Jacob Baal-Teshuva, an authority on Marc Chagall and one of the most distinguished international editors, appraisers, and critics of modern and contemporary art, served as the editor of The Mission of Israel, a collection of essays on the importance and centrality of the Jewish state. In this April 19, 1961 response to Baal-Teshuva’s solicitation of an article for The Mission of Israel (1964), the Reverend Billy Graham writes, as shown below:
I deem it a great honor to be invited to participate in your book “The Mission of Israel.” . . . Naturally, I am extremely pro-Israel and would like very much to have a part in this. Would you mind sending me more details and particulars?
Graham (1918 – 2018), widely viewed as the most influential preacher of the 20th century, was, indeed, a true friend of Israel, who characterized the Jews as “God’s chosen people” and explained that “we can’t place ourselves in opposition to Israel without detriment to ourselves.” He publicly urged the Soviets to permit Jewish emigration; praised Israel for providing access to all holy places; advised Israel to resist international pressure that would jeopardize its security; and expressed his belief that Jerusalem will be reunited as a Jewish city and his hope that Israel would ultimately control all biblical Eretz Yisrael.
He received important honors from many Jewish organizations, including the National Interreligious Award from the American Jewish Committee (1977), which called him one of the century’s greatest friends of the Jews.
However, a reassessment of his goodwill began in 1994, with the publication of White House Diaries, the memoirs of H.R. Haldeman, in which Nixon’s chief of staff characterized a 1992 Oval Office meeting between the president and the evangelist as a conversation on how the Jews dominate the media and corrupt our morals. He wrote that “Graham has the strong feeling that the Bible says there are satanic Jews and there’s where our problem arises.”
Graham dismissed the whole thing out of hand, calling Haldeman a bald-faced liar and proclaiming that “’Those are not my words. I have never talked publicly or privately about the Jewish people, including conversations with President Nixon, except in the most positive terms.”
But declassified Nixon tapes released in 2002 confirmed anti-Semitic remarks that he made to the president during a February 1, 1972 visit to the White House, when he told Nixon that “the Jews” were responsible for putting out “the pornographic stuff,” argued that “there is a terrible Jewish clique that is totally dominating the media,” and warned that the Jewish “stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
“You believe that?” asked Nixon.
“Yes, sir,” answered Graham.
“Oh boy. So do I,” said Nixon, adding, “I can’t ever say that but I believe it.”
Graham responded in a reassuring tone: “No, but if you get elected a second time, then we might be able to do something,” and later in the conversation he added:
I go and I keep friends with Mr. [A.M.] Rosenthal [executive editor] at The New York Times and people of that sort, you know. And all – I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.
“You must not let them know,” Nixon responded.
When Graham noted that Hedley Donovan, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, had invited him to have lunch with Time editors, Haldeman replied, “You better take your Jewish beanie,” to which Graham replied with a snicker, “Is that right? I don’t know any of ‘them’ now.” Nixon then talked for several minutes about Jewish domination of the media:
“Now what does this mean? Does it mean that all the Jews are bad? No. But it does mean that most Jews are left wing. Particularly the younger ones are like that, way out. They’re radical. They’re ‘peace at any price’ except where support for Israel is concerned.”
To which Graham responded: “That’s right.”
Confronted with his own words on the 2002 tapes, a humiliated Graham, exercising great care not to admit making these statements, claimed he had no recollection of his February 1, 1972 conversation with Nixon.
Graham’s non-apology and his refusal to discuss the matter angered many of the same Jewish organizations that had always counted him as one of their best friends. Jewish leaders suggested that Graham had hidden an anti-Semitic agenda, and many called for a reassessment of the Jewish relationship with him.
Undoubtedly in response to the intensely negative public reaction to the disclosure of his remarks and to his muted response to his overt expressions of anti-Semitism, Graham issued a more significant apology, in which he acknowledged making the statements, but disowned them:
I don’t ever recall having those feelings about any group, especially the Jews, and I certainly do not have them now. My remarks did not reflect my love for the Jewish people. I humbly ask the Jewish community to reflect on my actions on behalf of Jews over the years that contradict my words in the Oval Office that day.
But that was not the end of the controversy.
When the tapes of Graham’s conversation were originally released in 2002, various commentators observed that they did not include any comments by him about “satanic Jews,” but they noted that the tape contained several long deletions, making it possible that Graham’s “Satan” comments had been removed. This proved to be exactly the case when, in 2009, additional tapes were released, including a tape in which Graham is heard clearly referring to Jews and “the synagogue of Satan.”
When Graham declares on the tape that American Jews “are going right after the church,” Nixon responds that the result will be that the Jews will get “the darnedest wave of anti-Semitism here if they don’t behave…. It happened in Spain. It’s happened in Germany. And now it’s going to happen in America if these people don’t start behaving.”
When the president mentions an upcoming dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Graham responds by quoting a passage from the Christian Bible that there are those who claim to be Jews who are liars and that they belong to a “synagogue of Satan.” (Ironically, Golda once presented Graham with a Bible inscribed, “To a great teacher in all the important matters to humanity and a true friend of Israel.”)
In addition, among these new materials was a recording of a 1973 conversation between Graham and Nixon in which the evangelist claims that Israel allegedly is “talking about expelling all Christians from Israel…they’re going to kick all Christians out of Israel now…unbelievable.” Nixon responds: “Can’t figure it out. Well, it may be that they have a death wish. You know, that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.”
Again, apologists sought to defend the indefensible by arguing that the phrase “synagogue of Satan” actually refers only to those whose “lives and work are not in keeping with traditional Jewish values”; that the “Satan” comment was directed specifically at those claiming to be Jews but not observing Jewish law; that he was thinking only of liberal Jews with whom he disagreed politically; and that, during the entire conversation at the White House, Graham was referring specifically to “Jewish pornographers” and not to Jews generally.
They further maintained that, throughout his long career, Graham had refused to join in calls for Jews to convert – for example, he publicly chastised his fellow Southern Baptists for their special evangelical campaign directed at Jews – and he had been at the forefront in the 1980s of pressing Soviet leaders to permit Jewish emigration. As such, they accepted his apology.
But many Jewish leaders noted that Graham’s “Satan” comment was clearly directed at those Jews who had rejected “the true Messiah” and they urged Jews to remain ever-vigilant regarding evangelical Christians who, despite their professed “love” for the Jewish people, see them only as a vehicle through which the Christian apocalyptic prophecies will be fulfilled.
Finally, I feel compelled to add an important personal note: My obvious disdain for Graham’s anti-Semitic sentiments should not in any way be taken as a reflection of my view of Christian Zionists in general and pro-Israel evangelicals in particular.
I still remember being in Israel during the two intifadas, when Jews and Jewish organizations were canceling trips to Israel. At a time when many American Jews were staying home, Christian Zionists were flocking to Israel, and I have warm memories of meeting many such precious people, who remain among Israel’s best friends and greatest supporters.