June 10, 2004
Reagan Had Strong Ties to Jewish L.A.
The Reagan Revolution that gave the late president unprecedented national Jewish support had strong roots among Southern California's Jewish philanthropists and political strategists.
Ronald Reagan's relations with Jews in the 1980s were cemented by his principled support for Israel and Soviet Jewry, but his solid reputation in Jewish circles came from a foundation built four decades earlier. Real estate developer Ozzie Goren, who led Jewish efforts in California, said Reagan's Jewish appeal harkens to his Hollywood acting days in the 1940s.
"He just fell in love with the Jews," said Goren, a former Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles president. "He was accused of having fallen in love with the Jews."
As news spread of the president's death, his Jewish supporters remembered the actor who became president and who never stopped listening to them. While working as an actor before becoming California's governor in 1966, Goren said, "he belonged to a country club, early on, in the Pasadena area.... When he learned they didn't permit Jews, he resigned immediately."
"He always had many relationships with Jewish people," said Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist who was Southern California chair of Youth for Reagan when he ran for governor.
Steinberg cited Hollywood agent Taft Schreiber and studio mogul Lew Wasserman as Reagan's key influences.
In both presidential campaigns, Reagan earned close to 40 percent of the Jewish vote in Southern California.
"It was broad based, it was enthusiastic," said Rosalie Zalis, who spent 10 years as Gov. Pete Wilson's senior policy adviser and was a Reagan campaign Jewish vote coordinator. "There was a sense among many Jews, even those who were not Republicans, that this was someone they cared about. He made all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, have a sense of a bright tomorrow."
Reagan's Southern California-based "kitchen cabinet" of influential advisers included the late Beverly Hills businessman and philanthropist Ted Cummings, who later became the U.S. Ambassador to Austria. Also influencing Reagan was Claremont McKenna College government professor Fred Balitzer and, early on, the late L.A. businessman Al Spiegel.
"If anyone was important in the beginning, it was Al Spiegel," Balitzer said. "He worked in the trenches gathering Jewish voters for Reagan when he was governor."
Goren, a Jewish Journal board member, was one of five Jewish leaders who met monthly with Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese to discuss Jewish issues.
"They were very fruitful," Goren said.
The plight of Soviet Jews was a top Reagan issue and remains a highlight of how Jews remember the president.
"Reagan's significance to the Jewish community was that because of him, the Soviet Union was disbanded and because of that we have the exodus of Soviet Jewry to Israel," Zalis said.
But given their strong Democratic Party loyalties, Jews having influence on Republican presidents could be problematic.
"How do you get any influence in an administration where the vast majority of Jews did not vote for it?" Goren said.
That changed in 1980. Simon Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier said Reagan broke from Republican aloofness on Israel because, "He forged a new relationship for a Republican president with the State of Israel and that was unequivocal support for a sister democracy. He acted on the gut and his gut told him, 'these people have the same form of government as we have.' To President Reagan, he defined it in simple terms; in the Middle East, Israel is the country most like the United States of America and should be supported unequivocally. Ronald Reagan said, 'Let's make it very clear; Israel is on our side.'"
Holocaust survivor William Lowenberg, a retired San Francisco real estate developer, knew Reagan as a presidential campaign chairman in northern California and later was named vice chair by the president to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
"He was extremely helpful during his administration to build the Holocaust Museum in Washington," Lowenburg said. "I look at his picture every day on my wall, of him and me at the museum's groundbreaking."
Jewish supporters remembered that in the late 1940s, Reagan was one of the first non-Jewish actors to attend an Israel Bonds dinner. During the Six-Day War in 1967, then-Gov. Reagan quickly volunteered to go to a Hollywood Bowl event supporting Israel.
As president, Reagan kept a list of names of Soviet Jewish dissidents in his desk at the Oval Office.
"He supported the idea of linkage; that is, linking trade agreements with the Soviets to human rights," Steinberg said. "When Jimmy Carter came in, he talked a big game on human rights. The Soviets didn't respect Carter. They saw Carter as weak. Reagan returned to this linkage concept and it would very much irritate the Soviets. The Soviets really respected strength. Reagan was a true believer in negotiating from strength."
Community activist Si Frumkin, who spent decades running the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, said Reagan, "was, possibly, not the most sophisticated person in the world, but he knew what was right and what was wrong."
(When asked if he sees that same quality in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frumkin said, "Yes I do.")
"It was an evil empire," Frumkin said, repeating Reagan's description of the old USSR. "He understood how evil the Soviet empire was and how bad communism is for people."
Retired Los Angeles businessman Hershey Gold worked on the first presidential campaign and was named to the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy. The former president's death brought back memories of Jewish politics in the 1980s as Gold echoed what many Reagan supporters felt, saying: "My opinion is that he was a very rare patriot."