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October 31st, 2014
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News Special Features Kenneth Bialkin: Financial Pioneer and Jewish Visionary

Kenneth Bialkin: Financial Pioneer and Jewish Visionary

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 Kenneth Bialkin, seen here with AIFL Think Tank Director Gol Kalev (L) and Ido Aharoni, Israeli Consul General in New York. (Photo courtesy America-Israel Friendship League)Kenneth Bialkin may not be a distinguished rabbi, but he is, without a doubt, one of the great Jewish personalities of our time. Interviewing Kenneth Bialkin offers one an in-depth look at modern Jewish history, and in particular that of the State of Israel. This is, in large part, thanks to the fact that Mr. Bialkin helped create that history.

At a surprisingly youthful 83 years old, Bialkin has a most impressive list of associations and accomplishments. Professionally, he is and has been for over 30 years a partner in the famed law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, LLP. He has specialized in corporate and securities law, mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance and SEC enforcement. Ken was involved in the formation of Citigroup and   in the merger of Met Life and New England Mutual Life.

Ken sits on the Board of Directors of The Municipal Assistance Corp. of New York City, Travelers Property Insurance Corp, and numerous other professional organizations. He is a former president of the New York County’s Lawyer Association, a former Director of Citigroup, Inc. and has served as an advisor to the Federal Securities Code Project and on advisory committees of the SEC. The list goes on and on, however the passion and gusto he brings to his professional endeavors is nothing next to his love for Jewish causes and his tireless efforts on behalf of both the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry.

Born in 1929 in the Bronx to Polish and Russian parents, Ken speaks with pride how his grandparents were involved in raising money for Jewish causes. He recalls the Jewish National Fund “Pushke” (charity box) in his paternal grandparents’ home and the Shabbat observance of his maternal grandparents. It all left Bialkin with a love for charity, kindness and an unconditional love for the Jewish people. It also molded the upstanding character, the menschlichkeit that is so readily apparent when one meets him.

Bialkin’s education gave him a mufti-faceted outlook on life. A product of the New York City Public School system, he graduated from Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, went on to the University of Michigan where he matriculated with a degree in economics and continued on to law school at Harvard. Ken graduated with his J.D. from Harvard in 1953 after spending a summer at the London School of Economics on a scholarship he receive from the Institute of International Education.   

Ken married in 1953. His wife Ann, originally from Nashville, was attending Sarah Lawrence College when they met, after which she graduated with her Master’s in Social Work from Columbia University. Ken and Ann are the proud parents of twin daughters: Lisa and Johanna, and two grandchildren.

In 1959, the Bialkins took their first trip to Israel. That trip changed their lives forever and would help bring about profound change for both the American and Israeli Jewish communities.

Today, you will find Ken Bialkin’s mark on almost every major national Jewish-American organization.  By following the history of Ken Bialkin’s communal involvement, one can gain valuable insights into the man himself. 

Ken speaks about Israel with the grace of a statesman and the love of a true pioneer. He tells of his relationship with Teddy Kollek, the former mayor of Jerusalem, whom he knew when Kollek was still working for former Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion. He recalls when he became head of the Anti- Defamation League in the 1960’s, how he forged a relationship with the then-head of the CIA James Jesus Angleton, who promised him his help with “whatever you need.” 

An avid Jewish historian, Bialkin reminisces about the early state of Israel and the difficult years of the British Mandate. He tells the stories of the Haganah and the Irgun and how the Haganah broke away from the more militant Irgun in order to work with the British. Irgun members like the late former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir were turned in to the British by the Haganah and exiled to an Ethiopian prison. Ken recalls how the Labor Party controlled everything in the early State of Israel. The Israeli greats such as Hillel Kook, the son of Rav Kook (the first Chief Rabbi of Israel); and Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not find jobs in Israel because they were backers of the Irgun. They ultimately left the country and came to the United States with Netanyahu going into academics and Hillel Kook changing his name to Peter Bergson.

Mr. Bialkin attributes the stability and strength of American Jewry to the establishment and existence of the State of Israel. He explains his belief that “[I]f not for the force, influence and inspiration of the State of Israel, the Jewish World would be thinner than it is today. Israel gives Jews meaning here in America and provides a fabric and cohesion to Jewish life. The relating of Jewish life to Israel, makes both parties stronger both Jews here and Jews there. Without that, the character, quality and safety of Jewish identity would diminish.”

“That,” Ken says, “is what motivates me.”

Ken modestly states that he is not a pious Jew but he belongs to three synagogues: Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue (Orthodox), Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative) and The Jewish Center of the Hamptons (Reform). Ken Says, “I am not learned but I believe in the Jewish people and that we have a mission”. His favorite Rabbi is Rabbi Shlomo Riskin whom he has an ongoing close relationship with.

He recalls vividly the early days in the sixties when his friendship with the newly elected mayor of Western Jerusalem Teddy Kollek (Kollek was elected in 1966, one year before the Six-Day War and the reunification of East and West Jerusalem—the former having previously been under Jordanian control— introduced Ken to Ted Tannenbaum, of the American Jewish Congress.  This connection led to Bialkin’s involvement with the AJC and a deep friendship with the organization’s director, Nathan  Perlmutter. Perlmutter would go on to become National Director of the ADL. Bialkin soon followed, his work with the ADL continuing even until today. Modest himself, but not shy about praising others, Bialkin describes Nathan Perlmutter as having been “one of the great heroes of Jewish life in America.”

Bialkin’s work on behalf of the Jewish community has continued without interruption and shows no signs of slowing. After his chairmanship at the ADL, he became Chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, followed by the presidency of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York. Ken than became Chairman of the American Jewish Historical Society, where he organized the archives of Soviet Jewry. He relates to the Jewish Voice how Mort Zuckerman, an intensely involved Jewish communal leader and publisher of U.S. News and World Report asked him to become Chairman of the American Israel Friendship League.  Ken said he would become Chairman if Mort would serve as president and so it was. This also resulted in Mort Zuckerman eventually becoming Chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

Presently, Bialkin’s communal involvement is very much centered on the American Israel Friendship League. His feeling is that the AIFL is at the forefront of cementing the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that are based on our joint beliefs in freedom and democracy. The AIFL’s mission is to make friends for Israel. A non-sectarian, non-partisan organization, it works to give a better understanding to Americans of all faiths and cultures what Israel is all about. It is currently reaching out to Christian Evangelicals and Presbyterians and fighting against the current Presbyterian anti-Israel divestment efforts.

Ken Bialkin believes that much of what the world has cast upon Israel is driven by anti-Semitism. The threat of anti-Semitism has, in many ways, shaped who he is and what he has done all of his life. “Anti-Semitism is the paradigmatic failure to protect a people’s human rights,” says Bialkin. He goes on to suggest that “Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism sits at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  For four thousand years the Jewish people have had their human rights attacked, and that attack is called anti-Semitism. 

“The hatred toward Israel today, particularly in the United Nations where Israel cannot win a vote, I think is touched by a latent or a not-so-latent anti-Semitism. It’s this anti-Semitism, which is directed against all Jews, which rubs off on Israel. Since it’s not polite in modern company to be an anti-Semite, the anti-Semite finds it very convenient to heap their scorn on the State of Israel.”

Redirecting his direction to the Islamist threat, Bialkin explains that the more radical interpretations of Islamic Law “would destroy Israel, if they could.” Says Bialkin, “We have to fight against that.”

Another major movement today in the international efforts to annihilate the Jewish state is the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.   Ken believes that this economic warfare is being funded by radical Islamists and 15 or so countries that pay significant amounts of money to plant teachers and radical students on college campuses, and radical Islamic professionals whose primary occupation is to damage and discredit Israel.

Kenneth Bialkin had a very strong relationship with former Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He quotes Sharon, saying “First I am a Jew before I am an Israeli.” This statement, which Ken admires, sums up the philosophy of Ken’s life. “I understand what he was saying, as there is something that ties us to a set of principles of which we can be proud and we can relate ourselves to those traditions.” 

“The state of Israel,” says Bialkin, “is fighting our fight and fighting your fight.”

Dr. Alex Grobman, Executive Director of the American Israel Friendship League, describes Kenneth Bialkin as “one of the great Jewish leaders of our time. He is a man of vision who has dedicated his life to the welfare of our people and the Jewish state.”

We at the Jewish Voice are inclined to agree.

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