When Presidents Curse (at the Jews)

by Rafael Medoff

President Joe Biden is reported to have used profanity in two recent outbursts against Israel’s prime minister. Sadly, such eruptions are nothing new. Going all the way back to the 1940s, presidents or other senior U.S. officials occasionally have said some ugly things about Israel or Jews.

In 1943, Samuel Rosenman, the chief speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, confided to a colleague that the president was “much displeased” to learn that four hundred rabbis were planning to march to the White House to plead for the rescue of Jewish refugees. Rosenman said FDR was so upset that he “used language that morning while breakfasting which would have pleased Hitler himself.”

Syndicated newspaper columnist Drew Pearson reported in early 1948 that President Harry Truman privately railed against American Jews who were urging him to support the creation of a Jewish state: “Pounding his desk, [Truman] used words that can’t be repeated about ‘the (blank) New York Jews.’ ‘They’re disloyal to their country. Disloyal!’ he cried.” Truman denied the story, but Pearson’s source,  New York Post publisher Ted Thackery, did not back down.

The White House tapes released by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library revealed some ugly remarks in the Oval Office in the early 1970s. In one, the president could be heard becoming angry at his attorney, Leonard Garment, and shouting, “Goddamn his Jewish soul!”

In another, Nixon angrily complained to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about American Jews urging him to press the Soviet Union on Jewish emigration. Referring to the possibility of Jewish demonstrations outside a forthcoming U.S.-Soviet summit, Nixon thundered: “Let me say, Henry, it’s gonna be the worst thing that happened to Jews in American history. If they torpedo this summit–and it might go down for other reasons–I’m gonna put the blame on them, and I’m going to do it publicly at 9 o’clock at night before 80 million people. They put the Jewish interest above America’s interest, and it’s about goddamn time that the Jew in America realizes he’s an American first and a Jew second!”

Kissinger used vulgar language in describing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his cabinet in 1975. The incident took place during a round of shuttle diplomacy that Kissinger was conducting between Israel and Egypt. According to Prof. Gil Troy’s book, Moynihan’s Moment, Kissinger at one point became frustrated that Rabin was not making enough concessions to Egypt, and complained to President Gerald Ford that Israel’s leaders were “the world’s worst s—ts.”

Not that Americans have a monopoly on such ugliness. There also have been several incidents along these lines involving European diplomats.

In 2001, the French ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Bernard, launched into an obscenity-laced rant against Israel and its prime minister, Ariel Sharon. At a dinner party, Bernard told Conrad Black of the Daily Telegraph that “All the current troubles in the world are because of that s——y little country, Israel.” Despite an international uproar, Ambassador Bernard refused to apologize, claiming his remark had been distorted.

In 2009, a senior official in the British Foreign Office, Rowan Laxton, unleashed a profane tirade against the Israeli government headed by Ehud Olmert. During a workout in a London gym, Laxton shouted about the “f—-ing Israelis, f—-ing Jews,” and declared that the Israelis should be “wiped off the face of the earth,” according to staff members at the gym. During his trial on charges of racial harassment, Laxton’s defense was, “We are all human. I erred. I don’t normally swear.”

Perhaps the best known contemporary example of a government official cursing the Jews involved Secretary of State James A. Baker, in 1992. His cabinet colleague, House and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp, leaked to the media that when Baker was told of Jewish concerns about U.S. policy toward Israel, he replied, “F—- the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.” Baker’s spokeswoman called the report “garbage,” but New York Times columnist William Safire, after investigating the episode, wrote: “I can confirm that Baker did say that, with the same vulgarism that made it so memorable, to two high officials on two different occasions.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, reported in October 2014 that “a senior Obama administration official” derided Israel’s prime minister as “chickens—t” for not making more concessions to the Palestinian Authority. No U.S. official publicly took responsibility for the remark; but nobody in Washington seemed to doubt the accuracy of Goldberg’s account.

In a 2021 interview, Donald Trump used profanity in denouncing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump said he was angry that Netanyahu congratulated Joe Biden on winning the 2020 election.

Whether the president has been a Democrat or a Republican, and regardless of who happened to be Israel’s prime minister, the phenomenon of a rage-filled or obscenity-laced outburst against Israel or Jews is a recurring feature in the political world. So perhaps Israelis should not take the latest reported vulgarity to heart. It wasn’t the first, it probably won’t be the last, and it reflects more on the speaker than the target.

(February 2024)