Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this past Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he 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.
In his memoirs Reagan wrote: “I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”
Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations – a golden age that endured despite a number of disagreements and policy differences between the administration and the Israeli government.
Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. 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.
Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.
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. As Rick Richman notes on Commentary magazine’s Contentions blog, Reagan focused his attention on Sharansky shortly after taking office in 1981. He sent a handwritten letter to [Soviet President Leonid] Brezhnev which appears in The Reagan Diaries, published in 2007, three years after Reagan’s death.
The letter reads in salient part:
There is one matter however which I feel I must bring to your attention. All information having to do with my govt’s practices & policies past & present is available to me now that I hold this office. I have thoroughly investigated the matter of the man Scharansky [sic] an inmate in one of your prisons. I can assure you he was never involved in any way with any agency of the U.S. govt. I have seen news stories in the Soviet press suggesting that he was engaged in espionage for our country. Let me assure you this is absolutely false.
Recently his wife called upon me. They were married and spent one day together before she emigrated to Israel assuming that he would follow shortly thereafter. I believe true justice would be done if he were released and allowed to join her.
If you could find it in your heart to do this the matter would be strictly between us which is why I’m writing this letter by hand.
Reagan got nowhere with Brezhnev, but the president never let up in his efforts to free Sharansky and alleviate the plight of Russia’s Jews.
“Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, “told me that every time they met with [secretary of state George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”
Sharansky has written of 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 – much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals – had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”
As Sharansky describes 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.”
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org