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Ronald Reagan and the Jews

“Reagan I could trust.” – Yitzhak Shamir

“He was unshakable; a staunch supporter.” – Shimon Peres


For most of the 1980s, Ronald Wilson Reagan dominated the American political landscape as no man had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The attitude of most Jews, however, was that Reagan’s presence in the White House was a not altogether pleasant fact of life, something about which they could do nothing and for which they bore little responsibility.

Although Reagan’s share of the Jewish vote in the 1980 election was 39 percent – the best showing among Jews for a Republican presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower’s 40 percent in 1956 – the number that really stands out all these years later is that while Reagan was winning a 44-state blowout victory in the nation at large, fully 61 percent of Jewish voters preferred either the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter, or third-party candidate John Anderson.

If Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter was greeted by a less than enthusiastic response from American Jewry – then even more than now one of the Democratic party’s most loyal constituencies - the reaction was entirely different in Israel, where there were real fears of what another four years of a Carter administration would bring.

For Israeli officials, the fact that a candidate with strong pro-Israel credentials defeated Carter was merely icing on the cake; more important was the relief in at last being rid of a president they had long ceased viewing with anything but distrust. And they were equally pleased to bid adieu to the Carter foreign policy team, particularly the national security adviser, Zbiegnew Brzezinski, and the UN ambassador, Donald McHenry, who along with former Carter officials Cyrus Vance (secretary of state until mid-1980) and Andrew Young (McHenry’s predecessor at the UN until late 1979) had been a constant impediment to warmer U.S.-Israel relations.

The Roots of His Commitment

Ronald Reagan had an instinctive affinity for Israel that Jimmy Carter plainly lacked. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood, and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, Reagan moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.When asked about his immunity to anti-Semitism, Reagan would credit his parents, often relating the story of how his father, a traveling salesman, was about to check in at a hotel in some remote area late one night when the desk clerk casually remarked, “I’m sure you’ll enjoy it here; we don’t allow any Jews.” Whereupon Jack Reagan brusquely informed the clerk that he most definitely would not enjoy it there, grabbed his bag and walked out the door. He spent the night sleeping in his car.

Few experiences touched Reagan as deeply as did his viewing of Nazi death-camp newsreels. “From then on,” he said, “I was concerned for the Jewish people.”

“The newsreels of the death camps he had seen in 1946,” wrote Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, “were such a vivid part of his memory that he was able to imagine… that he was actually at the site of the concentration camps when they were liberated by the Allied armies.”

Indeed, in separate conversations, Reagan told then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that he had filmed the camps and their grisly evidence of Nazi atrocities and had even kept a copy of the film for himself in case anyone would voice doubt about what the Nazis had done.

Contrary to his recollection, Reagan, who spent the war years in Hollywood working on propaganda films for the U.S. military, could not have filmed the camps himself. Given the nature of his wartime responsibilities, though, he certainly would have been one of the first Americans with access to those films.

Reagan’s emotional reaction to the Holocaust sealed what would become a lifelong commitment to the Jewish state. And for better than four decades he never wavered in his certitude, even when, as president, he had his share of disagreements with Israeli leaders.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan stated in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United states must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Scrapping Carter’s Foreign Policy

“Few presidents,” wrote Steven Spiegel in The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, a study of U.S. policy toward Israel, “have come to office with as specific a vision of the world as Ronald Reagan. The basic tenets of his policy could not have been more divergent from the principles of the Carter era: staunch anti-Communism, antagonism to the Soviet leadership, de-emphasis on the Third World as an object of U.S. concern, and a commitment to a dramatically increased defense budget.”

As his first secretary of the state Reagan chose General Alexander Haig, former chief of staff in the Nixon White House and more recently supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe. Haig was described as ‘a 100 percent supporter of Israel on all issues’ by Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense with whom he often clashed.

Reagan’s UN ambassador during his first term, the solidly pro-Israel Jeane Kirkpatrick, had been a professor of political science at Georgetown University. Her writings on the struggle between democracies and dictatorships caught Reagan’s eye as he campaigned for the White House, and the thought struck him that this was precisely the clear, pro-American voice he wanted for his administration.

For the Middle East, the Reagan team initially visualized an alliance of shared interest between Israel and anti-radical Arab states, a plan that for obvious reasons proved unworkable.

“The administration,” explained Spiegel, “planned to provide incentives to both the Israelis and Arabs so they would join the effort to block Russian expansion in the area. Reagan, who had gone further than any previous major candidate in celebrating the Jewish state as an important strategic asset to the United States, would offer the Israelis unprecedented cooperation and increased military assistance. Meanwhile, the Arabs, especially the Saudis, would be fortified with arms so that they could contribute to the effort. Each side would acquiesce in U.S. support for the other because of the assistance they were to be provided.”

The plan sounded sensible, but its implementation was stymied by the Saudis’ reluctance to be grouped, however loosely, with Israel. The administration, rather quickly, was forced to shelve its grandiose plan for an anti-Soviet alliance and concentrate instead on bolstering friendly nations in the region on an individual basis.

The Inevitability of Disagreement

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman have termed the ‘Solid Gold Era’ in U.S.-Israel relations. Certainly the administration included individuals - most notably Weinberger – who were less than favorably disposed to Israel, but their influence was more than offset by the views of Haig, Kirkpatrick, a number of key non-cabinet level aides and, of course, Reagan himself.

Even so, Reagan – and this should underscore the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents – found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government, particularly during his first term.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action, and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but the reaction was basically a slap on the wrist, with no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan wrote in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge…. I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over the administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

The fears of those who opposed the AWACS sale would, over time, come to be seen as overblown. Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force – the officers most directly concerned – were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The AWACS battle highlighted what many in Washington – and Jerusalem – felt was the needlessly abrasive personality of Menachem Begin. Their concern was underscored in 1981 when, just weeks after the Reagan administration signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel for closer military and strategic ties, Begin rammed a bill through the Knesset that in effect annexed the Golan Heights. The U.S. responded by suspending the memorandum, whereupon Begin delivered a blistering – and highly undiplomatic – tongue-lashing to the American ambassador in Israel.

Reagan’s frustration with Begin reached a crisis point in June 1982 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, a promised ‘quick strike’ that became a Vietnam-like quagmire for the Israeli army and an unprecedented military and public-relations fiasco for the Israeli government.

To make matters worse, it was during this tense period that Alexander Haig resigned as U.S. secretary of state. Haig’s tenure had been marked by squabbles with other administration officials and his departure was hardly a shock, but the timing could not have been worse for Israel. (Haig’s replacement, George Shultz, initially viewed with some wariness by supporters of Israel, would develop a surprisingly warm rapport with Israeli and American Jewish leaders.)

The U.S.-Israel relationship had grown strong enough to survive a major disaster like Lebanon, just as it would survive what some viewed as the overbearing personality of Menachem Begin; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the ill-advised visit by Reagan to a German cemetery where the remains of SS soldiers were buried; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s controversial 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat read some American-scripted lines about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors, and the increased cooperation between American and Israeli intelligence services proved beneficial to both countries. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Soviet Jewry

The plight of Jews in the Soviet Union was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Ronald Reagan. Concern over the Russians’ decades-long repression of Jewish religious expression and their refusal to allow ‘refuseniks’ to emigrate to Israel was woven into U.S. policy during the Reagan years.

“Reagan’s interest in Soviet Jewry was immense; it was close to the first issue on the American agenda and was part of the confrontation between the two superpowers,” Yitzhak Shamir told authors Deborah and Gerald Strober.

“The Soviet leaders,” Shamir added, “told me that every time they met with Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry, and they would ask him, ‘Why do you do this?’ Shultz answered that this was very important.”

Elliott Abrams, who served under Shultz as an assistant secretary of state, told the Strobers that “The Reagan administration kept beating the Soviet Union over the issue of the Soviet Jews and kept telling them, ‘You have to deal with this question. You will not be able to establish the kind of relationship you want with us unless you have dealt with this question…’ “

According to Richard Schifter, another assistant secretary of state, when Gorbachev came to Washington in December 1987 for a summit with Reagan, it was just a couple of days after a huge rally for Soviet Jews had been held in the nation’s capital and the person who was the note-taker at the meeting told me that Reagan started out by saying to Gorbachev, “You know, there was this rally on the Mall the other day.”

“And Gorbachev said, ‘Yes, I heard about it. Why don’t you go on and talk about arms control?” And for five minutes, Reagan kept on talking about the rally and the importance of the Jewish emigration issue to the United States, when Gorbachev wanted to talk about something else.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Now a government minister in Israel, Sharansky recalled his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky described it, “Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s ‘provocation’ quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth – a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president….Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.”

* * * *

In 1984 Reagan was reelected in a landslide of historic proportions, but his share of the Jewish vote actually decreased by nearly eight points from 1980. When he left office in January 1989, it was with a higher approval rating than any president before him, but Jews – a majority of whom evidently consider a president?s fealty to liberalism more important than his support of Israel - gave him lower marks than any other voting bloc save African Americans.

It would take four years of the decidedly frosty relationship with Israel fostered by the first President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, for an appreciable number of Jews to begin looking back at the Reagan years with a new sense of appreciation.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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