Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th president of the United States. Born in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan became an actor, serving as president of the Screen Actor's Guild (1947–52, 1959–60) and the Motion Picture Industry Council. From 1967 to 1975 he was governor of California, home to America's second largest Jewish community.
In 1948 he resigned from the Lakeside Country Club in Los Angeles because of its refusal to permit a Jew to take out membership. In 1967 he strongly supported Israel during the *Six-Day War and was the featured speaker at a pro-Israel rally in the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
During his governorship he was instrumental in having a law passed in the California legislature in which banks and savings institutions were authorized to purchase and invest in State of Israel Bonds. During the mid-1970s Reagan had a weekly column in the Jewish Press newspaper, whose readers were mainly Orthodox Jews in New York and other parts of the U.S.A.
His closest Jewish advisor was Theodore E. Cummings of Los Angeles. Cummings served in the Reagan inner circle for a number of years. During the presidential campaign in 1980 Los Angeles businessman Albert Spiegel headed the Jewish Coalition for Reagan. Additional figures with access to Reagan were Max *Fisher , *Maxwell Rabb , George Klein, Gordon Zacks, and Jacob Stein. Neo-conservative Jewish intellectuals, such as Eugene V. Rostow, Max Kempelman, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz were active in the Reagan election campaign and many became influential in the Reagan Administration.
In the 1980 election 40 percent of the Jews who voted chose Reagan, another 40 percent voted for the incumbent President Jimmy Carter, the lowest percentage for a Democrat in the past 80 years, and 20 percent for John Anderson, indicating that the Democratic party could no longer take the Jewish vote for granted. Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn voted overwhelmingly for Reagan, the first time that the Jewish vote split along religious divides within the United States.
Reagan saw the early raw footage of the liberation of the concentration camps and referred to this during his Yom Hashoah address in the White House in 1981. None of this, however, was any guarantee that at the helm of the nation he would be particularly sensitive to the cause of Israel.
Upon assuming office Reagan's Middle East position could be summarized as follows: First, a militarily strong Israel, which is both democratic and anti-Soviet, is "the only remaining strategic asset in the region on which we can rely" (Washington Post, August 1979); second, opposition to the terrorist PLO and rejection of the notion of a PLO state because it would be a surrogate to the Soviet Union; third, strong support for Israel as America's most reliable ally in the Middle East and unequivocal support for Egyptian and Israeli peacemakers as the best way to attract other Arab states to the peace process.
Interestingly, one of the first crises affecting Israel, which was to have tremendous ramifications for the region, revolved around the June 7, 1981, bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak by Israeli jet fighters. Only the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane J. Kirkpatrick stood in the way of an anti-Israel vote. Realizing that the word "aggression" had terrible consequences for Israel as it would make it appear that the attack was unprovoked and that the attacked party, Iraq, might now legitimately undertake unspecified self-defense measures, she strenuously argued that the U.S. should abstain from voting for that resolution, unless the word "aggression" was deleted. In the end, after taking the matter directly to President Reagan, her efforts prevailed and "aggression" was deleted from the resolution allowing the U.S. to half-heartedly join in the condemnation. This set the tone for much that was to follow at the UN during the years of the Reagan presidency.
In this context, and especially as concerned UN activities relative to Israeli-Arab relations, Reagan understood that charges of illegality aimed at Israel's conduct in the West Bank and Gaza had nothing to do with allegiance to rule of law in the sense of objective jurisprudence. Rather, it had everything to do with using law as a weapon in order to isolate Israel on the diplomatic front as a prelude to legitimating terrorism and other hostilities against Israel as a pariah state. The formula that Reagan repeatedly espoused was that "the settlements are not unlawful."
Similarly, when it came to Arab efforts to characterize East Jerusalem as "occupied territory," President Reagan instructed his delegates to the UN to veto such resolutions on the grounds that the final status on Jerusalem was to be negotiated, and not subject to resolution by legal fiat. He authorized a U.S. veto – the only veto cast – on April 19, 1982, of a Security Council resolution which sought to condemn the 1982 shooting of Palestinian worshippers at the Dome of the Rock by a deranged Israeli gunman – even though the U.S. was revolted by the shooting – because of the insertion of a paragraph equating Jerusalem with occupied Arab territory.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon on June 6, 1982, created unique challenges for the Reagan Administration, with many White House advisors wanting Israel out of Lebanon as quickly as possible. Their views prevailed, but only up to a point. Although the United States joined in a UN Security Counsel resolution on June 6 that called for "unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces (paragraph 1) while calling (paragraph 2) for cessation of all cross border attacks," the U.S. made clear in its explanation of its vote that "paragraphs 1 and
U.S. Ambassador Phillip Habib conducted a mission for peaceful evacuation of the PLO from Beirut. Its success led in turn to termination of the Lebanon war, and made it propitious for President Reagan to launch a major peace initiative in his speech of September 1, 1982. That initiative, also known as the Reagan Plan, called for direct negotiations between the Israel and the Arab states; Palestinian autonomy, but not an independent Palestinian state; and, for maintaining Jerusalem as an undivided city, with its final status to be negotiated.
A byproduct of Ronald Reagan's meetings with U.S.S.R.'s President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 aimed at creating a thaw in the Cold War led to conditions for the liberation of Ethiopian Jews who were rescued and brought to Israel in Operation Moses between November 19, 1984, and January 5, 1985, with some covert U.S. assistance.
In July through September of 1985, Israel had undertaken the sale of arms to Iran through the "Arms for Hostages Deal." Although the Iran Contra Affair, which resulted from exposure of the illicit sale of U.S. arms to Iran resulted in a major embarrassment to the Reagan Administration, it did not impair U.S.-Israeli relations.
Reagan's consistent record in identifying with the cause of Israel was somewhat marred by his decision to go to Germany's Bitburg Cemetery in 1985 (see *Bitburg Controversy), despite the knowledge that this was the burial ground for SS officers who committed the most heinous crimes. In hindsight, the President's visit – controversial as it was – caused no lasting damage to the cause of remembrance.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.