By Gabe Friedman
(JTA) — Tony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of state, is the stepson of a Holocaust survivor whose stories shaped his worldview and subsequently his policy decisions, including in the Middle East.
Biden named Blinken to the post on Monday, a day after news leaked about his plans to bring on the Jewish former high-ranking official in the Obama administration.
Blinken, 58, has been one of Biden’s closest policy advisers for over a decade and espouses the opposite of Trump’s “America First” agenda, which prioritized nationalist goals over international diplomacy. Multiple reports say that Blinken will seek to rejoin many of the international agreements that Trump left as president, notably the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear deal (an agreement with major diplomatic consequences for Israel).
Under Blinken, the State Department will usher in a much different foreign policy era, including on Israel. Like Biden, Blinken has close ties to the country forged from his decades of strong support of the Jewish state.
Here’s what you need to know about the new top diplomat, who hasn’t been much of a household name until now.
His Jewish parents were influential in their own right.
Blinken was born in New York City, where he spent most of his early years. His father, Donald, co-founded the hefty E.M. Warburg Pincus & Company (now Warbug Pincus) investment firm and served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary for four years under President Bill Clinton’s administration. There is an archive at George Soros’ Central European University in Hungary named for Donald Blinken, now 95, and his second wife, Vera, who survived the Holocaust, in part for their support of the “democratization process in the United States and in Hungary.”
Donald Blinken’s grandfather Meir Blinken also was a noted Yiddish author whose stories were published in a book in the 1980s that features an introduction by scholar Ruth Wisse.
His stepfather’s Holocaust experience shaped his worldview.
Tony Blinken’s mother, Judith, remarried Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and attorney who advised President John F. Kennedy and multiple French presidents. Pisar, who survived three concentration camps, also worked for the United Nations, wrote a libretto title “Kaddish-A Dialogue With God” at the behest of Leonard Bernstein and penned an award-winning memoir about his Holocaust experiences. Read more about him here in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency obituary and the description of a Yad Vashem program named after him.
Blinken has said that Pisar’s experiences have informed his vision for the “engaged” role that the United States should play on the global stage. Here’s one story he tells frequently, via Jewish Insider:
“One day as they were hiding out, they heard this deep rumbling sound,” Blinken recounted, “and as my stepfather looked out, he saw a sight that he had never seen before — not the dreaded Iron Cross, not a swastika, but on a tank a five-pointed white star. And, maybe in a foolhardy way, he rushed out toward it. He knew what it was. And he got to the tank, the hatch opened up, and a large African-American G.I. stared down at him. And he got down on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘God bless America.’ And at that point, the G.I. lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America. That’s the story that I grew up with — about what our country is and what it represents, and what it means when the United States is engaged and leading.”
His diplomatic career has spanned decades and gained him a reputation as a centrist.
That career began on the National Security Council under Clinton. Blinken also was appointed staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was headed by Biden during the George W. Bush years.
In 2008, Biden tapped Blinken to help his presidential campaign, and when Biden was chosen as Barack Obama’s vice president, Blinken followed, becoming one of his national security advisers. In 2014, Obama elevated Blinken to deputy secretary of state under John Kerry.
During those years, Blinken was heavily involved in the crafting of Middle East policy, including the landmark Iran deal.
Blinken has been described as a centrist and an interventionist, and he’s said to have a “mind meld” with Biden on foreign policy — an area of governance in which the president-elect specializes and wants to prioritize in the Oval Office.
Blinken is more hawkish on issues such as Russia, whom he considers a foe (he helped Obama’s team respond stiffly to Vladimir Putin’s encroachments into Crimea).
On Israel, Blinken’s views reflect the Democratic mainstream.
Within the Democratic Party, a minority of lawmakers and advocates have been trying to shift the party to the left on Israel issues. Progressives including Bernie Sanders have suggested that aid to Israel ought to be conditioned on certain policy choices.
The Trump administration has shifted U.S. policy to the right in recent years, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and, just last week, saying that the United States would consider the movement to boycott Israel officially anti-Semitic.
Blinken is a centrist here, too. He has said that a Biden administration will not condition aid to Israel on policy choices, will keep the embassy in Jerusalem and will staunchly support Israel at the United Nations — a body that often singles out the Jewish state for human rights abuses without condemning offenders such as Syria and China. In May, Biden wrote that he “firmly” rejects the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and Blinken has backed up that stance.
Blinken’s appointment drew praise from centrist Democrats on Sunday night, but also from Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, Matt Duss, who tweeted that it would be “a new and great thing to have a top diplomat who has regularly engaged with progressive grassroots.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., a progressive who is known for her harsh criticism of Israel and support for boycotting Israel, responded that she would be happy as long as “he doesn’t try to silence me and suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu’s racist and inhumane policies.”
Blinken’s record has earned him respect from Israeli officials, even when he hasn’t always agreed with them. Michael Oren, a conservative former U.S. ambassador to Israel, called Blinken a man of “singular intelligence and warmth” in a passage of his 2015 book “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide” — even in describing how Blinken rebuked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for expanding settlement building after agreeing not to.
“How could you do this to Israel’s best friend?” Blinken said about Biden to Oren, who was the ambassador at the time.
On Twitter Sunday night, Oren said he could think of “no finer choice” for the post, and news of Biden tapping Blinken drew praise from a cross-section of Israelis who have encountered him in the course of diplomacy.
If there’s ever tension between Israeli and American leadership, don’t expect to know about it. A big part of keeping things copacetic, as Biden and Blinken see it, is leaving policy disputes behind closed doors — something Blinken pushed for during the Obama years, sometimes to no avail.
As he told a “Sesame Street” character, Blinken is compassionate toward refugees.
President Trump prioritized closing off U.S. borders and punishing immigrants who sought asylum in a policy set by a Jewish adviser, Stephen Miller.
Biden has said his approach to immigration — an issue important to many American Jews — will be much different. Blinken explained his attitude about refugees in a 2016 video with the “Sesame Street” character Grover, in which he explains to the fuzzy blue puppet that refugees should be treated the same as “you and me.”
“We all have something to learn and gain from one another, even when it doesn’t seem at first like we have much in common,” Blinken said after asking Grover to imagine how challenging it must be for someone to feel so unsafe that they decide to leave their home.
He’s got a lighter side — and a band with a clever name.
At one point the Harvard grad — who married Evan Ryan, a former assistant secretary of state in a ceremony that involved both a rabbi and a priest — wanted to be a filmmaker. Blinken also has a ’70s-inspired band called Ablinken — wordplay on multiple levels — that has two tracks on Spotify and was making headlines Monday.
Main Photo: Tony Blinken, when he was deputy secretary of state, is seen at a news conference at the State Department, Aug. 10, 2016. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)