A friend of the oppressed

While Jews have certainly voiced divergent opinions about Ronald Reagan, they can definitely agree on one issue: The late president was unstinting in his support for the freedom of Soviet Jews, viewing their battle as symbolic of the plight of oppressed people under totalitarianism. And he had the courage to put the pressure on Soviet leaders to let our people go.

The president, who died last week at age 93, saw himself as a defender of democracy and freedom of religion, a foe of communism. He stood at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, addressing the Soviet leader with the following words: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Reagan tore down a number of walls in his battle against communism, and more than 1.5 million Jews left the former Soviet Union to build new lives in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. No longer burdened with the oppressive Jewish mark on their passports, they were free for the first time to discover the joys of reclaiming their heritage.

The former president and California governor also was affable, and a good listener.

“With Reagan, you had disagreements but you couldn’t get angry with him,” recalled Hyman Bookbinder, then the Washington director of the American Jewish Committee. “That explains a lot of the comity; his staff was open to me and others who wanted to communicate our feelings.”

Reagan was also called a friend of the Jewish state. He took steps toward establishing peace in the Middle East, coming up with a plan opposing Palestinian statehood and annexation of the territories but supporting a self-governing Palestinian authority linked to Jordan.

That plan — rejected by Israeli leader Menachem Begin — seems relatively tame in the light of recent proposals.

While Reagan’s commitment to Israel’s security was strong, he wasn’t afraid to voice his opposition to Israel’s policies, and he approved the sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia. He also put pressure on the Israeli government, particularly after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, and he frequently clashed with Begin.

On the domestic front, many in the Jewish community took issue with Reagan’s education and social policies, both as president and as governor, and his support for the agenda of the Christian right.

Regardless of where one stood on the political spectrum, some Jews, like most Americans, saw Reagan as a man with a vision, an optimist who saw America as a land of opportunity for all peoples.

RONALD REAGAN (1911-2004):

‘The most sensitive man I knew’

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Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ view of USSR was right on the mark

Reagan years marked the beginning of a long, roller-coaster ride with Israel