Richard Schifter, Legendary US Jewish Diplomat and Human Rights Advocate, Dies at Age 97

by Algemeiner Staff

Ambassador Richard Schifter, who died on Oct. 4, 2020, seen addressing the United Nations. Photo: UN Watch.

Richard Schifter, one of the the US Jewish community’s foremost diplomats and advocates, passed away on Sunday at the age of 97, drawing a flood of tributes for a lifetime of achievement in Jewish and international affairs.

A former assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration who fled Nazi-annexed Austria as a teenager, Schifter would be remembered as an “American patriot and a proud son of the Jewish people,” Gil Kapen — a board member of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), a think tank founded by Schifter — told The Algemeiner on Monday.

Born in Vienna to Polish-Jewish emigres in 1923, Schifter was the only member of his family to receive a visa to enter the US following the “Anschluss” — Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria into the German Reich in March 1938.

Five years after arriving in America, he returned to Europe with the US Army as one of the “Ritchie Boys” — German-speaking military intelligence officers, many of them Jews, who were trained at Camp Ritchie in Maryland in psychological warfare operations.

While serving in Europe, Schifter learned that most of his family had been murdered in the Holocaust.

After returning to the US and graduating from Yale Law School in 1951, Schifter began a distinguished career in the private sector, becoming one of the main attorneys for the Oglala Sioux tribe of South Dakota in its repeated battles with the US government. He moved into diplomacy in the 1980s, representing the US at the UN Commission on Human Rights and at the UN Security Council, achieving the rank of ambassador.

In 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan appointed Schifter as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, a position he held until 1992. During President Bill Clinton’s administration, Schifter served as a special assistant in the US National Security Council for nearly a decade.

Schifter founded AJIRI after leaving government in 2001. Much of the institute’s work focused on countering the demonization of Israel at the United Nations, such as the labeling of Zionism as a form of racism as well as the comparisons drawn between the Jewish state and the former apartheid regime in South Africa.

In a 2014 interview with The Tower magazine, Schifter argued that negative voting behavior at the UN with regard to Israel would only change once delegates were explicitly instructed to reject anti-Israel resolutions by their heads of government.

“A significant number of ambassadors in New York vote against Israel without instructions from their governments,” he  explained. “So the answer to the problem is that you reach out to heads of government. You get them to give instructions to the ambassadors on how to vote.”

Kapen praised Schifter as “a towering figure who made a huge positive impact on the world.”

“As a soldier, diplomat and fighter for freedom and human rights, he lived a legendary life,” Kapen said. “His tireless efforts on behalf of democracy and against the unfair treatment of Israel at the UN continued until the last days of his life.”

Schifter’s “wisdom and his many accomplishments were matched only by his kindness and humility,” Kapen recalled.  “He won the undying admiration and affection of all who knew him.”

Other warm tributes to Schifter came from Alfred Moses, also a former American diplomat, as well as US Jewish organizations.

“Dick Schifter dedicated his life to helping others,” Moses — chair of the Geneva-based advocacy organization UN Watch — said in a statement. “Having lost his parents and much of his family in the Holocaust, he gave of himself, professionally and personally to advance human rights and protect the dignity of people around the world.”

A statement from the Washington, DC-based B’nai B’rith International organization lauded Schifter as “an inspirational leader, accomplished diplomat, public servant, staunch advocate for human rights, a resolute defender of Israel, a strong proponent of trans-Atlantic relations and of America’s place in the world.”

The group said that it had reached an agreement with AJIRI in September to merge, in order to “continue to advance the groundbreaking work both organizations have undertaken separately in the realm of fair treatment for Israel on the world stage.”

Paying tribute from the Israeli government, Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz called Schifter  “a symbol of perseverance and strength who achieved much in his lifetime and worked endlessly on improving Israel’s position in the UN,” in a Twitter post on Sunday.