Profile of Neal Sher
Just as Neal Sher took the podium at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) Policy Conference last year, he was forced to concede the spotlight to someone more powerful, the President of the United States. He was quick enough on his feet not to be flustered by the unexpected change in schedule and gave a Reader’s Digest version of his planned remarks.
Being overshadowed by Bill Clinton at AIPAC’s most important event, and the Executive Director’s chance to make a major policy address and bask in the adulation of the most devoted members of the pro-Israel community, may have been disappointing, but it did not change the fact that Sher is one of the most powerful men in Washington. For more than a decade, 49-year-old Sher was America’s Simon Wiesenthal, the Justice Department Nazi hunter who tracked down German war criminals who entered the United States illegally and concealed their murderous pasts. Today, he is responsible for insuring that Israel receives more than $3 billion in foreign assistance each year.
“People need to understand the benefits to the United States of the special relationship with Israel,” says Sher over dessert at the Hyatt hotel opposite AIPAC’s headquarters in the shadow of the Capital.
Sher was hired just two years ago to replace AIPAC’s longtime Executive Director Tom Dine, who had become synonymous with the lobby during his 13 years of high profile leadership. After Dine was essentially forced out, the nonpartisan Sher emerged as a compromise choice when Republican and Democratic factions of the board could not agree on either of the more partisan candidates that had become the favorites for the job.
A headhunter brought Sher to AIPAC’s attention and he immediately impressed the lobby’s board. Melvin Dow, AIPAC’s current President, said Sher was “the right age and experience and energy level.” Dow, a Houston attorney, was also impressed with trial lawyer Sher’s articulateness. Dow said Sher’s career at OSI demonstrated his dedication to the Jewish people.
Since assuming the mantle, Sher has maintained a much lower profile than his predecessor, so low, in fact, he is sometimes called the “Stealth Director” by members of his staff. Given the turmoil that preceded his appointment, it is not surprising that Sher has spent his first years building his own power base within the organization. He was also overshadowed by the charismatic President of AIPAC, Bostonian Steven Grossman, who broke with past tradition of relatively silent, nonpublic leadership and became the organization’s principal spokesman during his two-year term.
But Sher is not the type to look for the spotlight. Dr. Richard Katz, a San Diego physician and AIPAC board member who has known Sher for 30 years, says Sher is “a committed Jew who is tenacious, with the kind of quiet courage that does not seek out the press or make a big splash. He excels in everything he does in a very quiet, non-threatening way.” Katz believes Sher’s friendly style “might be mistaken for lack of commitment....He’s easy to work for; his employees love and protect him. He has no hidden agenda; he is just as he appears. If you ask his opinion, he’ll give it. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like and respect him.” Katz adds, “Neal has one of the best senses of humor, he listens well and laughs heartily. You can’t help but roar with him.”
And Sher has made a positive impression during his brief tenure. “Neal’s been a good spokesman,” says Dow. “He’s testified before Congressional committees, traveled throughout the country and related well to people.”
During a trip to Israel, Dow and Sher jogged together around the Jerusalem YMCA track. As they’ve gotten to know each other, Dow says he’s found Sher to be “a straightforward person who enjoys what’s he’s doing.”
Perhaps Sher’s most important contribution thus far has been to heal AIPAC’s well-known internal rifts. Friend and board member Katz says “Neal has helped make AIPAC a kinder and gentler place, not something it was known for in the past.”
Sher came to AIPAC with the attitude, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Rather than make dramatic changes, he has tried to build on the success of his predecessor. Given the dramatic changes in Congress the last few years, with more than 50 percent of the members newly elected, Sher’s main emphasis has been on educating elected officials. “There’s a need to go back to the basics,” he says, “in terms of explaining to officials, who may have had little or no exposure to Middle East issues, the benefits to America of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. We need to fight complacency and broaden our base of activists.”
Sher was not always an activist, in fact, he couldn’t afford to be one.
“Neal comes from a humble background,” says Katz. He was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. His father was seriously wounded in World War II and became a mailman after the war. His mother worked for the city of New York. Sher did not grow up religious, he had a basic Hebrew school education, but his whole world was Jewish. And his parents taught him about being Jewish in other ways. One friend told the story that Sher’s father once delivered a paper published by a German. The publisher said the wrong thing about Jews and Sher’s father decked him.
Sher had to work his way through Cornell, mostly doing various jobs in his fraternity. Katz waited tables with Sher and recalls that “money was always an issue in school.” In fact, Sher says one of the main reasons it took so long for him to get to Israel was that he couldn’t afford to go. Since his first trip in 1978, he’s been there more than 50 times.
Before he set foot in the Holy Land, he traveled to NYU Law School, but first joined the Army Reserves. Ironically, at one point, he and the other reserves were called in to replace striking letter carriers.
Sher was a good student and made the law review. He subsequently earned a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in the District of Columbia. After graduating from law school, he joined a small Washington firm and specialized in federal litigation. After five years as a litigator, Sher was approached by the director of a new division of the Justice Department established to investigate suspected Nazi war criminals. He doesn’t remember why he was approached, but it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I had a long interest in Holocaust issues, especially Nuremberg, and spent many lunch hours at the National Archives looking up captured records.” Sher knew that America had done nothing to prevent the catastrophe and liked the idea of doing something to make up for the earlier failures. So, when the offer came — with a cut in salary — he instinctively knew taking the job was the right thing to do. He was given the title of Deputy Director of the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). At the time Sher thought it was something he’d do for only a couple of years. He stayed fifteen.
When Sher arrived at OSI, he found the situation chaotic. The office had an enormous amount of work to do, with dozens of potential cases, and the need to develop methods for prosecuting war criminals who had, for a variety of reasons found haven in America. “OSI should have been created 30 years earlier,” he says.
The work allowed Sher to forge close alliances with survivors around the world who were forced to open the deepest wounds in pursuit of justice. “They were a source of strength and inspiration,” says Sher, who was also motivated by anger that Nazis were permitted to come to the United States and evaded justice for so long.
Sher became known for aggressively pursuing suspected Nazis, which opened him to criticism, most notably from Pat Buchanan, whom he now holds in open contempt.
In his syndicated column Buchanan defended John Demjanjuk, a Cleveland auto worker accused of being “Ivan the Terrible,” a mass murderer at Treblinka. Buchanan accused OSI of relying on Soviet disinformation to make its case. He also suggested OSI might have framed ex-Nazi rocket scientist Arthur Rudolph, who relinquished his citizenship and fled to West Germany when OSI began to investigate his role as the director of a factory employing slave laborers. Buchanan went so far as to compare Rudolph to Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. In yet another case, Buchanan lobbied to prevent the deportation of Karl Linnas, accused of supervising atrocities in an Estonian concentration camp.
Of those cases, the one that became most famous was the one involving Demjanjuk, who was deported and found guilty by an Israeli court and sentenced to hang. Later, Israel’s Supreme Court reversed the decision because of insufficient evidence to prove he was Ivan, but only after Buchanan had accused the Court of wanting Demjanjuk to die in prison.
The OSI case actually did not depend on whether or not Demjanjuk was Ivan; he was stripped of his citizenship because he lied on his naturalization papers. Still, the result gave OSI’s critics more ammunition. Sher is unapologetic. “Demjanjuk was lucky he was tried in Israel,” he says. “He received every benefit in a democratic judicial system. The court made clear he was a guard at Sobibor, but he was set free because of doubts about the evidence that he was Ivan the Terrible.”
Eli Rosenbaum, Sher’s successor at OSI, says criticism angered him, but “Neal did some of his best work when he was angry.” Rosenbaum says that whenever someone brought a case to Sher, he would get visibly angry or moved. “Not many people would have that reaction after 15 years in the job.” Rosenbaum observed that not even the Nuremberg prosecutors worked that long prosecuting Nazis.
Sher says he loved the work and was undeterred by critics. “I never dreaded going to work, even when Pat Buchanan was trying to shut us down.”
Though Sher did not consider his work a personal crusade, he said: “I made a point of saying I’m Jewish because I wanted the Nazi criminals to know the effort was led by Jews.”
One reason Sher was so successful at prosecuting Nazis, Rosenbaum says, is that he is a master interrogator of suspects. “Most of the time people have a story and stick to it, but Neal is one of the few to take someone who lied and get them to admit it.” Rosenbaum adds that Sher inspired loyalty and was admired and loved by his staff. Rosenbaum calls Sher “the most dedicated pursuer of justice in government that this government or world has ever seen.” In fact, according to Rosenbaum, OSI has “won more Nazi cases than any other law enforcement authority in the world.”
Sher lists among his accomplishments at OSI the taking of the first depositions in the then-Soviet Union and the pioneering use of videotaped testimony; the successful prosecution of OSI’s first case, which established critical legal and procedural precedents; effectuation of the removal from the United States of Nazi persecutors such as Viorel Trifa, Andrija Artukovic, Fedor Fedorenko and Arthur Rudolph; representing the United States in the combined Israeli-German-American effort to trace the fate of Josef Mengele and leading the investigation of Kurt Waldheim, which led to him being placed on the watch list of persons ineligible to enter the United States.
One question that often arose was why OSI pursued old men who have lived peaceful, lawful lives in America. Sher says we cannot forgive or forget what happened during the Holocaust. “The fact that an individual got away so long didn’t diminish or mitigate his crimes. If, forty years from now, the perpetrator of some horrible crime was found, no one would say ‘don’t prosecute.’”
Though America allowed some Nazis to become citizens, Sher defends what he calls “the proud history in America of being a safe haven from dictators and murderers.” That is why, he says, Buchanan is so wrong when he calls for curbs on immigration. “Without immigration, there wouldn’t be a Jew in America.” But, he adds, the United States “shouldn’t be a haven for tormentors because that would cheapen our values. It’s in the best tradition of American justice to prosecute Nazi war criminals,” Sher says, because “it would be immoral to know they’re here and close our eyes. I want history books to say we did all we could [to bring them to justice].”
It’s too early to know how Sher’s work at OSI will be judged by historians, but his contemporaries have heaped praise on him. He has enough awards to wallpaper his house, including The Israel Unity Award from State of Israel Bonds, the Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League and a Special Commendation for Courage and Dedication in the Pursuit of Justice from the World Jewish Congress. He has also been invited to speak at numerous conferences and to teach courses related to the Holocaust as an adjunct professor at Cornell and as a member of the faculty of the Hebrew University-Tulane University Institute of Human Rights in Jerusalem.
Rosenbaum, who first came to work at OSI as a summer intern, says Sher took him under his wing. “Neal’s a wonderful person, a lawyer’s lawyer....I don’t know anyone for whom so many people would say he’s their best friend — and mean it. He will give you the shirt off his back.”
After all the praise lavished on Sher, he begins to sound like, well, a saint. The only faults Katz could think of were that “he is a soft touch; he listens to everybody, which is sometimes inefficient. And he’s a terrible dresser unless he has his wife’s help.”
Sher met his wife Grazia at a swimming pool. They now live in Virginia. Sher is particularly proud of his stepson, 28-year-old David, the first profoundly deaf student accepted at Cornell and Cornell Law School. Today, he is a law clerk with a federal judge. Rosenbaum says Sher is as devoted as any father, and that love is reciprocated. Perhaps the best evidence was that David decided on his own to legally change his name to Sher after he finished law school.
As devoted as he is to his family, Sher is no less dedicated to his work, a commitment that stems, in part, from his reading of history. One of the lessons Sher has learned is that political weakness is dangerous for Jews. “It was clear the United States did nothing to rescue Jews in the 1940’s and the State Department consistently thwarted rescue efforts.” Why? Sher says there were lots of reasons: the depression, anti-Semitism, the “America first” attitude. He also attributes the failures of that time to the fact that American Jews were disorganized and lacked influence, even though key members of Congress were Jewish. “Jewish impotence made me angry. The lesson,” Sher said, “is that we have to be ever vigilant and make the most of our rights as Americans and Jews, because if we won’t protect ourselves, no one else will.”
Taking the job at AIPAC gave Sher a chance to work for an organization that he sees as the antithesis of the Jewish powerlessness of the 40’s: It is politically influential, sophisticated and has access to the corridors of power.
As AIPAC’s principal lobbyist, spokesman and chief administrator, Sher is now wielding the community’s power to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and to support the peace process.
“Peace is not at hand,” he says of the current situation in the Middle East. “Terrorism underlies the fragility of the peace process. Israel is taking major risks; if America was not behind her, things would be tougher.”
The interview took place shortly after the horrific series of bombings in Israel that took more than 60 lives. Consequently, AIPAC was vigorously lobbying for the passage of an anti-terrorism bill, which subsequently was enacted, and sanctions to deny Iran the ability to commit terror.
AIPAC, he says, “will continue to make the case that foreign aid is important to defray the cost of peace, that most of the money is spent in the United States and that aid is an investment in a stable Middle East, one of America’s vital interests.”
A major part of AIPAC’s education effort will be to encourage political involvement in this year’s elections, a subject that brings him back to his nemesis Pat Buchanan. “Buchanan represents a dangerous trend. He wrote about Holocaust survivors being unreliable, Treblinka wasn’t a death camp, that Congress was Israel’s ‘Amen corner’ and ‘Israeli-occupied territory,’ urged the cut off of foreign aid.” Sher says Jews have to be engaged in the political process to fight against these types of views and insure that candidates elected in November will, like most current members, support the historic U.S.-Israel alliance.
Sher wants to be judged on the results of AIPAC’s work, and on its number one issue, foreign aid. On the most recent test, he would have received top marks — more democrats and republicans than ever before supported the aid bill.
AIPAC has been criticized in the past for being either too supportive of the Government of Israel or not supportive enough. Sher says “only the democratically elected government of Israel can make decisions about Israel’s future. We need to stand behind her and be a safety net if things go badly.”
And if there’s a new government after the Israeli elections? “We will be up on Capitol Hill to make sure the United States stands by Israel. In this job, I’m nonpartisan. I’m pro-Israel. Period.”