The Bush family and the Jews.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 17 2002 3:58 PM

The Bushes and the Jews

Explaining the president's philo-Semitism.

George W. Bush at the Wailing Wall
George W. Bush at the Wailing Wall

In 1998, George W. Bush took his first and only trip to the Holy Land. During a helicopter tour—guided by none other than Ariel Sharon—Bush was astonished to discover how tiny Israel is compared to its Arab neighbors. He later described the visit as one of the most meaningful experiences of his life. A photographer captured a striking image of Bush, in a yarmulke, standing reverently at the Wailing Wall.

The picture may be a symbol of Bush foreign policy these days, but it speaks to an even more startling truth: Bush is the first in his family of politicians to craft a pro-Jewish image. Starting with accusations that Prescott Bush was a Nazi collaborator before Pearl Harbor, the Bush dynasty has generally been viewed with suspicion and at times outright hostility by Jewish Americans. The elder President Bush outraged the Jewish community with a series of perceived insults. Before he became president, the younger Bush, who once expressed doubt about whether non-Christians could get into heaven, seemed likely to follow in the family tradition.

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The charges against Sen. Prescott Bush, the grandfather of the current president, went beyond the disdain for Jews and discriminatory practices that were characteristic of New England WASP culture in his day. Prescott Bush was a director of a New York bank where rich Germans who supported the Nazis stashed millions in personal wealth. He was still a director at the bank, Union Banking Corp., when its assets were frozen under the Trading With the Enemy Act in 1941—a fact that has provided endless fodder for leftists and conspiracy theorists since it came to light in the 1990s.

George Herbert Walker Bush shared the same exclusionary pedigree as his father, starting with Yale and the secret society Skull & Bones, and had extensive ties to Arabs through the oil industry as well. But most Jews did not consider him unfriendly to their interests so long as he served under Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the first Republican in 80 years to win a sizable share of the Jewish vote. There were a variety of reasons for this, but the key issue was Reagan's hard line on the defense of Israel, which he considered a crucial democratic outpost in the fight against Soviet communism. In the 1980 election, Jimmy Carter won 45 percent of the Jewish vote. Reagan won 39 percent.

That remarkable shift, however, began to be undone almost as soon as George H.W. Bush took over in 1989. Bush was a self-described pragmatist in international affairs, and in the giddy early days after the end of the Cold War, it was no longer fashionable to view the world in binary terms. As a result, many conservative ideological causes—among them Israel—no longer found a champion in the White House. The point was made most clearly when Bush demanded, in 1991, that the Israelis stop building new settlements in Palestinian-controlled territories. Unlike previous presidents, Bush sounded serious, threatening to block millions in loan guarantees if Israel disobeyed. (Later, when his re-election was in doubt in 1992, Bush promised to press Congress for the loan guarantees unconditionally.)

Just as damaging was the elder Bush's knack for seeming as out of touch with Jewish voters as he did with everyone else. Once, during a 1991 White House press conference, Bush Sr. complained about the strength of the Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill—the implication being that "Jews work insidiously behind the scenes," as David J. Forman wrote in the Jerusalem Post. On another occasion, Bush reminded his critics that the United States gives "Israel the equivalent of $1,000 for every Israeli citizen," a remark that detractors took as an allusion to the stereotype of Jews as money-obsessed and greedy.

And then there was Secretary of State James Baker's infamous "fuck the Jews" remark. In a private conversation with a colleague about Israel, Baker reportedly uttered the vulgarity, noting that Jews "didn't vote for us anyway." This was more or less true—Bush got 27 percent of the Jewish vote, compared with 73 percent for Dukakis, in 1988. And thanks in part to Baker, it was even truer in 1992, when Bill Clinton got 78 percent of the Jewish vote and Bush got only 15 percent—the poorest showing by a Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In 2000, as Al Gore hit the campaign trail with the first Jewish vice presidential running mate in U.S. history on his ticket, George W. Bush seemed to make only a half-hearted attempt to compete for Jewish votes. He paid the obligatory dues, speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and visiting the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles (where, after touring the sobering Holocaust exhibit, he incongruously signed the guest book, "God bless this world!"). But Bush reserved his real pitch for Arab-Americans, whom his strategists viewed as an increasingly powerful voting bloc. Repeated trips to Michigan, a swing state, gave Bush ample opportunity to meet with Arab-American leaders, heavily concentrated around Detroit. Ironically, he made a campaign pledge to examine "secret evidence" cases against foreign suspects, a matter of great concern among Arab-Americans (and one that fell by the wayside after Sept. 11).

Like his father, Bush failed during the campaign to win over neoconservative Jewish intellectuals—most notably William Kristol, who openly backed John McCain. The problem wasn't just the assumption that he shared his father's coolness toward Israel. It was also his perceived insensitivity toward Jews, as characterized by the only-Christians-in-heaven remark. Bush later joked about the uproar caused by the exchange. Asked by a reporter what he planned to tell the Israelis as he prepared to embark on his 1998 trip to the Middle East, Bush replied, obviously in jest, "Go to hell." Gore got 79 percent of the Jewish vote. Bush got only 19 percent.

But unlike his father, who never managed to repair his relationship with the Jewish community despite several attempts, Bush has only risen in the esteem of many prominent Jews since taking office. The biggest factor is probably the Sept. 11 attacks. After a brief flurry of activity to win Arab support for the war on Afghanistan, Bush began to connect America's struggle against terrorism with Israel's fight against Palestinian suicide bombers. Though he was criticized for sitting on the sidelines as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict worsened, Bush arguably took sides by dropping the standard call for the Israelis to "show restraint." After briefly responding to international pressure to demand an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Bush quickly backed off.

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