Nixon’s Relationship with Jews Was As Paradoxical As Much else About Him
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Nixon’s Relationship with Jews Was As Paradoxical As Much else About Him

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Richard Nixon’s relations with Jews were as controversial and paradoxical as much else about the late former president, who died last week at age 81.

While voicing derogatory attitudes about Jews during his now-infamous White House taping sessions, Nixon hired a number of Jews as key advisers, among them Henry Kissinger, the former Harvard government professor who served first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state.

Nixon was also viewed as a strong supporter of Israel, and, with Kissinger, was the first to involve the United States in "shuttle diplomacy" immediately after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to improve relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

But on the other hand, in a move that Jews found hard to forget, Nixon asked a campaign aide, Fred Malek, to compile a list of Jews in the Labor Department.

A branch of the department had released a study with which Nixon disagreed, and Nixon, notoriously concerned about leaks to the press, immediately turned to Malek and asked how many Jews worked in the department – implying that Jews had leaked the information to the press.

Nixon-watchers differed this week on the motivations behind the late president’s seemingly contradictory views about Jews.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served in the Nixon administration from 1969-1971, said that while Nixon made derogatory comments about Jews on his tapes, he often turned to Jewish advisers for help.

"He had tremendous respect for Jews. To the degree that Nixon had best friends, `some of my best friends were Jews,’ " Hess said.

Max Fisher, a prominent Jewish Republican who served as a close adviser to Nixon, said that he had "no sense" that Nixon, a Republican, was suspicious of the Jewish community.

Fisher said he did not believe Nixon was anti-Semitic, a sentiment echoed by Jack Stein, who served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations from 1969-1973, during the Nixon presidency.

"I never heard him do or say anything that would lead me to believe that he was anti-Semitic," Stein said. He added, however, that "Nixon might have been fast and loose with his language," which was sometimes interpreted as anti-Semitic by the Jewish community at large.

Gerald Strober and Deborah Hart Strober, authors of an upcoming oral history on Nixon, said that they asked sources about Nixon’s derogatory comments about Jews on his tapes.

"There were some references on the tapes, and these were explained away to us, that he did this with all ethnic groups. It wasn’t targeting specific groups," Deborah Strober said.

Hyman Bookbinder, the former longtime Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee who is now involved with the National Jewish Democratic Council, was on Nixon’s famous "enemies list."

Bookbinder – who commented that he would give Nixon mixed reviews overall – said that Nixon put Bookbinder and 80 others who signed a tribute to labor leader Walter Reuther on the list.

"In the Jewish community in general," Bookbinder said, "there was a greater than average amount of concern" about this sort of "guilt by association."

Bookbinder, who termed the episode and its surrounding atmosphere "unpleasant," said that "we Jews are particularly sensitive to that kind of thing. It was not a Jewish list of enemies, but there were many Jews on the list."

On the other hand, Bookbinder and others said that the Nixon administration was supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

"He had very high regard for Israel," said Hess, of the Brookings Institution. "It had to do with the fact that he thought of the Israelis as fighters."

Sheldon Cohen, a Washington attorney who served as general counsel to the Democratic National Committee during the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon presidency in 1974, said that Nixon was "good to Israel because of anti-communism, not because he was good to Jews."

Cohen, who serves as treasurer of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that Nixon backed Israel because Israel was fighting Arab countries supported by the Soviet Union.

Nixon made his name as a fervently anti-communist member of Congress in the 1950s during the McCarthy era.

One of the major crises in the Middle East during Nixon’s presidency was the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was ambassador to Washington for part of the Nixon presidency, released a statement this week saying that "Israel has lost one of its greatest friends."

Rabin said that "during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Richard Nixon was the driving force in mobilizing the airlift to assist us with weaponry at the most difficult of moments."

There has been some debate over Nixon’s exact role in assisting Israel in the 1973 war, focusing on the few days that the president waited to act before ordering help to be sent to the Jewish state.

Nixon’s top aides disagreed about whether to resupply Israel with a massive arms shipment. It was Nixon who broke the deadlock in his administration a few days into the war and ordered the arms sent. Many believe that this move saved the Jewish state.

Stein, who said that he and Fisher met with Nixon on this issue, recalled that the delay was "largely logistical" and that Jewish groups did not blame Nixon for it.

Another issue of Jewish concern during Nixon’s presidency was the plight of Jews trapped in the Soviet Union.

Although a staunch anti-communist, Nixon pursued a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, and during contacts with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, quietly urged that Soviet Jews be freed.

Both Nixon and Kissinger believed that public pressure on the Soviet leadership on the issue of Soviet Jews would be counterproductive.

But Nixon clashed with some in the Jewish community over the issue of the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

The 1974 amendment, supported by many advocates for Soviet Jewry including the National Conference for Soviet Jewry, links most-favored-nation trading benefits for Moscow to its emigration policies.

Nixon and Kissinger opposed the statute, seeing it as public pressure on the Soviets. In addition, they felt it would constrain their own hand in dealing with the Soviet Union.

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