across the date line and thought it was Saturday - but then that would have required a certain creativity.

    Kol tuv.

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    Replies
    1. Don't give them ideas . . .

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    2. G'day Dip,

      After sundown on Saturday of course. Certainly after shabbat.

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  10. It is SO hard to tell a lie successfully.

    I know: I tried it once and got caught. Never again!

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  11. I trust bigmouth was posted as a trade rep in Greenland. Or at least soundly thrashed.

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  12. I will be chortling about this story for the rest of my days.

    Thanks Lewis. Brilliant as always.

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  13. Thank you for making me laugh, that is a delightful story.

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