Earlier this month, Americans all across the country commemorated the 100th birthday of the late President Ronald Reagan with a host of commemorations and retrospectives that examined the legacy of the nation’s fortieth president. Like any president, the debate over President Reagan’s legacy will no doubt continue for countless years. Of the fact that the late president was a true friend of the American Jewish community, however, there is little doubt. And so, this year to mark President’s Day on Feb. 21 we decided take a look at President Ronald Reagan and the Jews. The following chronicle is excerpted from the foremost book on the subject: “The Presidents of the United States and The Jews” by David G. Dalin and Alfred J. Kolatch (Jonathan David, 2000).
Reagan won the 1980 Presidential election in a landslide, defeating Jimmy Carter by more than eight million popular votes and receiving 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. American Jews, increasingly concerned over the Carter administration’s policies toward Israel, were less supportive of Carter’s reelection than they had been of any recent Democratic presidential candidate.
A 1978 Carter Administration decision to sell advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and Egypt had convinced a growing minority of Jewish Democrats that Carter was ready to abandon Israel. “If another presidential election were held today,” Newsweek wrote at the time, “some experts report that disaffected Jews might turn the tide against Carter in crucial states such as New York, California, Illinois and Michigan.” And so they did in part in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a staunch supporter of Israel since 1948, received close to 40 percent of the Jewish vote. With the third-party candidate, John Anderson, receiving approximately 15 percentage, Jimmy Carter became the first Democratic presidential candidate since the 1920s to receive less than 50 percent of the Jewish vote.
Reagan and Israel
Ronald Reagan entered the White House with a strong record of support for Israel.
During his emergence as a presidential candidate in the late 1970s, Regan’s thinking on foreign affairs was strongly influenced by a group of mostly Jewish neoconservative intellectuals and foreign policy analysts, centered around Commentary magazine, who reinforced his commitment to the safety and security of Israel as an important strategic ally whose special relationship with the United States needed to be preserved. Once in office, Reagan appointed several of these Jewish neoconservatives – including Elliot Abrams, Eugene Rostow, Max Kampelman, Michael Ledeen, Richard Pipes, and Richard Perle – to positions in his new administration.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan had left little doubt about his pro-Israel views. He denounced the PLO as a terrorist organization and described Israel as a “strategic asset,” a “stabilizing force,” and a military offset to Soviet influence.
Throughout the campaign, Reagan made a point of differentiating his views on Israel from those of President Carter. As he reminded Jewish audiences, he had been appalled by the Carter Administration’s decision to abstain rather than veto a UN resolution condemning Israel’s proclamation of Jerusalem as its capital. “Jerusalem is now, and should continue to be, undivided,” declared Reagan. “An undivided city of Jerusalem means sovereignty of Israel over the city.” He also publicly disagreed with the Carter Administration’s efforts to characterize Israel’s West Bank settlements as illegal and was quick to reaffirm this position shortly after the election.
American Jews were further encouraged by Reagan’s appointment of Jeane Kirkpatrick as the new ambassador to the UN. Known to be a friend of the Jewish community and a strong supporter of Israel, Kirkpatrick shared Reagan’s belief, reiterated throughout the 1980 campaign, that “Resolutions in the United Nations which undermine Israel’s positions and isolate her people should be vetoed because they undermine progress toward peace.” Her mostly Jewish staff – which included deputy ambassadors Charles Lichenstein and Kenneth L. Adelman; her chief political adviser, Carl Gershman; and her legal counsel to the UN Mission, Allan Gerson – also were friends of Israel.
Despite all this overt support for Israel, once Regan was in office, his administration encountered issues that caused strains and tensions with the Jewish community. In particular, the administration’s controversial decision to sell AWACS (airborne warning and control system) and other advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia angered many American Jewish leaders and touched off an eleven-month “battle” between the American Jewish community and the Reagan White House.
Although the AWACS presumable were intended to monitor Iranian air operations, they could be used against Israel as well. Virtually all segments of the Jewish community were strongly opposed to the AWACS deal.
Even with the tensions generated over the AWACS, overall relations between Jewish leaders and the Reagan White House remained unimpaired.
During his first term, Reagan also became the first American president to formally authorize the signing of a “Strategic Cooperation Agreement” between the United States and Israel, aimed at thwarting greater Soviet influence in the Middle East and affirming the Reagan Administration’s intention of enhancing Israel’s special relationship with the United States; there was no corresponding strategic pact signed with any Arab state.
Jewish leaders also were grateful to the Reagan White House for its financial assistance to Israel. United States financial aid to Israel increased steadily throughout the Reagan years, reaching an unprecedented $3 billion a year, in loans and grants, beginning in 1986. In 1988 Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir declared to reporters: “This is the most friendly administration we have ever worked with.” This statement seems to reflect the reality of the basic relationship between Israel and the United States during the Reagan era: Despite some strains, relations between America and Israel were stronger at the end of the Reagan tenure than before Reagan took office. In Ronald Reagan, most observers concur, the Jewish state had a reliable friend in the White House.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan spoke out frequently on the issue of Soviet Jewry, attacking the Soviet Union for its imprisonment of Jewish dissidents and its curtailment of Jewish emigration. In a major address before before B’nai B’rith in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, Reagan declared: “The long agony of Jews in the Soviet Union is never far from our minds and hearts. All these suffering people ask is that their families get the chance to work where they choose, in freedom and peace. They will not be forgotten in a Reagan Administration.”
Within four months of his inauguration, on May 28, 1981, Reagan met in the White House with Avital Sharansky to discuss the plight of her husband, Anatoly, the Soviet Jewish activist and spokesman for the Soviet dissident movement who had been imprisoned in Moscow since 1977.
Sharansky’s plight became a major human rights cause for Secretary of State George Shultz and for Reagan, who successfully pressed for the dissident’s release in his much-publicized summit meeting with Soviet prime minister Mikahil Gorbachev in Geneva, on Nov. 19, 1985. When Sharansky arrived in Israel shortly after his release from prison on Feb. 11, 1986, one of the first calls he received was from President Reagan, welcoming him to a land of freedom.
At his subsequent Reykjavik, Iceland, summit with Gorbachev in Oct. 1986, Reagan would again raise the issue of Soviet Jewry and the importance of the Jewish immigration issue to the people of the United States, telling Gorbachev that ‘because Jews want to freely practice their religion,” their freedom to emigrate was imperative.
“Reagan’s interest in Soviet Jewry,” as Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel would later recall, “was immense; it was close to the first issue on the American agenda and was part of the confrontation between the two superpowers.”
The Soviet Jewry issue was woven, intrinsically, into the Reagan Administration’s view of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” whose mistreatment and imprisonment of Jews was one of the mot visible manifestations. At Reagan’s behest, Shultz, who once attended a Passover seder organized by Jewish refuseniks in Moscow, would frequently raise the issue of the Soviet government’s imprisonment of Jewish dissidents. As Elliot Abrams, who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights under Shultz, put it: “The Reagan Administration kept beating the Soviet Union over the issue of 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 – the question of emigration and the question of what you are doing internally.”
The Bitburg Controversy
In April 1985, the White House announced that while on a state visit to West Germany, President Reagan would stop at a small military cemetery in Bitburg, where forty-seven officers of the Nazi SS (the German division that carried out many of the Holocaust murders) were buried. There, in the company of Chancellor Kohl of West Germany, President Reagan was to lay a ceremonial wreath, “in a spirit of reconciliation, in a spirit of forty years of peace.” President Reagan’s decision to visit Bitburg precipitated much public debate and an outpouring of criticism. Fifty-three members of the U.S. Senate and almost four hundred members of Congress sent petitions to President Reagan urging him not to visit the Bitburg cemetery. Polls showed that a majority of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, opposed Reagan’s scheduled trip.
Church groups urged Reagan to cancel his visit out of recognition that the Holocaust was the greatest moral crime of this century. American Jews were especially troubled, and several Jewish leaders condemned the planned presidential visit to a German military cemetery in strongly worded statements and op-ed columns. Elie Wiesel, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and a small group of Jewish leaders met with Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the Oval Office and implored Reagan to cancel the visit. Their appeal, however, was unsuccessful.
On April 19, in what has been described as one of the most dramatic public encounters ever to take place in the white House, Elie Wiesel, on the occasion of being awarded a Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, turned to President Reagan and virtually begged him to cancel his visit to Bitburg. Wiesel – whose appearance was carried live by a number of television networks – said, “That place, Mr. President, is not our place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Although President Reagan was visibly moved by Wiesel’s remarks, he did not cancel his visit to the German cemetery. After the ceremony, however, out of deference to American Jews, it was announced that President Reagan would visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as well.
Until the day of the Bitburg visit, the Israeli government remained silent on the controversy. Afterward, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said: “I believe that President Reagan is a true friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel….It is precisely for this reason that we feel deep pain at the terrible error of his visit to Bitburg….There can be no reconciliation regarding the past.” Following his brief, ten-minute stop at Bitburg, Reagan visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for over an hour. Addressing survivors of the Holocaust at Bergen-Belsen, Reagan said: “Many of you are worried the reconciliation means forgetting. But, I promise you, we will never forget.”
About David Dalin
Dr. David Dalin, an ordained rabbi and a widely-published scholar of American Jewish history, is the author or co-author of ten books, including Making a Life, Building a Community: A History of the Jews of Hartford (co-authored with Jonathan Rosenbaum) and The Presidents of the United States and the Jews (co-authored with Alfred J. Kolatch). His articles and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications, including American Jewish History, Commentary, Conservative Judaism and the American Jewish Year Book. Dalin received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis University, and his Rabbinical Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.