Remembering Nixon, the 'anti-Semitic' prez who saved Israel during the Yom Kippur War

Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Oct. 14,1998 / 24 Tishrei, 5759

Remembering Nixon --- the 'anti-Semitic' prez who saved Israel during the Yom Kippur War

Could a president who agreed to Elvis' request
to meet him have been all that bad?
By David Twersky

A FEW YEARS AGO I got a phone call from Marvin Kalb. He had just completed a book about Richard Nixon, The Nixon Memo. The epilogue, Kalb told me, offered forensic proof of Nixon’s anti-Semitism.

Kalb’s daughter, Debbie, who had worked for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency -- the "Jewish Associated Press" -- during the years I had spent in Washington, DC, told her dad I was just the man for the job. Would I do it, Kalb wanted to know. Would I write about his book and its proof of Nixon’s Jew-hatred?

Problem was, the chapter in question did not provide the knock-out punch Kalb had promised.

You couldn’t read Kalb’s description of the harassment he had faced by various federal agencies acting on Nixon’s orders without thinking ill of Nixon. But nowhere did Kalb supply an anti-Semitic motive for the harassment. Instead, Nixon perceived Kalb to be an enemy, as he did many others in the media and elsewhere, because of the newsman’s politics.

According to Kalb, Nixon used the Internal Revenue Service to harass Kalb and had Kalb’s phone “bugged”; Kalb’s CBS office at the State Department was twice ransacked by men apparently looking for any information Kalb might have that would be considered “classified material.”

Kalb believes his “first offense” against Nixon came in 1969 when he had helped break the story of the administration’s “top secret” decision to begin bombing Cambodia.

Kalb also ran afoul of vice president Spiro Agnew, who believed the journalist had “…twice contradicted the president’s statement about the exchange of correspondence with Ho Chi Minh” during a CBS news analysis of Nixon’s speech on his meeting with Ho Chi Minh.

Nixon may have been anti-Semitic — later tapes from his archives show him in a rather unfavorable light — but one would not be able to tell from Kalb’s epilogue.

The only shred of evidence, and it is a shred, comes when Kalb cites Agnew’s famous attack on the chattering classes as liberal think tanks, filled with “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “elites,” “effete intellectuals” from the Northeast engaged in “querulous criticism.” Kalb insists there was “an undercurrent of anti-Semitism.…” in Agnew’s words — written, if I recall, by William Safire, a bona fide Jew.

After reviewing the chapter, I phoned Leonard Garment, the Washington lawyer who had played a key role in the Nixon administrations and who has defended the late president against charges of Jew-hatred. Garment denied that the administration sicced the IRS on Kalb; but even if it had, he insisted, it was no sign of anti-Semitism. Kalb was a liberal journalist, Garment said, and that was enough to make Nixon suspicious of him.

Was Nixon a Jew hater? The evidence piling up certainly suggests so. But the question lingers because of his role in helping — many would say, saving — Israel in the dark days of the Yom Kippur War, 25 years ago this week. Israel had run dangerously low on ammunition until Nixon okayed sending planeload after planeload to resupply the depleted Israeli military stocks.

In Israel, Nixon is recalled with great fondness as a true friend. This is true particularly in the Israeli Labor Party, some of whose members were in the Golda Meir government or in senior army positions during the ’73 war.

While estimates vary slightly, Col. Trevor N. Dupuy, U.S. Army (ret.), writes in Elusive Victory — The Arab Israeli Wars 1947-1974 that the American resupply included 815 total sorties bringing Israel 56 combat aircraft and 27,900 tons of munitions and supplies. Taken together with the Soviet resupply to Arab countries fighting Israel, “military analysts” told Time magazine that it was “the largest airlift in the history of both countries.”

The question lingers because of the steady rise in the number of politicians who are vigorously pro-Israel and simultaneously at odds with the still center-liberal agenda of the American Jewish organizational world and (to judge by how they vote) the rank-and-file mainstream.

And it lingers because of the contradictory testimony offered last year by two books, Garment’s engaging memoir, Crazy Rhythms, and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, edited by Stanley I. Kutler.

The Kutler book is based on more than 200 hours of Nixon presidential tapes, whose release the scholar won in a 1997 suit. Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle also reported on newly released Nixon tapes.

Garment was a colleague and friend of Nixon’s, who served in various capacities in the White House, including counsel to the president. (He also served briefly at the United Nations with Pat Moynihan.)

Naturally, he does not think Nixon was an anti-Semite. Nixon was friendly to Garment, a Brooklyn, NY-born and reared former jazz musician and Democrat, and, he writes, there were too many Jews high up in the administration. Moreover, Garment writes that Nixon sided with the more pro-Israel elements in his administration, dispatching Garment to New York to give then prime minister Meir a green light to attack the Middle East peace plan just released by Nixon’s state secretary, William Rogers.

Nixon wasn’t only sweet on Israel, a small anti-communist country that was, wonder of wonders, a democracy to boot. Israel had “moxie” — an in-your-face readiness to face up to dangerous enemies. Nixon was the first president to recognize, for purposes other than pro-Israel lobbying, that there was an American Jewish community system. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations greatly expanded its role under Nixon, in large part because of close ties between the president and Max Fisher of Detroit and Jacob Stein of Long Island, New York. J.J. Goldberg, in his book Jewish Power, goes so far as to say, “Under the Nixon administration, the Presidents Conference became what it had always aspired to be: the official voice of American Jewry.”

The same thing happened with Soviet Jewry. Nixon and Kissinger may have opposed the community’s support for the Jackson-Vanick amendment linking trade tariffs to emigration, but they went along with it when they had to. Fisher, a lifelong Republican, now says (in Goldberg’s book) that Nixon may have been right, after all.

“History has proven I was probably right when I opposed Jackson-Vanik,” says Fisher. “Nixon was trying to work it out by personal diplomacy,” Fisher told Goldberg. “Kissinger thought he could get out 30 or 40,000 a year if they’d worked that angle. When you think of it over 20 years, you could have gotten out quite a number of Jews.”

“It remained for Richard Nixon,” Goldberg writes, “to create the now familiar U.S.-Israel alliance… It was Nixon who made Israel the largest single recipient of U.S. foreign aid; Nixon who initiated the policy of virtually limitless U.S. weapons sales to Israel. The notion of Israel as a strategic asset to the United States, not just a moral commitment, was Nixon’s innovation.

“Yet Nixon was widely reviled in the Jewish community…. And the dislike was mutual.”

The evidence of that dislike continues to pile up. In 1997, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that White House tapes show that in September 1971 Nixon urged IRS investigations of wealthy Jews who contributed to 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey and former Maine senator Edmund Muskie.

“Bob,” Nixon told adviser Bob Haldeman, “please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats.”

Nixon also said that the IRS was going “after [Billy] Graham,” because the agency “is full of Jews, Bob…. That’s about what I think. I think that’s the reason they’re after Graham, is the rich Jews.”

After reviewing the newer tape transcripts, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said they confirmed that Nixon was “an anti- Semite,” having “absorbed every ugly stereotype.”

But Garment, writing in the Forward following the San Francisco Chronicle’s report of the new tapes, said some of the passages quoted were simply not there in the tapes.

Garment also insisted, as he had when I called him about the Kalb book, that “there is, however, a more important question: Do remarks like these, even if actually made and accurately reported, mean that Nixon was an anti-Semite? The familiar fact is that Nixon appointed a number of Jews to the highest positions in his administration — men like Henry Kissinger, Arthur Burns, Herbert Stein, William Safire, Larry Silberman, Arnold Weber, Richard Nathan, me and many others. He characterized Jews (and other ‘groups’) in hostile terms when he was blowing off steam in angry private staff meetings, but the object of these remarks were people he saw as political enemies. “He was the opposite of an operational anti-Semite in his public appointments, speech and behavior and, most importantly, his presidential decisions.

Consistently so: Yitzhak Rabin held him in the highest regard, according to Rabin’s close friend, Yerach Tal, the American editor of Ha’aretz. Golda Meir describes Nixon in her autobiography as the best friend Israel ever had in the presidency and does so in life and death terms.”

One example supporting Garment’s read comes in the tapes when Nixon and Haldeman discuss several political foes. “The Times reporter,” Haldeman says, “I can’t remember his name, but it wasn’t what struck me as a Jewish name.” “You can’t tell that way,” Nixon responds. “But what the hell. And incidentally, suppose they’re both Jews and that has nothing to do with it, but it at least gives you the feeling of the possible motivation deep down of the liberal leftists.”

Personally, I had always distrusted Nixon on the Jewish question. I grew up in a neighborhood that was way off, to the left, of Nixon’s political charts. People I knew were still sore at him for being nasty to Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent when he first ran for Congress. In the late 1970s, Al Barkan, the late director of the AFL-CIO’s political committee, told me how during the 1960 presidential election he had managed to find the contract for Nixon’s Virginia home. Nixon had signed a restrictive covenant — the home could not be resold to Jews or blacks. Barkan’s committee duplicated the contract and distributed it widely.

One day, an FBI agent visited Barkan, saying the Nixon campaign folks were pretty upset about it. “Is there anything illegal here?” Barkan asked. “No,” the agent, obviously sent over to intimidate, sheepishly admitted. “And by the way,” he said on his way out, flashing a JFK pin under his coat lapel, “keep it up, you’re killing them.”

People recall Nixon as either an unscrupulous, paranoid, bigoted and vindictive demagogue or as a great statesman, Israel’s best friend. American Jews will remember him as both.

JWR contributor David Twersky is Editor in Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


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©1998, David Twersky