Bush had mixed legacy with Jews, Israel

President George H.W. Bush listens to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin answer questions at a joint news conference at Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, Aug. 11, 1992. Bush died Nov. 30 at age 94. Photo by Paul J. Richards /AFP/Getty Images.

As executive director of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, Tom Dine had his share of spats with President George H. W. Bush.

The most public among them came in 1991. At the time, Bush — who died Nov. 30 at the age of 94 — was threatening to withhold $10 million in loan guarantees for Israel to build housing for Soviet Jewish immigrants if Israel didn’t pledge that the money wouldn’t be used for settlement building in the West Bank or Gaza. With then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Bush at a stalemate, Dine and other American Jewish groups mobilized Congress to support the loan guarantees.

Bush lashed out.

“I heard today there was something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it,” Bush famously said, adding that his administration was “up against some powerful political forces.”


Bush’s outburst surprised Dine, who led AIPAC from 1980 to 1993. The two had a strong, though not personal, working relationship. Dine had eaten multiple times with Bush when he was vice president. And if there was one quality that stood out about the man, it was his Connecticut cool.

“He kept many of his thoughts to himself. He was New England bred, New England reserved and often you didn’t know what he was really feeling,” Dine said. “On that day, he lost his cool.”

But the episode was telling in another way. Bush was a shrewd operator, said Dine, and the showdown with Shamir was strategic. The two men never got along, with Bush and his administration opposing Israeli settlements that Shamir’s Likud government promoted. So the American president used the opportunity to weaken Shamir in the hopes that he would ultimately lose power. Bush got his wish when the following year the Labor party won elections and Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister.

Bush’s political fortunes were no better than Shamir’s, though. His failed 1992 re-election bid marked a low point in relations between Republicans and the Jewish community. Bush scored just 11 percent of the Jewish vote in that contest, one-third of what he garnered four years earlier in his 1988
victory over Michael Dukakis.

The “one lonely guy” comment haunted Bush thereafter, with even Republican Jews apt to use the first Bush presidency as a signifier of how far they had traveled in attracting Jewish support.

Yet that was hardly the whole story of Bush, the Jews and Israel. Less remembered was how, as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, Bush quietly helped engineer some of the pivotal moments in the effort to bring Jews out of the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Syria.

“When you add up the Jews he saved, he will be a great tzaddik,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s former national director, said in 2013, using the Hebrew word for “righteous man.”

Bush was deeply involved in foreign policy as vice president, and Jewish leaders said he helped orchestrate the dramatic seder hosted by Secretary of State George Schultz at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1987.

He also ignored advice from much of his national security team in 1991 — the very period when he was in the throes of his most difficult arguments with Jewish leaders – and approved American overtures to the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia that resulted in Operation Solomon, which brought 15,000 Jews to Israel. Among other things, Bush secured a “golden parachute” for Mengistu Haile Mariam, the dictator who was already plotting his escape to luxurious exile in Zimbabwe.

William Daroff, who heads the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, worked on Bush’s general election campaign in 1988. He remembers him as affable and mild-mannered.
“He treated all of his staff incredibly well, recognizing that we were sacrificing time away from our own families in able to elect him,” Daroff said. “He was very approachable, warm and engaged.”

Though Daroff initially campaigned for Bush’s primary opponent, Jack Kemp, he felt particularly vindicated for joining Bush’s team after Operation Solomon.

“The Jews he helped, it places him amongst the righteous,” Daroff said.

Bush also was instrumental in persuading Hafez Assad, the Syrian dictator, to allow young Jewish women to leave Syria for New York so they could be matched with men in the Syrian Jewish community.
While some of these actions were secret at the time, Bush was averse to claiming responsibility even in
subsequent years.

“He was a man who was old school,” said Marshall Breger, who was the liaison to the Jewish community under Reagan and Bush. “With him, you had the sense of him being private about his feelings and sensitive to the notion that he might be seen as vain and saccharine towards other with overstatements.”

Breger recalled traveling in the backseat of a car with Bush to dedicate the new quarters of the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, in 1984. Part of the dedication included the affixing of a mezuzah, and Breger attempted to hand Bush a kippah. Bush wouldn’t take it.

Breger pointed out that he had secured a camouflage kippah for the occasion, but that seemed to make matters worse.

“I said, ‘You’ll need to wear one of these.’ And he said, ‘They’ll think I’m pandering.’ It was very much against his code to pander,” said Breger, now a law professor at Catholic University here. “I said, ‘First of all, they’ll think you’re appropriate, and second of all, they’d love you to pander,’” Breger recalled.

Bush reluctantly donned the kippah, but Breger noticed he had removed it before the ceremony concluded.

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