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. Biden named Blinken, who is Jewish, to the post on Nov. 23.
The former high-ranking official in the Obama administration has been one of Biden’s closest policy advisers for more than a decade and espouses the opposite of Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.
Multiple reports said that Blinken, 58, will seek to rejoin many of the international agreements that Trump left, notably the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.
Under Blinken, the State Department will usher in a much different foreign policy era, including on Israel.
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 and Co. (now Warburg Pincus) investment firm and served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary for four years in the Clinton administration. There is an archive at George Soros’ Central European University in Hungary named for Donald Blinken, 95, and his second wife, Vera, who survived the Holocaust.
Donald Blinken’s grandfather Meir Blinken was a noted Yiddish author whose stories were published in a 1980s book that features an introduction by scholar Ruth Wisse.
Tony’s mother, Judith, remarried Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and attorney who advised President John F. Kennedy and multiple French presidents. Pisar survived three concentration camps, worked for the United Nations, wrote a libretto titled “Kaddish: A Dialogue With God” (at the behest of Leonard Bernstein) and penned an award-winning memoir about his Holocaust experiences. There is a Yad Vashem program named after him.
Tony 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, 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.”
Blinken’s diplomatic career began on the National Security Council under Clinton, and he 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 became 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. 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).
As for Israel, Blinken’s views reflect the Democratic mainstream. Within the party, a minority of lawmakers and advocates have been trying to shift the party to the left on Israel issues. Progressives, such as Bernie Sanders, have suggested that aid to Israel ought to be conditioned on certain policy choices.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration shifted U.S. policy to the right, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and last week saying that the U.S. would consider the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel officially antisemitic.
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 BDS movement, and Blinken has backed up that stance.
Blinken’s appointment drew early praise from centrist Democrats, 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.”
Just make sure he doesn't try to silence me and suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu's racist and inhumane policies. https://t.co/GrxrZJmLTs
— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) November 23, 2020
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, 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.” Tlaib is a progressive known for her harsh criticism of Israel and support for boycotting Israel.
Blinken’s record has earned him respect from Israeli officials, even when he hasn’t always agreed with them. Michael Oren, a conservative former Israeli ambassador to the United States, called Blinken a man of “singular intelligence and warmth” in his 2015 book “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.”
On Twitter, 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.
Congratulations to Tony Blinken, a great diplomat and true friend of Israel, for his nomination as Secretary of State. I had the honor and pleasure of working with him for years in Washington and know him to be brave and clear-sighted statesman. I can think of no finer choice.
— Michael Oren (@DrMichaelOren) November 23, 2020
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.
Blinken is compassionate toward refugees, as he told the character Grover when Blinken made a “Sesame Street” video appearance in 2016. That’s opposed to Trump, who 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. In speaking to Grover, Blinken explained 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.
— Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) September 21, 2016
Blinken is a Harvard graduate who married Evan Ryan in a 2002 ceremony that involved both a rabbi and a priest. She was an assistant secretary of state from 2013 to 2017, and before that served as the assistant for intergovernmental affairs and public liaison for Biden when he was vice president.