Jews have had a long and at times complicated relationship with the men who have served as presidents of the United States. Leaders like Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman cannot be summed up in a paragraph, especially when examining their thoughts and actions toward Jews.
Among our more recent chief executives, examination of Ronald Reagan’s relationship with the Jewish people has historically focused on the 40th president as an unflagging friend of the state of Israel. “He was unshakable,” stated Shimon Peres in a typical assessment, “a staunch supporter.”
Reagan had a special affinity for Jews, which stemmed from a multitude of factors – his personal ecumenical nature; his Catholic father’s impressive intolerance of religious, racial, and ethnic discrimination; his Protestant mother’s instruction that her son “love thy neighbor.” He learned these virtues at a young age.
As Bill Clark, a devout Catholic and Reagan’s closest aide, put it: “He was very tolerant of other faiths, especially the Jewish faith.”
One of the most instructive insights into Reagan’s connection with Jews relates to the man’s Cold War experience – what he saw as literally the fight of the 20th century.
Nothing animated Reagan more than his goal of undermining atheistic Soviet communism and thereby liberating millions. And it was the Jews behind the Iron Curtain who were a central part of that calling.
Perhaps the earliest documentable example of Reagan learning about the suffering of Russian Jews was an incident from November 11, 1928 at Reagan’s boyhood church in Dixon, Illinois. That evening, the First Christian Church on South Hennepin Avenue hosted a Russian Jew named B.E. Kertchman, whose speech offered a modern history of Jews and their relations with other people and nations. Kertchman was recruited by the enthusiastic church pastor, Ben Cleaver, who was like a second father to the young Ronald Reagan, and by Nelle Reagan, Ronald’s mother.
Clearly, young Reagan was not ignorant of the plight of the Jewish people.
That appreciation by Reagan would only intensify, particularly once he left his home state of Illinois for a movie career. That career brought him into politics, especially through his position as president of the Screen Actors Guild. While historians have rightly connected Reagan’s work at SAG with the start of his fight against communism, they have somehow managed to miss his first public confrontation with the USSR in this period.
As president of SAG, Reagan spoke on behalf of the so-called DPs – Displaced Persons. DPs initially were survivors of World War II fascism, primarily Jews. Once the war ended, the list of DP-designated peoples widened to include 1.5 million individuals escaping Soviet-occupied areas in Eastern Europe, though they still included numerous Jews who longed for the creation of a homeland in Palestine.
The DPs were held in camps in Britain, Canada, Belgium, and Latin America, at a large cost to the United States – at least $100 million annually. Soviet officials outrageously claimed that the U.S. was holding the DPs as a source of semi-slave labor – a charge dismissed by Eleanor Roosevelt as “utterly untrue.”
A bill was introducedin Congress by William G. Stratton, a Republican congressman from Reagan’s home state, to permit entry of 400,000 DPs into the U.S. Reagan fought for the bill, which faced stiff opposition in Congress. He did not shy from dramatic rhetoric, agreeing with UN official Herbert H. Lehman: “Apparently there are some people who would rather bury the Stratton bill in red tape and thus bury the DPs in a mass grave. They would be burying Protestants, Catholics, and Jews alike.”
On May 7, 1947, Reagan, through the New York-based Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, released a statement urging passage of the Stratton bill. This was probably his first open campaign against Moscow, and it involved defending people of all faiths, including Jews.
Reagan in the White House
As Reagan ultimately made his way to the White House, these issues came with him. They were close to his heart. As a citizen, Reagan had been painfully aware of the Soviet war on religion. The Soviet leadership was an equal opportunity discriminator, attacking religious believers of all stripes. In fact, communists everywhere assaulted religious believers: in the USSR, Romania, China, Cambodia, Cuba, etc.
As president, Reagan noted that Jews in particular had suffered cruel persecution under communism. Even the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, said Reagan, had used threats and harassment to force “virtually every Nicaraguan Jew to flee [the] country.”
Reagan would do his part for those Jews. In fact, he always kept on hand an updated list of people in prison in the Soviet Union, which he carried with him in his coat pocket. Each time Secretary of State George Shultz prepared to travel to the USSR, Reagan pulled out the list and directed, “I want you to raise these names with the Soviets.” Sure enough, Shultz would raise them and one by one they would be released from the gulag and often even allowed to leave the country. Many of them, of course, were Jews – individuals like Anatoly “Natan” Sharansky.
Reagan did not merely act through intermediaries. He personally took his request to the highest level, as was evident to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev soon after he pulled up to the White House on the morning of December 8, 1987, to commence the third summit in three years between the United States and the USSR.
After the welcoming ceremony, he and Reagan and their interpreters went to the Oval Office. Reagan seized on the one-on-one session to hammer the issue of Soviet human-rights violations. While he said he was pleased that some Soviet Jews were being permitted to leave the Soviet Union, he felt more should be allowed.
As he had at Geneva and Reykjavik, Gorbachev bristled when he heard the translation of Reagan’s remarks on human rights. Reagan recalled the general secretary’s sensitive reaction: “He replied that he was not the accused standing in a dock and I was not a prosecutor, and that I had no right to bring up domestic matters of the Soviet Union.”
Gorbachev was always perturbed by Reagan’s insistence on open emigration for Soviet Jews. Still angry a decade later, Gorbachev recalled in his memoirs how he snapped at Reagan: “Mr. President like you, I represent a great country and therefore expect our dialogue to be conducted on the basis of reciprocity and equality. Otherwise there simply will be no dialogue.”
Yet Reagan was confident the dialogue would continue, as it did into the next summit, six months later in Moscow.
The two leaders held their first one-on-one at 3:26 p.m., Sunday, May 29. It lasted an hour and 11 minutes. The conversation went back and forth, with Gorbachev going first. When it was Reagan’s turn, he immediately began speaking on religion in Russia. He spoke of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Ukrainian Catholics, and insisted all have a right to attend the place of worship of their choice.
Gorbachev responded by claiming there was nota serious problem with religion in Russia. The debate continued. Reagan then made a bold move, which was quite revealing of his priorities: he linked Gorbachev’s economic demands to his – Reagan’s – personal goal of religious freedom in the USSR.
“Gorbachev again expressed his desire for increased U.S.-Soviet trade,” recalled Reagan later. “I was ready for him.”
Reagan told Gorbachev: “One reason we have trouble increasing trade with your country,” he added, is “because of Soviet human rights abuses.”
Reagan singled out religious freedom: “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your country,” he said, “but I realize you are probably concerned that if you allow too many of the Jews who want to emigrate from the Soviet Union to leave, there’ll be a ‘brain drain,’ a loss of skilled people from your economy. But did it ever occur to you, on this whole question of human rights, that maybe if the Jews were permitted to worship as they want to and teach their children the Hebrew language, that maybe they wouldn’t want to leave the Soviet Union?… [P]erhaps if they were allowed to reopen their synagogues and worship as they want to, they might decide that they wouldn’t have to leave and there wouldn’t be that problem of a brain drain.”
As to the effect of this on Gorbachev, Reagan later recorded: “Whether my words had any impact or not I don’t know, but after that the Soviet government began allowing more churches and synagogues to reopen.”
The Soviet government did indeed do so, but not without more persistent complaining about Reagan’s concern for Jews.
Typical was an October 6, 1988 statement from the Moscow Domestic Service, which accused Reagan of turning to the issue of Jewish emigration “whenever it has been necessary to open another anti-Soviet, anti-socialist campaign.” The Soviets were annoyed because Reagan once again had the audacity to decry the continued persecution of Soviet Jews.
“President Reagan said in his speech that there are tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews in the USSR who long for exit visas and are not getting them,” complained Moscow. “Who has felt this need to appeal to figures that have clearly been dreamed up and plucked from thin air and wrap them in tendentious rhetoric?”
“Why,” the Moscow Domestic Service went on, “is he once again trying to whip up passions and blow up nonexistent problems?” In the next line, Moscow provided an answer: “Perhaps this is to the advantage of the Zionist circles which are trying to distract the attention of the world public in this way from the genocide that they themselves are perpetrating against the Palestinians in the Israeli occupied Arab lands? It’s no accident that in the same speech, President Reagan allowed himself an outburst against the United Nations, which in his opinion ought to rescind Resolution 3379, passed in 1975, which describes Zionism as a form of racial discrimination.”
This, judged the Moscow Domestic Service, was another Reagan outrage, as there was “incontrovertible proof” that Zionism was both a form of racism and genocide. This October 1988 statement from the Moscow Domestic Service is a healthy reminder – “incontrovertible proof” – of what the Jewish people and the world once faced in Moscow only two decades ago, and even amid all the promise of Gorbachev’s glasnost: a group of shameless liars.
Victory – and Freedom
No matter, because in the end Ronald Reagan succeeded: the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the USSR imploded in 1991, and the Cold War was over. Liberation for countless millions was achieved without the horrible nuclear exchange we had all feared.
And Soviet Jews likewise were liberated, as hundreds of thousands subsequently now had the right at long last to leave, and did so, streaming into Israel in the largest exodus sice the founding of the modern Israeli state.
Reagan’s mind, which by the mid-1990’s was being consumed by another evil – the horrific disease called Alzheimer’s – mercifully lasted just long enough to observe the tremendous accomplishment.
By 1997, however, the former president’s mind was going fast. The White House, the Soviets, and all of those who suffered behind the Iron Curtain were mere flickering memories. And yet, in a poignant moment that summer, Ronald Reagan got a meaningful thank you.
As the former president strolled through Armand Hammer Park near his Bel Air home, he was approached by a tourist named Yakob Ravin and his twelve-year-old grandson, both Jewish Ukrainian émigrés living near Toledo, Ohio. They cheered Reagan as he drew near and briefly spoke to the retired president, who posed for a picture with the boy, which his grandfather proudly snapped.
“Mr. President,” said Ravin, “thank you for everything you did for the Jewish people, for Soviet people, to destroy the communist empire.” The slightly confused 86-year-old Reagan paused and responded: “Yes, that is my job.”
That was his job. And many longed to thank him. Most never did, at least not to his face. Instead, many came out in the immediate days after June 5, 2004, when Reagan died at the age of 93.
A pair of AP reporters interviewed Rabbi Velvel Tsikman – one of the upwards of 50,000 Soviet bloc immigrants living today in the greater Los Angeles area – who remembered a time when the only link he had to his Jewish heritage was a line in his Soviet passport that read: “Nationality: Jewish.”
In the USSR, Rabbi Tsikman was forbidden to wear a yarmulke. Now, he leads a vibrant Russian Jewish community in West Hollywood from his office at the Chabad Russian Jewish Community Center. And he credits his spiritual freedom to Ronald Reagan.
“[Reagan’s] doctrine,” said Rabbi Tsikman, “what he did, was very helpful to destroy the monster that was there in Europe.”
At the retirement center where he works, Rabbi Tsikman commented on the elderly people there who joined him late in life by leaving the USSR. “They are living in a paradise here,” he said. “It’s like God is paying them for a terrible life in Russia. These people were sitting home waiting to die. When they came here, they came alive again.”
If Ronald Reagan were alive today, he would be thrilled to meet them. He and they shared a long road together, all the way back to when he was an actor championing the DPs and, and even before then, when their ancestors, people like B.E. Kertchman, met people like Nelle Reagan and Ben Cleaver.
The battle against Soviet communism was present at the start and finish of Ronald Reagan̓s life, as was his kinship with the Jewish people.