PRESENTING PRESIDENTS DAY
It’s none of my business how you celebrated Presidents Day earlier this week, if at all. However, as an American Jew, I would suggest that aside from Presidents Day, in addition to Presidents Day, or as an augmentation to Presidents Day, there be a Presidents Day with another “twist”. For those of us who are strong supporters of Israel, for those of us who realize that ever since May 1948, no two American presidents have viewed Israel from the same perspective, much less have been supportive of Israel in the same way, I believe that it is important for us to celebrate American Presidents who have either extended themselves to the Jewish people, the Jewish State, or both.
I would expect that the Hebrew word “ Todah” is known to a good many American Jews. Permit me to introduce a synonym, “Hakarot HaTov” ( Hakorress HaTov for those such as I who continue to insist on pronouncing certain Hebrew words with the inflection and intonation of the shtetl). Literally, it means recognition of the good. A much better translation would be “gratitude”. For those who have much love for and a great deal of pride in this country, I strongly suggest that each year, come Presidents Day, we look back on two or three Presidents for whom we American Jews owe a HaKorress HaTov. From a non-partisan, purely subjective point of view, I suggest the following three presidential candidates.
Despite urging and “sound” advice from Secretary of State George Marshall, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly agreed to a meeting with his old business partner Eddie Jacobson, provided that Jacobson not raise the topic of the soon to be proclaimed Jewish State. Just one look at his fellow Kansan standing in the Oval Office with tears streaming down his cheeks, and Chaim Weizmann in tow, the President vociferated: “You win, you bald-headed s*n-of-a-b**ch.” A mere 5 ½ years later, when introduced to the leadership of Conservative Judaism as “the man who helped create the State of Israel,” Truman retorted, “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”
Fifty-two years ago, last month, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited LBJ at the Johnson ranch, here in Texas. Armed with an extensive shopping list to replenish the depleted Israel Airforce and Army (France was no longer a patron of Israel) after the miraculous successes of the Six-Day War, the Israeli Prime Minister received pretty much what he asked for from the American President. When it came to Israel, the word “no” was simply not part of President Johnson’s vocabulary. Perhaps LBJ summed up his relationship best when speaking with Arthur Goldberg, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, less than 2 months following Eshkol’s visit: “I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel.” A great speaker, President Johnson wasn’t. But perhaps his most prescient and memorable words to the Jewish community, soon after he assumed the presidency in November 1963, were: “You have lost a very great friend (his predecessor, J.F.K.) But you have found a better one.”
I have no idea who coined the phrase “only in America”. I do know, however, that for decades it was frequently uttered by previous generations of Jews in this country who extolled the virtues of these United States. Arguably, that phrase never rang truer than during the second week of October 1973. Caught unprepared, the IDF was fighting for its life, as it was attacked by Egypt on Yom Kippur Day. Aside from mounting casualties, the Israeli Air Force and Army were dangerously low in equipment that had been destroyed by the enemy. While Henry Kissinger, the Jewish Secretary of State procrastinated when it came to rearmament (in his view a bruised and bloodied Israel would have far less of its trademark chutzpah in peace talks with its Arab neighbors, once a truce was put into place) a Quaker President known for occasional tirades against Jews, stepped in, took control and overruled Kissinger. As President Nixon recalled: “When I was informed that there was disagreement in the Pentagon about which kind of plane should be used for the airlift, I became totally exasperated. I said to Kissinger, “Goddam it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.” Within hours, American cargo-configured aircraft, packed to the gills, were airborne headed for Israel.
Come Presidents Day, may log cabins and cherry trees always be part of our collective past. Come Presidents Day, may American Jews reflect on Presidents who serve to remind us how truly blessed we are, living in this country.