On Monday night, my wife and I attended President George W. Bush’s annual Chanukah party at the White House. Although other Presidents have held menorah lighting ceremonies, President Bush and his wife were the first to hold a party to celebrate the occasion. And it was quite a party-600 people replete with traditional Chanukah fare including potato latkes and jelly donuts and music to fit the occasion. The President said in the statement he released, “This year, as Jewish families light the menorah, the flame reminds us that light triumphs over darkness, faith conquers despair, and the desire for freedom burns inside every man, woman and child.” The President ended his statement by saying that “the forces of intolerance may seek to suppress the menorah, but they can never extinguish its light.”
When President Bush spoke before Israel’s Knesset on May 15, 2008- the day of the 60th Anniversary of Israel’s creation as a Jewish State-he gave an inspirational speech reflecting on what Israel meant to him, and what its existence means to the United States as a nation. One can say that it was certainly the most pro-Israel speech ever given by an American President.
Bush noted that the fight against terror and extremism was not just a clash of arms, but “a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle.” And he explained how Israel was a necessary ally in that fight, and why the United States could not capitulate to the demands of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. And, perhaps most important of all, he told the Israelis: “America stands with you in firmly opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.” Israel, he assured them, “can always count on the United States of America to be at your side.”
George W. Bush’s commitment to Israel and his solidarity with the world’s Jews led me to reflect on a great irony. Within the United States, a high percentage of Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, have been opposed to the policies of the Bush administration and bear an animus to Bush personally.
When I returned home from the party, a friend had e-mailed me two statements that address this issue. The first came from the head of America’s Reform Jewish congregations, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffe, who delivered his remarks as a sermon at the Union Board Services in Tampa, Florida on December 12th. Reform Jews are as a whole the most liberal politically of all Jewish religious bodies in our country. On various issues, especially social ones, they stand firmly opposed to the Republican Party political agenda. Whether it is gay rights, stem cell research, the fight of a woman to have an abortion if they choose, and questions pertaining to civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, they stand on the liberal side.
Rabbi Yoffe’s remarks were largely a meditation on our current crisis, and the hopes that American Jews shared for the success of the coming Obama Presidency, and their desire for the new President’s success in his endeavors to serve our country. He was particularly concerned for the creation of universal health care, and he urged President-elect Obama not to put its attainment off because of the serious economic issues confronting us.
It was a surprise, therefore, to read these words of Rabbi Yoffe:
“And what of the State of Israel? When we look at Israel today, we see a strong state with a reasonably healthy economy. Much of the credit should go to President George W. Bush. He supported Israel’s security needs, provided much-needed military aid, and accepted no excuses for Palestinian terror. The President is under siege right now, but we in the Jewish community must not forget that he has been a good friend to the Jewish State and the Jewish people.”(my emphasis.)
Reform Jews who often participated in the veritable orgy of Bush hatred must have blanched as they heard these words, but it would not have come as a surprise to those Jews who knew the President.
An op-ed by Noam Neusner, a Jewish liaison for President Bush from 2002 to 2005, explained to his readers how seriously George W. Bush was in his commitment. The Jews, Neusner writes, “really do matter to him.” It is not simply a case of pandering to a constituency, one he well knows does not support him politically. “I saw his eyes well up,” Neusner writes, “while watching the Holocaust-themed movie “Paper Clips”…I know how moved he was by meeting with Soviet Jewish refuseniks, Holocaust survivors and the parents of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.” Neusner attended one meeting the President had with Jews from around the world, who now lived in America after years of torment in countries like Cuba, Uganda, Zimbabwe and other bastions of anti-Semitism. As they told him how only in this nation did they find the right to live as Jews, Bush “walked out of the meeting shaking his head, appalled by the special hatred tyrants have reserved for the Jews.”
Neusner understands well that since Bush is a Southern evangelical Republican, it is virtually impossible for him to win over the Jews, and that criticism of him for favoring policies most Jews disagree with is “fair enough.” On foreign policy, some conservative Jews feel he did not do enough to confront Iran- he should have taken military action to stop them move to obtaining nuclear weapons- while others feel he was too bellicose.
But on Israel, Neusner cannot countenance that they see “his leadership on Israel and anti-Semitism” as both “quaint and one-dimensional.” Some take it for granted. “But they should not,” he warns, “be so casual with a friend.” In fact, Neusner argues that Bush was “more Zionist than many Israelis, more mindful of Jewish history than many Jews…and we American Jews can be thankful at least for that.”
A few years ago, I heard former Mayor Ed Koch of New York accept an award at a dinner honoring Jewish leaders in Washington, DC. President Bush was present, and Koch saluted him, telling his largely liberal audience that in his eyes- and Ed Koch is anything but a conservative- that George W. Bush was as a President the best friend that Israel ever had and the President most sympathetic to Jewish concerns.
Perhaps, like Rabbi Yoffe, more Jews in America will come to understand that.