Whenever the question comes up of how a Republican presidential contender may
do among Jewish voters, the name "Ronald Reagan" is bound to be mentioned.
In a record that may stand for a long time, Reagan won approximately 39
percent of the Jewish vote (as estimated by pollsters) in 1980. He remains
imprinted on modern Jewish history as the answer to a favorite trivia question for
But as America mourns the passing of its 40th president, we need not focus on
that event. Reagan's place in Jewish history will not depend on how long his
1980 record lasts.
Though death tends to soften even the most bitter partisans, Reagan's
significance can be lost amid all the praise from his admirers and some of the
brickbats that his political opponents are still hurling at him.
Though most liberals will go to their graves still wrongly believing him to
be an ignorant fool, the truth is that their bitterness is fueled by a grudging
acknowledgement that his masterly political skills doomed the welfare state
as we knew it, and changed the terms of political discourse in this country.
Under Reagan's leadership, conservatives left the margins and became the
Liberal revisionists will also continue to claim rather foolishly that
Reagan's policies did not hasten the end of the Soviet Union. They assert that
nobody won the Cold War, and that all he left was a sunny personality and the
debris of the ill-considered Iran Contra scandal.
'EVIL EMPIRE' DROVE THEM CRAZY
In the last couple of years, the notion of American hubris has become
something of an article of faith for critics of the Iraq war and George W. Bush's
foreign policy, but those who are quick to dismiss the idea that America can
transform the world in its image should remember that Reagan's challenge to the
Soviet Union did just that. And without Reagan's infusion of self-confidence
into the American psyche, it might not have been possible to put an end to the
dark night of Soviet hegemony.
As much as liberals might deny it now, Reagan's 1983 description of the
Soviet Union and its satellites as an "evil empire" drove many of them crazy. It
was a direct challenge to the way the U.S. political establishment mainstream
Democrats and Republicans alike viewed its global rival.
Rather than merely accommodating that evil and implicitly acknowledging that
it was on the same moral plane as our own flawed society, Reagan drew a bright
line of distinction. That undermined the twisted logic of appeasement of the
Soviets via détente.
And it was exactly the sort of language that the movement to free Soviet
Jewry had needed to mobilize Americans.
Natan Sharansky recalled in a tribute to Reagan how he first learned of the
"evil empire" speech in a Siberian prison cell, where he had been sent for
trying to gain the right to move to Israel, as well as for speaking up for the
human rights of the Russian people. Sharansky and others who suffered under
communism understood what Reagan's sophisticated American critics could not:
Casting our struggle with the Soviets as one of good against evil was a vital step
on the road to freedom for Soviet Jews and for the people of Eastern Europe.
In that sense, Ronald Reagan was the Jews' greatest ally in the battle to
open the gates of the Soviet Union. It's no coincidence that it was during his
presidency that the Soviet Jewry movement changed from being an afterthought for
the makers of American foreign policy into a fundamental component of
It was also during his presidency that the relationship between Israel and
the United States changed from one of pure dependency into one where the
contributions of Israel to American security finally merited it the status of
NOT A BED OF ROSES
Historians will rightly note that U.S.-Israel relations were not a bed of
roses during Reagan's eight years in the White House. Battles over American
weapon sales to Israel's Arab enemies, the Lebanon war, the hostility of some
members of his administration toward Israel (notably Secretary of Defense Caspar
Weinberger) and the incredible stupidity of Israel in using Jonathan Pollard,
an American Jewish employee of the Navy Department, as a spy all made for
controversy. Reagan's foray to Bitburg, Germany, in 1985, where he spoke at a
military cemetery where members of the Nazi S.S. were buried, also broke the
hearts of many of his Jewish fans.
But none of this changes the essential philosophy that lay behind his
political career and his presidency: the rejection of a philosophy of moral
Reagan believed that there was no equating a Communist system which turned an
entire nation into a prison, with the free world. He believed that victims of
terror and terrorists themselves should not be viewed in the same light. And
he attempted, though not always successfully, to make American foreign policy
reflect these truths. Reagan's ideas are still the prism though which we can
understand the controversies of today.
He truly believed in American exceptionalism America as the proverbial
"city on a hill" that reflected not merely democracy, but the last best hope of
Unlike those who are embarrassed by such rhetoric, he embraced it
wholeheartedly and followed the logic of this faith to its inevitable conclusion: The
forces of freedom can never accept the legitimacy of the forces of tyranny. The
war between them may not always be hot, but it is never over.
For this, the left judged him a simpleton. But history will judge who were
the idiots and who the moral giant of his time.
Reagan won that record number of Jewish votes in 1980 precisely because he
rejected Jimmy Carter's attitude that placed both Israel and Soviet Jews on the
same moral plane as Arab terrorists and dictators and the masters of the gulag
archipelago. And though his presidency did not always live up to the promise
of that rhetoric, without his achievement of rolling back the "evil empire,"
there would be no hope for doing the same in a Middle East where Islamists are
just as bent on freedom's destruction.
That is why his greatness transcends the still-smoldering embers of the
political firestorms of his time. Let us pray that his successors will continue to
find inspiration in these simple, yet inescapable, truths.