He Walked With Kings And Rulers: Remembering David Horowitz
By Vanni Cappelli
Editor`s Note: David Horowitz`s dispatches from the UN appeared
regularly in The Jewish Press for many years. Journalist Vanni
Cappelli knew him like a grandson knows a grandfather.
What everyone will always remember about him with
loving joy is his smile.
It is the exact same smile that captured the hearts of Metropolitan
Opera greats like Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar when he was
an office boy at the Old Met from 1918, and is preserved in a group
photograph taken on the occasion of the legendary tenor`s last visit
to the opera house shortly before he sailed back to Italy and died in
the summer of 1921.
It is the exact same smile which shines forth in numerous pictures
taken over the course of almost six decades at the United Nations
which hung above his cluttered and picturesque desk. They show
him greeting and engaging with the great and the obscure, the saints
and the sinners, the statesmen and the journalists, Wiesel and
Khrushchev, Begin and Vyshinsky, Hammarskjold and Netanyahu,
Eleanor Roosevelt and U Thant.
That beautiful smile, warm and sincere,
which proceeded from a transcendent mastery of pain and loss, both
personal and that of his people, first beamed at the beginning of the
20th century. It was still going strong at the beginning of the 21st,
despite all of the intervening and continuing horrors that had
confronted it, from the First World War through the Holocaust to
David Horowitz, the dean of United Nations Correspondents
from the founding of the world organization in San Francisco in
1945 until his passing at the age of 99 last October, worked next to
my father, John Cappelli, in Room 371 of the Press Section there for
more than forty years, starting in 1960.
I first met him in March 1964, the week I was born, when my
proud parents brought me to the UN to show me off. David was 61
at the time, and I am now 39 — put our complementary dates
together, and you have a full, rounded century. A tragic century to be
sure, but not without bright lights giving hope in the darkness. And
one of the brightest was that, whatever else it was, it was also the
century of David Horowitz.
‘Kings and Rulers’
That it was going to be an extraordinary century was foretold in
its very first decade, when the rabbi at the synagogue where David`s
family worshiped in his hometown of Malmo, Sweden , placed his
hand on the toddler`s head and proclaimed, “David, you will go
before kings and rulers.”
Literally and metaphorically, this proved to be the case, and in his
later years it was the “kings and rulers” of various sorts that would
troop up to the third floor press section to pay homage to him —
Jews and Gentiles, faithful and unbelievers, advocates of freedom
and supporters of tyranny.
There was a simple, compelling reason for this, and it went far
beyond his venerable age or his standing as the dean of UN
correspondents. It was that David represented, as no one else I have
ever met, the ancient ideal upon which the world organization was
supposed to be founded, and which it has so often fallen short of in
its troubled history — the Brotherhood of All Mankind. His own
adherence to this truth was a constant reproach to the hypocrisy of
the world body. Yet, incredibly, this passionate defender of the State
of Israel was never anti-UN.
How could a pioneer Zionist who had first visited the Holy Land
in the 1920`s not be against a body that has hurled so much invective
against the Jewish state over the decades ? It is because the UN is
supposed to be about dialogue, and David was always ready to
answer invective with its opposite — a calm reason based on passion.
That is why everyone loved him, and everyone was willing to talk to
him. And when you talked long enough with David Horowitz,
invective became dialogue — you just couldn`t help it.
And what a list of luminaries it is, the people who talked to
David! One of his most treasured possessions was the series of
letters he exchanged with King Abdullah of Jordan before he was
assassinated by an Arab fanatic in 1951 (see “Dialogue with an Arab King“). They disagreed on many points, of course, but always with a mutual human respect. “It is because Abdullah was the kind of man who would agree to engage in dialogue with a Jewish journalist that he was assassinated,” David once said to me with a sigh when I was very young.
It was this almost spellbinding tolerance and friendliness that
insured that no matter what petty disputes divided people at the UN
or what inhuman arrogance decided that certain people would not
even talk to others, everyone would always talk to David. And there
was a powerful, human reason why this was so in the Tower of
Babel on the East River.
“In all my forty years and more of knowing him, not once did he
ever raise his voice in anger,” says my father. “That was the reason
why all of the other correspondents, even those from the Arab world
who would refuse to attend a press conference given by an Israeli
diplomat, would come to see, and talk with, David.”
Catastrophe and Tragedy
It has been said that pain is inevitable in life, and that it is what
you do with it that matters. It is perhaps the measure of the man that
David Horowitz`s essentially transcendent nature proceeded from the
tragedy that marked his early middle age and took his first family
away from him — the Holocaust.
Due to an unforeseen series of accidents David`s first wife and
little son were trapped in Europe at the outbreak of World War II,
and perished in the death camps. This personal tragedy intersected
not only with the larger one of his people but with that of all
mankind. David, who had been born in the halcyon years before
World War I and had always maintained his faith in human progress,
had by the time he was 42 witnessed and personally suffered two
successive, incomprehensible world catastrophes in which millions
of innocents of all ethnicities perished — general disasters
compounded by the attempted extermination of his own people.
How is it that someone who had endured this could never once
raise his voice in anger? How could someone covered in the ashes of
his world emerge calmly offering his point of view to those who not
only continued to attack his people, but his very conception of
mankind? The answer can only lie in his strong belief in G-d and the
ultimate beneficence and beauty of G-d`s creation, summed up by
David`s lifelong motto: “Mosaic Law for One World.”
Quite the opposite from being an affirmation of Jewish
theological supremacy, this phrase was just like every other word
and deed in David`s life — the opening of a dialogue. Indeed, he was
the least dogmatic of men, someone who strongly cherished his
friendships with Christians who shared his passion for biblical
exploration and interpretation. At his funeral his close friend Dr.
James Tabor, professor of Religious Studies at the University of
North Carolina at Charlotte, noted that David worked throughout his
life “to promote the ideal that the Jews should be a light to the
And when one speaks of the nations, David meant it in the widest
sense, for his engagement with others in the corridors of Turtle Bay
extended to the representatives of the remotest corners of the earth.
Some of the earliest memories of my childhood are those of David
Horowitz engaged in earnest conversation, either in his office, in the
United Nations Correspondent`s Association (UNCA) Club, or in the
hallways with men and women of all colors and modes of dress.
Unparalleled Knowledge of the UN
The combination of this incessant, respectful seeking out of the
opinions of others with his decades of chronicling the official
goings-on in the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the
Secretary General`s office made David an authority on the world
organization without parallel.
“He was the institutional memory of the United Nations,” says his
longtime fiend, the Haitian journalist Serge Beaulieu. “His
knowledge and memory about the UN were without precedent.”
Inevitably, this meant that anyone seeking out David could get a
detailed earful on the high and low points of UN history, whether it
was the recognition of Israel in 1948 or the “Zionism is Racism”
Resolution of 1975. David saw it all, and could calmly put the two
extremes in perspective. He also encouraged others to do so.
“I was for many years the correspondent of Paese Sera, a left-
wing publication out of Rome, Italy, and when that infamous
resolution was passed I called up my editor, Fausto Coen, an Italian
Jew, to consult with him about it,” my father recalls. “He told me
that there was enormous pressure on all left-leaning newspapers to
get in line and praise the resolution in their editorials. I answered,
`What are you saying? Not only is it wrong, but I have to sit here
next to David Horowitz! How can I do so if you publish an editorial
praising this defamation?` My plea worked, and Paese Sera was the
only left-of-center Italian newspaper that denounced that infamous
My father`s concern was not exaggerated, for sitting next to David
Horowitz was a privilege which no one in their right mind would
take for granted. I can still remember the joy of those school
holidays when my father would take me down to the UN and I
would be deposited next to David while my father concentrated on
the morning`s article.
A multicolored stream of fascinating talk would be directed at
me, much more than even a bright and curious boy`s head could
hold: aspects of biblical archaeology, memories of Caruso, Torah
wisdom compared with the spiritual teachings of other religions,
recollections of long-ago doings at the UN and the people who had
done them, advice about life.
The Grandfather I Never Had
David was the grandfather I had never had, for both of my
grandfathers had passed away when I was very small. There is
something that goes to the very heart of David`s being in these kind
encounters between a European Jew born in the Edwardian Age and
an Italian-American Catholic baby boomer, and that is this: We are
all human. There were few people at the UN old or jaded enough not
to consider David their grandfather.
When I was first brought to the UN by my father and mother,
David repeated the action of that long-dead Swedish rabbi and put
his hands on my head, saying, “Vanni, you will be a fine journalist.”
I leave it to others to decide the accuracy of his prediction, but a
journalist I became, and spent the last summer of David`s long life
covering the war on terror in Kabul, in the aftermath of yet another
challenge to his vision.
My last contact with David was a few weeks before he died, when
I sent him a copy, via his longtime faithful assistant Gregg Sitrin, of
a piece I had written for The Jewish Press on the last synagogue in
Kabul. This was in early October 2002, right after I had returned
home; it will forever be a cause of regret in my life that I delayed in
going to visit him before the phone call came from Gregg: “It is with
much sadness and regret that I inform you of the passing of our
beloved spiritual leader, David. He was gathered into his fathers
David was buried in the Sharon Gardens section of Kensico
Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. The afternoon on which he was
buried was one of bitter autumnal cold, which compounded the
mourners` desolation not only at his loss, but at the fact that he had
passed away a mere five months short of the glorious 100th birthday
celebration that awaited him at the UN. That event is still on for
April, and will be followed by a joyous unveiling of his tombstone.
“When were you born, David ?” I once asked him when my own
birthday was approaching during my childhood.
“In April, Vanni, when everything comes alive,” he answered.