Thursday, June 16, 2022

In This Moment, June 17: Watergate's "Jewish Thing" and Nixon's Thing for the Jews

In This Moment

The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored
by Naomi Marks and Jonathan Marks
in honor of their son, Xavier, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.

In Sept. 1973, the Boston Globe created a dummy front page for June 18, 1972,
had we known then what the break-in would eventually lead to. The article that actually ran on June 18, was tiny, and on page 50. Below the Globe's coverage, you can see the first New York Times article about the break-in, which occupied a sliver of the front page, and not until the following day, June 19.
Here is the actual New York Times front page story that ran on June 19, 1972. See the rest of that initial article on the bottom of this email.
Note especially the statement of John Mitchell in the Times piece, denying any connection between the break-in and the campaign. "We want to emphasize that this man (McCord) and other people involved were not operating either on our behalf or with our consent," Mitchell said. "I am surprised and dismayed at these reports." He was likely also dismayed at the two years of prison time he would have to serve for conspiring to plan the break in, obstruction of justice and perjury.
Watergate's "Jewish Thing"
(and Nixon's "Thing" for Jews)
Fifty years ago, on June 17, 1972, the Watergate break-in changed the world. Little did we know it at the time, or for months after, that this seemingly innocuous, two-bit trespass would transform how Americans would view the venerated institutions of our civic life. Many were tainted by the stench of the scandal, from the FBI to the CIA to the presidency itself. Other institutions, most notably the press, acquitted themselves quite well.

But what about the Jews - or as Nixon liked to call us, the Jewboys? Was Nixon the most antisemitic president ever? An argument can be made for that, but having had so many private conversations recorded probably gives him an unfair "advantage." It's hard to quantify such things, but it's also hard to imagine American Jewry surviving someone who hated Jews more than Nixon did. Even before Watergate, there was Nixon's "Jew Count." discussed by Woodward and Bernstein in The Final Days. Nixon was convinced that Jews in the Labor Department were deliberately undermining his efforts by altering labor numbers, so he had some people with Jewish last names demoted. The plan has been called "the last known act of official anti-Semitism conducted by the United States government." And wait, there's more. President Nixon also pushed for tax audits of wealthy Jewish contributors to his Democratic rivals.

During Watergate, perhaps Nixon's most vociferous defender was not only Jewish but a rabbi, Baruch Korff, whom Nixon introduced as "my rabbi." Nixon's speechwriter, William Safire, was also Jewish (Safire compared Nixon to a "layer cake"). They were not Nixon's sole Jewish defenders - we can't forget that many Jews considered Nixon heroic for airlifting assistance to Israel during those first precarious days of the Yom Kippur War. And there was Henry Kissinger, whose Jewish background was the source of some unease in the Oval Office suspicious of Jews. In one tape, Nixon blurts out to H.R. Haldeman, "The Jews are all over this government." Nixon said the Jews needed to be brought under control by putting someone "in charge who is not Jewish" in key agencies. Washington "is full of Jews," the president stated. "Most Jews are disloyal." But he made exceptions, and for the most part, Kissinger was one of them. He even prayed with him as the walls closed in.

It's clear that Nixon's antisemitic proclivities went way beyond "Jewboy," tax audits and labor statistics. He considered Jews to be "born spies.". For anyone who might doubt the virulence of this man's bigotry - and not just toward Jews - read this excerpt from the tapes.
Nixon conjured up Jewish demons even where there were none; his paranoia extended to non-Jews who seemed Jewish to him. His original enemies list and expanded master list of political opponents had plenty of Jewish sounding names. In the tapes, his response to the Pentagon Papers leak was to consider reviving the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate government whistleblowers—or in his words, “going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you.” But Daniel Ellsberg was not Jewish - he was raised as a Christian Scientist, though his parents were born Ashkenazi Jews.

Mark Felt, the great Watergate whistleblower of "Deep Throat" fame, was also not Jewish; nonetheless the Watergate tapes disclosed that Nixon was suspicious of him as he asked H.R. Haldeman, "Is he a Catholic?" Haldeman replied that Felt, who was of Irish descent, was Jewish, and Nixon replied: "It could be the Jewish thing. I don't know. It's always a possibility."

What exactly is this "Jewish thing?" What is it that caused Nixon to assume that whistleblowers like Deep Throat and Ellsberg were Jewish?

Nixon would undoubtedly have invoked the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and spoken of dual loyalty, but I'd define the "Jewish Thing" as the prophetic instinct to speak truth to power, to seek justice and pursue it, following the calls of elders who speak on the pages of Isaiah 1:17Deuteronomy 16:20Micah 6:8 and Psalms 34:15 - and so many more ancient passages. We are obsessed with justice. The word for justice, tzedek, appears no fewer than 118 times in the Hebrew Bible. Click here to see over 4,000 usages of the term "justice" in the Sefaria database of Jewish sources.

We won't accept a society where bad presidents happen to good people. We are obsessed with getting it right. We are maniacal for justice - and we're seeing it again this week with the January 6 investigation. That's the Jewish Thing.

Any nation can have kings and emperors.  We have them too, but we also have prophets. Yes, we have our share of corrupt politicians, including two Israeli former prime ministers who are currently suing each other for slander in one of the most absurd trials of all time. We've had Olmert, who went to jail, and Bibi, who might, and King Ahab, who robbed a poor man of his livelihood and his life. We had a whole slew of corrupt Hasmonean rulers. But we also had Jeremiah.  We had Nathan.  We had Spinoza and Kafka and Reb Nachman. We are the people of Mike Wallace and Philip Roth and Arthur Miller and Boris Pasternak. We are the people of Carl Bernstein, along with a slew of great journalists and other truth tellers, and at least in H.R. Haldeman's estimation, we are the people of "Deep Throat" too.

Yes, it’s nice to know that, to Richard Nixon, Jews were a “thing.”  We are "thing" that stands up to corruption.  We are a “thing” that believes in an old fashioned concept called integrity and honesty. We have a sense of shame. We speak truth to power. Even when there are political differences, how could a Jew not admire someone who stands up to power even at the risk of their political future. That happened so often in Watergate - it has rarely happened after January 6. Our "thing" is why he feared us - and why extremists, liars and cheats continue to today.

Fifty years later, Nixon and Deep Throat and many of the other key players are gone. Nixon never went to jail but neither did he get away with it. Meanwhile, the Jewish Thing lives on and on.

May it - and we - continue to spread the light of justice throughout the world.

Have a good Shabbat!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Recommended Reading

  • The Menorah as an evolving Jewish symbol - Speaking of the light of justice, no symbol says "Light unto the nations" quite like the menorah - and it happens to be featured in this week's portion. Here's the Parsha Packet for Beha'alotcha. See how Judaism's ageless symbol of light has evolved, while maintaining it's original meaning, projecting how Jews are to be a "light unto the nations," and the sages explained that a purveyor of light is the perfect symbol because light is not a violent force. Given our reputation as truth tellers and justice seekers, a seven branched candelabra is the perfect depiction of the Jewish vision.This week's haftarah contains a classic vision of the temple menorah along with the immortal phrase, "Not by might, not by power but by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts."

  • Wisdom For Unwelcome Experiences (MyJewishLearning) - The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, offered a three-pronged approach to dealing with difficulty. A teaching from the Besht, the 18th century rabbi who revolutionized Judaism with the creation of Hasidism, offers a rudder as we navigate stormy seas. The Besht sought to help his followers to cope with unwelcome experiences — distracting thoughts during prayer and any encounters with brokenness. He offered a three-pronged approach: hachna’ah (yielding), havdalah (discernment), and hamtakah (sweetening).

  • Remembering the Family Store - I'm hearing great things about this documentary describing the family businesses of Old Time Stamford, playing at the Avon until Tuesday. Congrats to the Jewish Historical Society for their Check it out!

  • The soon-to-end coalition that nurtured two visions of Israel | Yossi Klein Halevi | The Blogs (The Times of Israel) - In creating a government representing Zionist parties from the right, left and center with fundamentally opposed visions of the country’s territorial borders and cultural identity, the coalition has proven one of its key assertions: that what unites Israel’s Jews is ultimately more compelling than what divides us. Pushing back against his vehement critics on the right, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has repeatedly invoked the “shared tent” of Jewish Israelis, bound by a covenant to defend the state. The left, Bennett reminds the right, aren’t enemies but “achim l’neshek,” brothers in arms.

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