Some Jewish officials said they had a certain perception of Ronald Reagan when they walked into the White House during the 1980s: that the 40th president of the United States was aloof and unfamiliar with the complexities of the issues of the day. But when they walked out of meetings with Reagan, those perceptions often had changed.
“He was far brighter than he was given credit for,” said Shoshana Cardin, former chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He was far more knowledgeable.”
Even Jewish leaders who didn’t always agree with Reagan on political issues are remembering Reagan, who died Saturday at age 93 in California, as a man deeply committed to the issues the Jewish community focused on during the 1980s.
But beyond that, many remembered Reagan as a man who was open and interested in listening to the Jewish community.
“There was respect shown; there was no hostility,” s! aid Hyman Bookbinder, the longtime Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee. “With Reagan, you has disagreements but you didn’t get angry with him.”
Reagan’s familiarity with Jewish concerns began in Hollywood, where as an actor he worked closely with many Jews, said Marshall Breger, the Jewish liaison in the Reagan White House.
Even before first running for office in the mid-1960s, he resigned from the Lakeside Country Club in Los Angeles because it refused to admit Jews.
Shortly after becoming governor of California, he spoke out in support of Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War and headlined a pro-Israel rally at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl.
“He had this tremendous ability to take people as they were, and he had a complete lack of social prejudice,” Breger said. “It was evident when you heard him, spoke to him, came into contact with him.”
The interests of the Reagan administration and American Jews intersected throughout much of Reag! an’s time in the White House.
As Reagan worked to end the Communis t threat in the Soviet bloc, American Jews sought to give Jews there the right to practice their religion freely and emigrate if they so chose.
Reagan was able to use the Soviet Jewry issue as an entryway into negotiations with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
It framed the discussion when Gorbachev first came to Washington, a day after 250,000 people rallied there for Soviet Jews. And Reagan showed a strong personal commitment to the Soviet Jewry issue, whether he was dealing with Jewish officials or the Soviets.
When Theodore Mann returned from his first visit to the Soviet Union as head of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry in 1981, the first call he received in his law office was from Reagan.
“He wanted to know all about the trip,” Mann recalled. “We talked about the refusenik community, which he was very familiar with.”
Cardin recalled that in 1987, when attending a White House ceremony marking the arrival in the United States of refusenik Vlad! imir Slepak, she began to see Reagan in a way she had not seen other presidents, especially Republicans.
“I realized we had in the White House probably the warmest, most attentive individual to individual needs,” Cardin said. “This man cared.”
Despite being a conservative Republican, Reagan still had a way of making a positive impression on a Jewish constituency that was mostly liberal and Democratic — even if they disagreed with him on domestic issues like abortion, taxes and social programs.
“There was no one who was better at working a crowd, and no one who was better at selling an idea, and that’s why I think in hindsight the tensions faded,” said Mark Pelavin, who was a legislative assistant at the American Jewish Congress in the Reagan years and is now associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Reagan’s support allowed Jews to feel more comfortable backing and voting for Republicans, and it led to the growth of a Republican Je! wish constituency.
“President Reagan is directly responsible for th e founding of the Republican Jewish Coalition and was the leading figure in starting the movement within the Jewish community for greater support for Republican candidates,” said Matthew Brooks, the group’s executive director. “He set the tone, he set the direction and he really led the Republican Party to where it is now in terms of its commitment to reaching out to the Jewish community.”
But there also were occasions of disagreement between Reagan and the Jews.
Reagan’s decision to visit the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany in 1985, despite the fact that it contained graves of SS soldiers who had committed war-crime massacres, led to protests and a month of back-room negotiations between administration officials and Jewish leaders.
In the end, Reagan added a trip to Bergen-Belsen to appease American Jews, but many remained upset about the episode.
Reagan also upset many Jews when he pushed through the sale of powerful spy planes to Saudi Arabia.
But ! many Jews appreciated Reagan for his support for Soviet Jewry.
“I think it was easy to compartmentalize,” said David Harris, a Soviet Jewry advocate who now is executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Bitburg was Bitburg. It was very troubling, but this was a president who from the get-go had demonstrated his commitment to our issues.”
In his 1980 debate with the incumbent President Carter, Reagan asked viewers, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” After Reagan’s death this week, Jewish officials said they saw a Jewish world that was better when Reagan left office in 1989 than when he took office.
“The decade began on very troubling and sour notes,” Harris said. “The decade ended with much more optimism. I cannot attribute all of it to Ronald Reagan, but he certainly deserves his share of the credit.”
(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed 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.