Sadat & Begin On A Birmingham Morning
By Richard Friedman,
BJF-LJCC Executive Director
I’m about to reflect on one of my best and most enduring professional memories. It occurred 40 years ago when Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat flew to Israel, breaking barriers between Israel and the Arab world in a bold and dramatic way. Sadat’s visit, and the reception he would receive from the Israelis, led to a peace treaty, that though imperfect continues to this day.
What has led me to reflect on Sadat’s visit was a news article I came across marking the 40th anniversary of this historic breakthrough.
At that time, I was in my late 20s and was a reporter for the Birmingham News. I had developed a burning interest in Israel as a result of two trips I had made to the country through the Birmingham Jewish Federation (an organization I would join professionally four years later).
I was at home that morning — Saturday, Nov. 19, 1977 — watching news coverage of the preparations for Sadat’s arrival when the phone rang. It was Clarke Stallworth, a legendary Alabama journalist, who was the Birmingham News’ city editor at the time. He was a hulking bear of a man who could be intimidating.
“Friedman, what are you doing?”
I knew he wasn’t calling just to say hi. “Watching TV. Sadat’s getting ready to fly to Israel,” I answered.
“I know that,” he said, with a hint of impatience. “That’s why I’m calling. We got a tip that Henry Kissinger is in town and I want you to find him and interview him about Sadat going to Israel.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“We don’t know. All we know is he’s in Birmingham for a wedding. His wife’s brother is marrying someone from Birmingham,” said Stallworth.
Kissinger, who had served as Secretary of State under two presidents, was one of the most famous people in the world at the time and America’s most prominent expert on foreign affairs. This was big-time stuff.
Stallworth gave me the name of the Birmingham family and suggested a few churches. (Kissinger is Jewish; his wife is not.) I made a few calls and found out where and when the wedding would be held.
But I asked Stallworth if after I interviewed Kissinger (assuming Kissinger agreed) I could come home, watch the Sadat arrival on TV (Israel is eight hours ahead of Birmingham) and then go down to the paper to write my story to run in Sunday’s Birmingham News. Stallworth agreed and that was the plan.
So I headed for the church, wanting to get there well in advance of the ceremony, thinking that would be my best shot at cornering Kissinger for a few comments about the impending Israeli-Egyptian breakthrough. I knocked on the stately church doors and luck was on my side. Nancy Kissinger, a tall, easily recognizable woman, opened the door.
I quickly explained who I was, assured her that I didn’t want to interfere with the wedding in any way and just wanted a few minutes to talk to her husband. She was warm and gracious and went to ask Kissinger if it would be ok. She came back within minutes, welcomed me into the church and found a quiet corner for the former Secretary of State and me to chat.
I cut to the chase, asking him for his thoughts about Sadat coming to Israel. He became emotional and said, “This is what I’ve been hoping for.” We chatted for a few more minutes and I asked him what he thought the next step should be to build on this historic breakthrough. For the US to take a low profile, he said, and let the two parties negotiate themselves.
That last point — that the US should stay out of it — came back to me just a few days ago, as I was reading a column by Bret Stephens in the New York Times. Writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he noted there is a belief “that intensive mediation by the US is essential to progress on the ground.”
“Yet,” Stephens added, “recent American involvement — whether at the Camp David summit in 2000 or John Kerry’s efforts in 2013 — has had mostly the opposite effect: diplomatic failure, followed by war.”
The memory of my talk with Kissinger on that historic day remains within me. So does the wisdom Kissinger shared in a quiet corner of a Birmingham church as events were unfolding that would continue to reverberate 40 years later.