Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a time when U.S. Jewish power grew to new levels of influence — and when Jews learned of its limits. Thanks to Reagan, who died Saturday at age 93 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, the years 1981-1989 saw the consolidation of bipartisan support for the causes Jews held dearest: a secure Israel and the freedom of Soviet Jews.
It also saw the Republican Party become an acceptable option for Jews, ensuring that no single party could take the Jewish vote for granted.
“Historians will look back and say the Reagan years were the years the Jewish community looked back and tried the Republican Party on for size,” said Marshall Breger, Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community from 1983 to 1985. “That began the process of developing a comfort level which is now only coming to fruition. The Reagan administration turned the Jews into a two-party community.”
Yet Reagan also dealt the Jewish community two seve! re blows when he triumphed in pushing through Congress the sale of powerful spy planes to Saudi Arabia and when he delivered a forgive-and-forget paean at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany, where Nazi SS troops are buried.
Also, some analysts have said the Reagan administration created the problems that beset domestic issues important to Jews, such as abortion rights, poverty relief and government medical assistance.
Despite such issues, Reagan’s presidency now is seen by many as halcyon days for Jewish issues in foreign policy, principally because of the effects of Reagan’s greatest triumph: the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
“The end of the Cold War was important not just for the free world but for diminishing the cause of rejectionist Arab states and enabling Soviet Jews to be free,” said David Makovsky, then a leading Soviet Jewry activist and now a top Middle East analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East policy. “We can only be grateful for this.” Mark Levin, also a prominent Soviet Jewry activist in those days, em phasized that the benefits the struggle for Soviet Jewry derived from Reagan’s crusade against the “Evil Empire” were not incidental; for Reagan, Soviet Jewish freedom was central to the struggle.
Reagan made sure Soviet Jewry was a priority at each meeting between U.S. Soviet officials, along with nuclear disarmament and economic assistance, recalled Levin, now the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.
“He was someone who was truly committed to overturning the Communist system and gaining freedom for all people, but he had a particularly soft spot in his heart for Soviet Jewry,” Levin said.
In a letter of consolation sent to Reagan’s wife, Nancy, Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik, expressed his gratitude to the ex-president.
“Former President Reagan changed the march of history and the fate of millions of people because he was one of the few, outstanding le! aders who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Empire,” Sharansky wrote.
Reagan also earned Jewish admiration for appointing secretaries of state who were sympathetic to Israel. Alexander Haig and George Schultz both broke with the traditional “bad cop” role that the Cabinet officer usually plays with the Jewish state.
But the president’s visceral sympathy for Israel was undermined by his uneasy relations with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The leaders’ styles inevitably clashed: the avuncular, give-me-the-big-picture movie star versus the proper European-born lawyer.
“There were many misreadings,” Breger recalled.
When Begin said “no problem” about settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, Reagan assumed Israel was agreeing to a freeze; but Begin merely was saying, with characteristic confidence, that the settlements should not pose a problem.
“Theirs were different personalities,” Breger said, so much so that Reagan expressed relief in 1984 a! fter his first meeting with Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir — even though Shamir sometimes took a harder line than Begin.
The first crisis of Israel ties during Reagan’s presidency was occasioned by Israel’s attack in June 1981 on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor.
Reagan, a proponent of nuclear power in the United States, was upset that an ally ostensibly was reinforcing perceptions that all nuclear power posed dangers, and he suspended arms shipments to Israel in response. Reagan said Iraq, which the United States then supported, may have been persuaded to use the nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes.
Reagan also resented the lobbying by Israel and its supporters against the sale of AWACS spy planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, outraged that Reagan was reneging on a campaign promise so soon after his election, got the House of Representatives to oppose the sale.
When the battle went to the Senate, Reagan, eager for a triumph with an irascible Congress, played hardball. He and his aides! raised the specter of dual loyalty charges.
“The administration was out there saying ‘Reagan or Begin,’ ” recalled Ira Forman, then a political director for AIPAC and now the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Begin’s opposition to the sale especially peeved Reagan, and on Oct. 1 of that year, Reagan famously said “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”
That set off a wave of anti-Semitic hate mail to senators. The AWACS sale triumphed in the Senate, and the apparent succumbing to warnings about excessive Jewish influence was a shock for a pro-Israel community that had been confident in its influence since the Yom Kippur war.
Reagan attempted to make amends after the vote by proposing a strategic relationship with Israel in November 1981. Begin and the Knesset surprised Reagan a month later by annexing the Golan Heights, territory claimed by Syria.
Reagan withdrew his offer, and two months aft! er Reagan’s October remark Begin got his own back at Reagan: Israel wa s nobody’s “banana republic,” the Israeli prime minister said, a defiant statement that undermined Reagan’s desire to appear in control of events.
Less than a year later, in June 1982, tempers flared again when Israel invaded Lebanon in order to oust the PLO from its stronghold there. Israel said it got a “yellow light” from Secretary of State Haig — a fact that helped accelerate Haig’s departure from office.
More substantially, Reagan secretly formulated a plan not only to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon, but to force Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza. He ultimately envisioned Palestinian autonomy in a federal system with Jordan.
When Reagan announced the plan on Sept. 1, 1982, Begin said it was “the saddest day of my life.” Ultimately, resistance by the Likud Party-led Cabinet killed the plan.
Only days later, Israel’s Christian allies in Lebanon, the Phalangists, raided a Palestinian refugee camp and slaughtered hundreds of civilians! there. The ensuing controversy over the degree of Israel’s responsibility poisoned Israel’s image in the West. It also led to the resignation of Israel’s then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon.
Reagan reacted to the event, known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre, by creating a multinational force to help keep the peace in Lebanon.
He also kept on his desk a photograph of a Lebanese toddler who had lost his limbs in an Israeli attack — although later research would prove the photo was a distortion; it was a girl who was recovering from a broken arm.
In response to Reagan’s office gesture, Begin put on his desk the famous photo of a young boy surrendering to Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.
It didn’t help Israel that when a suicide attack the following summer in Lebanon killed 241 U.S. Marines, some blamed Israel for dragging the United States into the conflict there. In truth, Israeli officials had tried hard to persuade Reagan not to deploy troops to the region.
! The attack on the Marine barracks created an impression that would dog Israel throughout the 1980s: Israel somehow was responsible for anti-American terrorism.
Despite such tensions, affection for Reagan persisted among Jews. He earned a respectable 31 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1984 elections, though it did not match the 39 percent he had won in 1980, when the pro-Reagan Jewish vote largely was the result of voter backlash against the policies of President Carter.
The most serious test of Reagan’s relationship with the Jews came after those elections, when Reagan announced in April 1985 that he would visit Bitburg, a World War II military cemetery, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
Reagan’s optimism, so valued by the Jewish community when it came to his hopes for Israel and Soviet Jewry, was a factor in this decision: The president wanted to look ahead, not backward, he said.
But U.S. Jews were stunned, especially when they learned that more than 40 members of the Waffen SS were buried at Bitburg. Not even a p! ersonal appeal from Elie Wiesel, America’s best-known Holocaust survivor, could dissuade Reagan.
The failure to keep Reagan from Bitburg was another reminder of the limits of organized Jewish suasion. But again, Jewish bitterness eventually melted away because of the bigger picture that encompassed Reagan’s friendliness to Jews.
“With Reagan, you had disagreements but you couldn’t get angry with him,” recalled Hyman Bookbinder, then the Washington director of the American Jewish Committee. “That explains a lot of the comity; his staff was open to me and others who wanted to communicate our feelings.”
Breger makes the case that Bitburg was necessary to keep Germany on board with U.S. policies. Propping up Chancellor Helmut Kohl helped keep Pershing missiles in Europe, which helped bring the Soviet Union to its knees.
Breger also said Reagan’s priority in the Middle East always was Israel’s security.
“President Reagan made his decisions on the basis of! the option papers he was given, and he would always choose the option least injurious to Israel,” Breger said. “The Jewish community would say ‘gevalt,’ but they didn’t know the other options.”
On the domestic front, Reagan often was accused of clumsiness when it came to understanding minorities — his remarks on “welfare queens” drew fire from blacks, to cite one notable example — but he acted swiftly whenever anyone close to him expressed outright bigotry.
Reagan forced James Watt, his interior secretary, to resign in 1983 after Watt said of one of his department’s committees, “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.”
Reagan promised social reforms to Christian conservatives, but he never pursued those pledges with great enthusiasm. In 1982, he introduced a school prayer amendment but let it die in Congress; in 1987, he did little to stop the steamrolling of his Supreme Court candidate, Robert Bork.
Still, the symbolic weight he gave to the ideas of the Christian right, through repeated appearanc! es with its leaders and through his speeches, gave that constituency access to power that it otherwise might not have had.
“He set the stage over many of the battles over social issues, choice, marriage amendment, school prayer,” said Mark Pelavin, then a legislative assistant with the American Jewish Congress and now the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.
Pelavin said the Christian right and small-government advocates gained their first footholds with Reagan.
“The whole anti-poverty agenda, the whole idea of trickle-down economics, making people stronger by supporting them less — it hasn’t proven true,” Pelavin said.
Still, that did not diminish Reagan’s other achievements, Pelavin said.
“The end of the Cold War, strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance — he was a pivotal figure and his achievements will be long-lasting,” he said.
(JTA correspondents Matthew E. Berger in Washington and Lev Krichevsky in Moscow cont! ributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.