Obituaries: Rabbi Baruch Korff

Joseph Finklestone
Wednesday 02 August 1995 23:02

Although it was his fervent support for Richard Nixon as a presidential candidate, as a president besmirched by the Watergate scandal and then forced from office, which brought Baruch Korff to controversial fame, it was not the first time that he had been involved in acrimonious disputes which won him headlines in the world press.

Just as his involvement with the tarnished president gained him the title of "Nixon's Rabbi", his earlier undisciplined clashes with the British government over admission of Jewish refugees to Palestine caused embarrassment to the traditional Jewish leadership in the United States.

Korff's background may have contributed to his lack of balance. The son of a rabbi in Ukraine, where he was born, he was five when he saw his mother shot dead in a pogrom in 1919. He was sent to Poland, where he lived for seven years, and then taken to the US to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

Becoming a fervent Zionist, Korff was incensed by the British Labour government's decision in 1947 to turn the Haganah ship Exodus, carrying thousands of survivors from the Nazi death camps, away from the shores of Palestine and send them, eventually, to Hamburg. But whereas most Zionists behaved with dignity, knowing that the Attlee-Bevin government had committed an immense public-relations blunder, Korff reacted in a theatrical manner. Turning up in Paris with eight other companions, he was arrested by the French police after reports had appeared in the British press that he was planning to bomb London.

Meeting Richard Nixon in 1967, when he was running for the presidency, Korff became one of the few prominent American Jews to admire and back him. The two became friends. When Nixon's presidency was mortally wounded by his involvement in the burglary of the Democratic office at Watergate, in 1974, Korff stood by him while others walked away. He formed the National Citizens' Committee for Fairness for the Presidency which, however, did little to reverse the relentless march towards resignation to avoid impeachment. After Nixon left the White House, Korff established a trust fund to meet the ex-president's legal bills of over $155,000.

"If I had to mortgage my house I would not let the former president be harassed by legal matters," he said. He had full confidence, he claimed, that the American people would respond to the appeal. However, he admitted that the publication of the book All the President's Men (1974 ), by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalists who opened the Watergate wounds, badly affected the fund-raising.

In backing Nixon so fervently, Korff took an attitude which most American- Jewish leaders found either distasteful or embarrassing. Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, expressed a widely held opinion that "Rabbi Korff represents neither the views of Judaism nor of the Jewish community".

However, Korff had many supporters in high places in Israel, including Yitzhak Rabin and the formidable Golda Meir. As the Israeli Prime Minister during the Yom Kippur war of 1973 she was immensely grateful to Nixon, with whom she struck up an unlikely though fateful friendship, for the giant American airlift which helped to turn defeat into victory. It is one of the greatest paradoxes that the president who did most to save Israel is still the least appreciated by American Jews, ardent supporters of Israel.

Equally right in Israeli eyes was Korff's disdainful dismissal of the charges that Nixon was an anti-Semite. These arose from occasional derogatory remarks made by Nixon about some American Jews; as Henry Kissinger, himself a German-born Jew, has mentioned. But historians would now agree that these remarks represented a ruthless politician's irritation with a community which insisted on backing his Democratic enemies. This did not prevent Nixon from pledging that never during his presidency would Israel lack arms to defend herself, a pledge which was fulfilled.

To the end of his days Korff was convinced that, though Nixon was "guilty of some errors of judgement", he was the victim of a "carefully staged circus of hate". Korff's books on the subject include The President and I, issued earlier this year. He wrote the book in Providence, where he moved in 1983 to act as a consultant to Brown University, who had acquired his archives.

Rabbi Korff retained his ability to the last to create a furore. Knowing that he was dying from cancer, he declared, "At my deathbed I can afford to speak the truth." This, he said, was that the journalist Diane Sawyer, an assistant in the Nixon press office in 1974, was "Deep Throat", the mysterious source that provided the devastating information that enabled Woodward and Bernstein to uncover the full extent of the Watergate scandal and topple the President. Alas, Diane Sawyer called the claim "laughable", while others have not given it much weight.

Joseph Finklestone

Baruch Korff, rabbi: born Ukraine 1914; died Providence, Rhode Island 26 July 1995.

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