Was Richard Nixon an anti-Semite? He reflected the anti-Semitic attitudes that have been endemic in the United States during much of the 20th century.
As we read new revelations about his attitudes toward Jews, there is no defense for the late president. The recently released White House tape recordings reinforce many of the deeply disturbing revelations that have come to light since the first batch of tapes was released in 1974.
Nixon often reflected that the "Eastern elite" was out to get him. To him, that elite included Jews, but it was not made up entirely of Jews. While Nixon was clearly suspicious of Jews as a group, he had many Jews around him from the very start of his political career.
From Murray Chotiner, his longtime campaign manager, to Henry Kissinger, William Safire, and Leonard Garment, Nixon had no hesitation about working with them as individuals because they were Jews. At the same time, he would pose direct questions to them about why Jews did not like or support him in large numbers during his years in politics.
I was one of those Jews. Involved with Nixon over many years, I worked in many of his campaigns and served on his staff. Nixon knew that I was a Jew and understood my deep commitment to Israel and my passion for freedom for Soviet Jews.
He never made negative remarks about Jews in my presence, although he would often ask me such questions as, "Why don't the Jews like me? I'm great on Israel?" But he never really expected an answer. It was simply a rhetorical metaphor revealing his own ambivalences.
For some Jews, Nixon's support for Israel was the litmus test. Yitzhak Rabin actively campaigned for him in 1972, when Nixon got 37 percent of the Jewish vote, up from 19 percent in 1968.
On May 13, 1974 — four years after I had left the Nixon administration over the invasion of Cambodia, among other things — Nixon spoke directly about the impact of his recently revealed taped comments about Jews to Rabbi Baruch Korff, the chairman of the National Citizens Committee for Fairness to the President, a group that defended him.
Nixon viewed his support for Israel as proof that he was not an anti-Semite.
"Now I would say in terms of anti-Semitism, first, you have to be judged by your actions," he told the rabbi. "There has been no stronger supporter of Israel than myself. Without the airlift and the alert, Israel would probably not have survived."
In his recently published autobiography, Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president, offers the following observation about Nixon:
"Though he was considered something of a political pariah — particularly in light of his unequivocally anti-Semitic statements in the H.R. Haldeman diaries — did his personal attitudes have any effect on his dealing with Israel and with Jews? None. He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. His words may have raised eyebrows — but not his actions. And I'll chose [sic] actions over words any day of the week."
Nixon should be judged by his actions, both positive and negative. He was a great friend of Israel. He knew and valued his relationships with David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Rabin. They in turn, valued their relationships with Nixon. He did save Israel from near destruction in 1973.
At the same time, Nixon's anti-Semitism, as it related to Jews as a group, was clearly stated and will be preserved for history in his tapes. His abuses of power, including his abuse of the IRS, were directed at those he perceived to be enemies, or at those he considered to be less than loyal. Jews and non-Jews were included in that number.
History will never forgive Nixon — nor should it. His words and actions caused harm and anguish to individuals, and to the nation, and led him to be the only president to resign from office in the history of the United States.
Yet I owe Nixon a great personal debt of gratitude for the opportunities he gave me when I was a very young man. Despite my decision to break with Nixon, and my support for George McGovern in 1972, Nixon wrote to me of his "deep appreciation for [our] friendship" in his post-presidential years.
My conclusions about Nixon must be perfectly clear. Nixon's magnificent support for Israel cannot excuse the anti-Semitic attitudes that he held. His abuses of power must never be excused by history. Nixon will be judged harshly by history and deservedly so.