While once some of the American’s president’s closest advisors could be counted on to support Israel in a pinch, an Alexander Haig would be an anachronism in the West Wing or at Foggy Bottom today. It seems that Gen. Alexander Haig had even more of a crush on the nation and people of Israel than most people realized.
Haig, who served our nation in an illustrious military career and also as secretary of state, supreme allied commander at NATO and chief of staff to President Nixon and President Ford, was known to have a deep respect of and admiration for the nation and people of Israel.
He once famously called Israel “the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
But this week a close confidant of Haig’s revealed an episode 32 years old that further highlighted Haig’s understanding of Israel’s place in the world and its importance to America.
Sherwood “Woody” Goldberg, who was chief of staff for Haig during his tenure as secretary of state, stepped up to the podium to make a few impromptu remarks during a wonderful celebration of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life on the occasion of his 19th yarzheit (commemoration of the anniversary of his death) in Center City Philadelphia.
The Rebbe, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was popularly known, was not only a spiritual giant having led this vibrant Chasidic Jewish sect for 43 years, but he was also extremely wise and many people – including non-observant Jews and even non-Jews – appreciated and sought out his wisdom, counsel and intellect.
One of the Rebbe’s close associates and his special envoy to Washington was Rabbi Abraham Shemtov. Rabbi Shemtov leads the Lubavitch movement in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, and internationally is chairman of the board of Agudas Chasidei Chabad.
Shemtov had just finished speaking during the event, telling an anecdote involving himself and Goldberg. Goldberg, who lives in the Washington area, just happened to be visiting Philadelphia and on the spur-of-the-moment attended the event.
As Shemtov was leaving the stage, Goldberg was so moved by Shemtov’s recollections that he got up from his seat and approached the rabbi to ask if he could tell his own anecdote to bring what Shemtov had said to a full circle. And so he did.
In a surprise raid On June 7, 1981 — 32 years ago today — Israeli F-16s and F-15s bombed and destroyed a nascent nuclear reactor in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
As Goldberg told it, President Reagan and his staff were furious at Israel. Not only did she attack Iraq without consulting Washington, seek permission nor give any warning about the attack – but Israel used American fighter jets to get the job done.
When the Americans learned of the strike, Reagan called an emergency cabinet meeting the next day to determine how the administration would respond.
Goldberg related that, one-by-one, President Reagan polled Vice President George H.W. Bush and his cabinet. To a man, the reaction was harsh: “Crush Israel!” was the response from the President’s men.
That is, until it was Haig’s turn to weigh-in.
“One day you will get down on your knees and thank Israel for doing that,” Haig said according to Goldberg, making him the lone dissenter.
Needless to say, America did not “crush” Israel although there were tensions in the immediate aftermath. Less than 10 years later America was at war with Iraq to defend Kuwait in the Gulf War, a k a “Operation Desert Storm.”
While we may never know if President Reagan ever did kneel in gratitude to Israel, a nuclear-armed Iraq may have deterred America from that obligation to our ally or cost a great many more American lives.
Yes, time proved Haig prescient.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Shemtov was stunned as he stood next to Goldberg as Goldberg revealed this nugget of history publicly for the first time.
At the behest of the Rebbe, Shemtov would meet every so often with Goldberg while Goldberg worked for Haig. The rabbi would share the Rebbe’s concerns along with pearls of wisdom from the Chabad leader. Sometimes after these meetings, Goldberg noted that Haig would ask him: “What did ‘your’ rabbi have to say?”
Shemtov and Goldberg formed a strong bond and have remained friends for decades. But Goldberg had kept this episode a secret. Haig died in 2010.
Such was the impact of the Rebbe and Chabad, and such was Haig’s friendship toward Israel and the Jewish people.
Steve Feldman writes from Philadelphia.