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Writing About Presidents


Writing about U.S. presidents and their relationships with Israel and the American Jewish community, whether in this column or a longer feature piece (i.e., this week’s front-page essay) is never easy. Readers are quick to react to any perceived slight of presidents they admire or, on the other hand, to chastise the writer for going too easy on an irredeemable reprobate.

Years ago this reporter, in a burst of uncharacteristic naiveté, wrote a critical assessment of the first President Bush that included several positive observations. To read some of the mail that came in, one would have thought the subject of the article had been Hitler or Stalin or some other demon in human form. Here’s the part of the essay that bothered a good many respondents:

As a collegian at Yale, Bush fought successfully for Jews to be allowed into the exclusive Skull and Bones Society.As vice president of the United States, Bush coordinated America’s role in the exodus of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. And as president, Bush had his administration work for Jewish interests on several fronts – as when it helped facilitate the emigration to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews; played a crucial role in the rescue of a second wave of Falashas; and strong-armed the United Nations into rescinding the infamous 1975 resolution that equated Zionism with racism.

From everything that is known about him, there is absolutely no reason to believe, as some have recklessly charged, that George Bush is an anti-Semite. And yet, he is fated to be remembered – deservedly so – as one of the two or three American presidents most unfriendly to Israel.

In that last sentence – and the sentiment was fleshed out in the body of the article – Bush was clearly described as not having been particularly sympathetic toward Israel while president. But merely mentioning that Bush on several occasions had helped Jews was too much to bear for a certain subset of readers who see everything in black and white and who reach for their revolvers at even a hint of nuance.

A front-page essay on Richard Nixon in 2005 inspired several vituperative e-mails as well as ridicule on a few left-wing blogs for the alleged sin of whitewashing Nixon’s anti-Semitism. Yet reference to Nixon’s anti-Semitic side had been made in the very first paragraph of the piece:

If judged only by what is heard on his White House tapes, Richard Nixon … appears to have been a man obsessed with Jews, stewing in negative feelings, never hesitating to use the crudest of slurs. But if talk alone is the true measure of a man, Harry Truman – who habitually made derogatory remarks about Jews and whose home in Independence, Missouri, was off-limits to them – would have to be considered an anti-Semite of the first order. It’s a safe bet that those who complain the loudest about Nixon’s anti-Semitic statements say nary a word about Truman’s Jewish problem.

Obviously, what really bothered the critics was the reference to the anti-Semitism of the Democratic icon Harry Truman, who, like Nixon, was a product of his time and environment and yet rose above his prejudices to do the right thing with respect to Israel.

Confusing the personal with the political is not confined to readers of any one party or ideology. Though the Monitor has, over the years, been excoriated by partisans of Bill Clinton for writing derisively of the 42nd president’s Middle East policies, much nastier still were the responses from anti-Clinton diehards when your congenial correspondent wrote a long article on the Clinton presidency that included the following passage:

One other important factor explains Clinton’s standing in the Jewish community: his obvious high regard for Jews – his comfort level with them, his appointment of them to key positions throughout his administration, the fact that he picked Jews to fill the only two Supreme Court vacancies during his first few years in office. There is no question that in his feelings toward Jews, Clinton was beyond reproach.

The Clinton-haters conveniently chose to ignore what immediately followed – an observation that encapsulates the Monitor’s general view: “But if anything can be learned from the record of Clinton’s predecessors in the White House, it is that a nice disposition toward Jews does not necessarily make a president good for Israel, while being uncomfortable with – or even prejudiced against – Jews does not preclude a president from coming through for Israel when it matters most.”

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.

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