As America prepared to lay its 41st president to rest this week, the American Jewish community did its part in measuring the legacy of George H. W. Bush.
That task is not as easy as it sounds, for it was, at least at first glance, a mixed legacy, as is almost always the case when it comes to presidents and Jews.
Bush had his share of miscues, perhaps most notably his initial opposition to providing Israel with loan guarantees to help with its resettlement of Soviet Jews. His “one lonely guy” comment — referring to lobbyist resistance to his position and taken by many Jews as a slam against Jewish political influence — certainly didn’t help matters.
Nor did allegations that James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state and lifelong friend, made an obscene reference to Jewish political sensitivities help.
Bush’s relationship with then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was rocky, and Bush’s Middle East peace initiatives went pretty much nowhere, but this is far from unusual. US presidents and Israeli prime ministers have often been at odds, and Bush is hardly the only president whose peace efforts ran aground in the complex and volatile realities of the region.
But as important as such difficulties seemed during Bush’s presidency, much of the sting seems to have gone out of them now, when taken in the context of historical perspective.
In fact, they pale in comparison to his achievements in fighting for the freedom of various Jewish communities in the Diaspora, both as president and as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, in particular, and Syrian Jews to a lesser degree, were the beneficiaries of his persistent and altruistic intervention on their behalf.
Some of these deeds were little known at the time, due not only to Bush’s preference for operating behind the scenes but to his inherent modesty. The opposite of a braggart or grandstander, Bush’s most important and historical achievement as president — his deft handling of the collapse of the Soviet Union — likewise went largely unnoticed at the time he was actually doing it, but its long-term importance is nonetheless beyond dispute.
Similarly, the pressure Bush exerted on the UN to revoke its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism — a goal finally achieved near the end of his term — was tangible and consequential, much more than symbolic or political.
Taken as a whole — and in the context of what we know now, a quarter century after his administration ended — Bush’s legacy with American Jewry is solid.
Abraham Foxman, the former ADL national leader and a man whose judgment and perspective we tend to trust, summed it up well this week, when he went so far as to call Bush a tzaddik, a righteous man.
“I believe he will go down in Jewish history as the president who was engaged in more initiatives to save more Jews in countries where they were being persecuted,” Foxman said.
To which we would add, thank you and rest in peace, President Bush.
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