2018-12-05 / Editorial

George H.W. Bush made mistakes, but also did some very good things

George H.W. Bush leaves a legacy of diplomatic mistakes—and remarkable good—for the Jewish people, and the Jewish Community Voice joins the rest of the United States in mourning the passing of the former president, who died November 30 at the age of 94.

Historically, Bush had a complex relationship with the Jewish community, both in the United States and abroad. A running theme throughout his presidency was tension with American Jewish leaders as well as Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and he faced significant backlash when he was hesitant to approve loan guarantees to absorb Soviet Jewish refugees into Israel in the late 1980s. One of his most infamous public snafus was his referral to himself as “one lonely guy…[against] a thousand [pro-Israel] lobbyists on the Hill,” a statement which many construed as bordering on anti-Semitic and would echo for the rest of his political career.

However, it would be unfair to limit Bush’s legacy to that of an antagonist to the Jewish cause, as his political career was also marked by powerful, albeit less public, displays of good will and assistance to the Jewish community. When serving as Nixon’s ambassador to the U.N., he made the plight of Soviet Jewry one of his priorities. As Reagan’s vice president, he was highly involved in foreign policy, and assisted with the effort to bring Jews out of the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Syria. He also helped organize a Passover Seder at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hosted by then-Secretary of State George Schultz.

Lesser known than his conflict with Jewish leaders was Bush’s approval of preliminary discussion with the Ethiopian Mengistu regime that eventually allowed 15,000 Jews to escape to Israel via airlift with Operation Solomon. Syrian Dictator Hafez Assad allowed young Jewish women to leave their country to marry Syrian Jews in New York, thanks in part to Bush.

Even when these issues were no longer secret, Bush was reluctant to acknowledge his involvement. Some believe it was humility, while others maintain it was something just as powerful: A desire for authenticity. Marshall Breger, who was the liaison to the Jewish community under Reagan and Bush, told JTA, “With [Bush], 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 others with overstatements.”

George H.W. Bush’s relations with the Jewish community were far from simple. Like all human beings, he made mistakes (which, in his role, attracted more attention than most), but he also did significant good for the Jews of the world. Said Abraham Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, “When you add up the Jews he saved, he will be a great tzaddik [Hebrew for “righteous one”].”

May the former president rest in peace, and may his memory be for a blessing. 

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