(February 16, 2023 / JNS) Morris “Morrie” Amitay, who transformed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) into a powerful voice in Washington, D.C., and who lobbied President Gerald Ford to accept more Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, died on Feb. 10 at his home in Rockville, Md. He was 86 years old.
His son, Stephen (“Steve”) Amitay, told JNS that his father had battled cancer for 16 years.
“He was able to get things done,” Steve said of his father, who took over as executive director of AIPAC in 1974 after Isaiah Kenen had been at the helm since founding the group in 1951. Amitay made AIPAC a more effective organization, according to his son.
“Dad sharpened AIPAC’s focus to change it from a think tank, at first, into an effective lobbying organization,” said the younger Amitay.
“And whether you were a congressman, a senator or someone who worked at the office, it always stuck with me how my dad treated everyone with respect,” Steve Amitay told JNS. “No matter who you were, he would always be sure to treat people with kindness and respect. That, I believe, is a major reason why he developed such an incredible number of friendships here in the U.S. and in Israel.”
“Throughout the history of U.S.-Jewish relations, certain individuals have stood out as unique leaders in strengthening the bilateral relationship based on shared values,” Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, told JNS. “Morrie Amitay was one of them. A proud Jew. A giant in pro-Israel advocacy. A mentor of generations of political leaders and Jewish community activists.”
“His legacy is the unshakeable bond of the ties between Washington and Jerusalem,” added Deutch.
‘Supremely grateful for Jackson-Vanik Amendment’
Amitay was born in New York City to immigrant parents, who arrived in America in the 1920s. His father, Albert, was born in Tiberias, Israel in 1900—the seventh generation of his family born there under Ottoman rule. Amitay’s mother, Annette, came from a small town in Ukraine during a period of time when tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in hundreds of pogroms.
According to his son, Amitay’s advocacy was informed by both his mother’s experiences in Ukraine and his early studies in yeshivah.
In 1958, Amitay graduated from Columbia University. He earned a law degree and a master of public administration at Harvard University, where Henry Kissinger taught one of his seminars.
“As a professor, Kissinger was both articulate and interesting. All these years later, I’ve still kept my notes from his seminar,” Amitay wrote in his memoirs. Kissinger wrote to Amitay in July 2019 telling him that he was one of his favorite students, and he admired Amitay’s “unwavering support of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” the latter wrote.
“His wise counsel and his forthright defense of Israel will certainly leave a void in the community.” — Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International.
From 1962 to 1970, Amitay served in the U.S. Foreign Service. He then became a legislative aid in the U.S. Senate. In 1974, he became executive director at AIPAC, a role he held until 1980.
With the loosening of Soviet emigration laws in the 1970s, some 370,000 Russians, many of them Jews, were permitted to leave the country. Then Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson (D-Wash.) and Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio) co-sponsored a provision in U.S. federal law in 1974 allowing more Soviet Jews to enter the country. In his memoirs, Amitay described going to the White House with Jackon and the latter’s staffer, Richard Perle, to meet Ford.
“To this day, there are Jewish families all over the world who are supremely grateful for the Jackson-Vanik Amendment,” Amitay wrote in his memoirs.
Amitay quickly learned that deep connections to a presidential administration meant nothing when the next administration took over, so he refocused his lobbying efforts on the place where legislation is created and where tenures can be much longer. Under his leadership, AIPAC rallied bipartisan support for Israel in Congress.
Amitay’s work at AIPAC inevitably made him a target. On July 25, 1977, an attacker set off 60 pounds of dynamite outside Amitay’s house; the ensuing explosion killed the family dog.
“I’d known that I was, to some extent, making myself a target as soon as I became head of AIPAC,” he wrote in his memoirs. “But it crosses a major line when the attacks are with bombs, not words. And it crosses another major line when the attack is on your home and your family. Home should always be a sanctuary.”
‘A passionate and effective supporter’
Amitay led AIPAC at an important time and led its organizational growth and development, AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told JNS. “Throughout his career, Morrie developed deep relationships on Capitol Hill that helped strengthen the bonds between the Jewish state and America,” he said.
Daniel Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, told JNS that Amitay was at the forefront of Jewish American leadership due to his “incisive knowledge” of the legislative and executive branches,” and his “persuasive manner.”
“His wise counsel and his forthright defense of Israel will certainly leave a void in the community,” said Mariaschin.
“His legacy is the unshakeable bond of the ties between Washington and Jerusalem.” — Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee
When he was vice chairman of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), Amitay “was a very smart and influential voice on Israel in the American political community spanning many decades,” Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of JINSA (The Jewish Institute for National Security of America), told JNS. “He cared a great deal about JINSA, and our mission of a robust U.S. national security and a strong U.S.-Israel security relationship.”
Former U.S. Connecticut senator and vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman told JNS that Amitay was “a dear friend and valued counselor during my 24 years in the Senate.”
“He was a passionate and effective supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and of pro-Israel members of Congress,” said Lieberman. “In addition to all of that, Morrie had a great sense of humor and an infectious smile. His life was full of great accomplishments and many mitzvot.”
Amitay is survived by children Michael (Mayumi), Stephen (Sharlene), Cheryl (Gian), and Rae; and grandchildren Ethan, Olivia, Kyle, Matt and Nicole. He is survived by two former wives, Sybil Amitay and Martha Amitay, and was predeceased by his sister, Frances Abramson.
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