Dear Ben Rhodes at the White House: How Bush Sr Reacted to Anti-Semitism

Over the last 40 years, I have seen my share of tensions between the White House and Israel and between U.S. Presidents and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. (The issues and debates are not always the same.)  The current tempest over the Iran Deal is rated by The New York Times as comparable to the battles over AWACS in 1981 and Loan Guarantees in 1991.

I believe that the contretemps — including this one — pass with minimum damage to the relationship and, at least in the case of AWACS, concluded with a Pyrrhic victory for the Administration. [See my article, Is a train wreck waiting for Israel on Capitol Hill?]

Jewish leaders in the United States were concerned then over the nastiness and innuendos those  debates sparked — “dog whistles,” as they are referred to now — messages heard and amplified by anti-Semites. During the AWACS debate, the “attack” command was given when the “Begin or Reagan” dual loyalty canard was issued.

The New York Times refers to President George H.W. Bush going public during the 1991 fight over housing loan guarantees for Israel, when he said he was just “one lonely little guy” going up against a thousand lobbyists on Capitol Hill.  The Times doesn’t report on the statement’s repercussions: a new wave of anti-Semitism was unleashed, and the President requested a meeting with leaders of the Jewish community.

In preparation, I provided the Chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Shoshana Cardin, with the text of a speech given by Vice President Bush to Yeshiva University in 1985. In it, he defended American Jews against the charge of dual loyalty and upheld their right and duty to lobby the government.  When she showed it to the President in 1991, he was somewhat taken aback, she told me.

On November 12, 1991, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on the meeting:

[T] the President gave what was described as a heartfelt apology for making statements in September [1991] that were perceived by the Jewish community to be a direct attack on the pro-Israel lobby…The President said he was very troubled that some of his remarks had been taken as “hurtful words.”


“I understand that I hurt some people and that I may have unwittingly resurrected some ugly feelings,” the President was quoted as saying by Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended the meeting.


“I certainly would not want to exacerbate anti-Semitism. And I intend to find the appropriate venues to correct that impression,” Hier quoted him as saying.


Cardin, who met privately with Bush prior to the larger meeting, said she and the other Jewish leaders felt encouraged by the President’s sincerity and good will.

Bush also was quoted as saying that he is aware of an increase of anti-Semitism in the country and will not tolerate it.

Ben Rhodes at the White House, please pay attention.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.