International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life

Abraham Feinberg and the Founding of the Ethics Center

March 12, 2018

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, International Advisory Board member Norbert Weissberg reflects on the history of the Ethics Center and remembers the late Abraham Feinberg, through whose generosity the Center was established.

It’s hard for Judy and me to believe that 20 years have passed since Abe Feinberg’s passing and his endowment of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University.

I remember as if it was yesterday: Before his final illness, Abe talking about his many meetings with Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz and the establishment of the center. Abe was an early financial supporter of Brandeis and ultimately chairman of its board of trustees. He was terribly impressed with President Reinharz and said so on many occasions. Although he was eager for Judy and me to become involved in his plans for the center, Abe entered the hospital before any such involvement could be acted upon. Consequently, neither of us knew much at all about the specifics Abe had in mind for the center’s mission.

That is altogether consistent with the sort of man Abe was. During his lifetime he was involved in a number of activities which, in hindsight, were of enormous consequence, taking him into the highest circles of world power. He met with presidents like Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, sometimes weekly, but was ever a very secretive man, never discussing his contacts, never gossiping, never sharing insights with his family. Indeed, he abjured even being photographed with his colleagues, fearing that such would raise suspicions of celebrity-seeking.

Over the years we have been approached by a number of academicians who found Abe’s name among attendees at consequential meetings around the world but are left puzzled by the absence of any explanation of Abe’s role. He was an early Zelig, an "eminence gris" of major influence in U.S. and Israeli affairs, but a sojourner who left no footprints.

So let me add some color to the otherwise grey background Abe left behind him, not so much about the center as about the person, by telling a few of my favorite stories about Abe:

He started his involvement in world affairs in 1945 in association with the Jewish Committee, by visiting Displaced Persons camps in Europe holding Holocaust survivors. There, at his own expense, he managed to charter several ships to carry DPs from Italian ports to Palestine. Realizing his efforts would be enhanced by U.S. government support, he became a contributor to Democratic Party causes and, through Bob Hannigan, a St. Louis friend of Vice President Truman, (and later Postmaster General), was invited to a party celebrating the ascension of then-Sen. Truman to the vice presidency.

That office was one of very little power or prestige under Roosevelt’s imperial presidency. As Abe told it, Truman entered a very crowded room and no one paid any attention to him. Abe approached Truman and asked whether he preferred to be addressed as Mr. Vice President or Mr. Truman. Truman, very unhappy with his new appointment, replied that he preferred to be addressed as “Senator Truman.” Now, Truman was not a spontaneous man, but that was a genuinely funny reply and the two men never forgot that rare moment of humor they shared together.

In 1947, at the start of the war between Arabs and Jews in the Mandate, Abe provided financing for the acquisition of arms by the Haganah and helped finance an arms-producing plant below the laundry in a British military camp, still possible to see today.  Through that effort he became intimate with Ben Gurion, Weitzman, Meir, Sharrot, Eban and Kollek, who frequently met in Abe’s U.S. home to discuss strategy vis-á-vis the Truman administration.

The next year he was active among a small circle of Jews around Truman in persuading the then-president to recognize the new State of Israel over advice from the State Department to the contrary. Later in 1948, Truman was running for a second term and invited friends to the White House to discuss his candidacy. Truman was running dramatically behind the governor of New York, Thomas Dewey, but was convinced he could draw even if given a chance to reach the people through a train trip to the East and Midwest. But he needed financing.

No one in the room responded to Truman’s plea, feeling his chances were near nil. Finally, Abe raised his hand and, in recognition of Truman’s service to the Jewish people earlier in the year, committed to the $250,000 needed to make the trip. That commitment to what certainly became the most famous “whistle stop” tour by any president, was satisfied partially by Abe’s own contribution and partially by local Jewish communities solicited by Abe who delivered cash in paper bags to the train officials at every station so as to fund the train’s progress to the next station.

Later that year, Truman sent Abe with the president’s airplane to accompany Chaim Weizman, president of Israel, on his first visit to the White House. Weizman planned to ask Truman for $5 million to $10 million of assistance for the young and impecunious nation. Abe convinced him on the plane to ask for $100 million and a shy and nervous Weizman did just that. Truman then made the $100 million loan to Israel so crucial to its early life.

Ten years later, as an intimate of President Johnson’s and a frequent visitor the LBJ ranch, Abe engineered a shipment of the newest U.S. jet fighter iterations to Israel that played such an important role in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Perhaps more importantly, Abe played an essential role in raising the necessary funding for Israel’s nuclear project in Dimona.

An imposing man at 6-foot-4, with a reputation of “taking no prisoners,” Abe was a very successful businessman, chairman of a New York Stock Exchange company, who might easily have rested on his laurels. Instead, Abe worked to become an American patriot, an indefatigable Zionist and an effective Jewish activist. Perhaps his most honored memory lies in the fact that he never took public credit for any of his achievements. It’s what makes me most proud of Abe.

I hope this glimpse of those achievements allows you to understand better the man who created the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, and gives you some insight into the aspirations that he likely harbored for that institution.

The Ethics Center celebrated its 20th anniversary on March 12, 2018. This reflection was shared at that event. Read more about the anniversary celebration.