“Is he/she good for Israel/the Jews?” It’s probably the question most frequently asked by my students about any particular non-Israeli politician. I’m not surprised. Having grown up in the American Jewish community, I am very familiar with this pass/fail litmus test. A foreign leader is either good or bad for Israel.

Its treated not only as an obvious question, but as the obvious question that Jews should ask. Sometimes the answer is debatable. Sometimes it is revised with hindsight. (I’m talking to you, FDR) Some will vote based only on the answer to that question, and others will include it among other factors.

But how can this be a meaningful question? With so many variables to consider, it seems doubtful that this is a binary, black or white equation. There simply has to more a more sophisticated way to discuss how we think government leaders will affect the fate of the Jewish State. It can’t be reduced to a question of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

A recent Facebook conversation will help me elucidate the point.  A friend’s political post used the term “Nixonian”. This lead to a suggestion from a mutual friend, (respectfully submitted) that Jews should have enough gratitude to Richard Milhouse Nixon to prevent them from using his surname as a pejorative adjective. After all, he shipped arms to Israel after it was invaded in the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Those rushed weapons saved the Jewish State. So as Jews, let’s not use his name to denote creepy political activity. Again, no surprises here. I’m more than familiar with the American Jewish “gratitude to Nixon” meme.

But let’s peek down this particular rabbit hole for a bit. (Really, just a bit. Stay with me.) Somehow, this massive weapons shipment, Operation Nickel Grass, has lodged into the collective memory as a passing grade for Nixon. He was a president who was “good for Israel”, and so, we Jews owe him our gratitude. But what about the fact that his administration demanded and received assurances from Golda Meir’s government that Israel would not preempt the Egyptian and Syrian strike?  

In 1967, President Johnson had gone short of that. Cold War politics made Israeli preemption difficult for his administration as well. But the way that he communicated this to the Israelis was telling them if “you go alone, then you’ll be alone.” It was their choice. If they preempted, America would offer no help. If they waited to be invaded, America would ship them arms and support their defense. Levi Eshkol felt that the cost in Israeli lives was too high a price to pay to secure american weapons. Israeli defense doctrine demanded the preemptive strike.

The Nixon administration chose a different tactic. Of course, Golda could have defied their demand. Certainly, the Israeli public held her accountable for not doing so. A generation of 18 to 21 year old Israelis was decimated because Israel didn’t preempt. Also, that massive weapons shipment followed a smaller surreptitious one. The Americans tried to supply Israel on the sly to keep the Cold War temperature down. It wasn’t enough for Israel, but Nixon was reluctant to send more. Allegedly, only when the Israelis threatened the use of nukes did Nixon order an open, large scale arms shipment on El Al planes.

Doesn’t the pass/fail test seem silly in retrospect? Forget about Nixon opening relations to China and starting the EPA. Forget about Watergate and treason with the South Vietnamese. Let’s even forget his many, many horrific anti-semitic statements heard on his tapes. Let’s stick to the arms shipment. On this one case, the handling of the Yom Kippur war, was Nixon a friend to Israel? Was he, meaning his administration, unambiguously good or bad to Israel at that time? Could that possibly be the right question for an intelligent person to ask?

It’s true, of course, that we get much of our broader perspective with time and declassification. But that really goes to my overall point. Rather than the simplistic binary designation of friend or foe of Israel, perhaps we should view foreign politicians from allied countries through a different lense.

A friend is someone who will work in your interest out of love and loyalty. They will do so even if it isn’t in their interests, and perhaps even if it goes against their own interests.  Any individual would be fortunate to find such a friend. An ally is someone who shares your goals, and so you can work on them together. Governments can be allies. They cannot, and arguably should not, be friends.

No government should act against the interests of its citizens for the sake of another country. A government’s job is to take care of the people of its own nation. To further the interests of their own state, they will work with other states as well. When two nations have an overwhelming confluence of interests, they have a special relationship. For the last thirty or forty years, the U.S. and Israel have had such a relationship. As long as those interests coincide, we will remain allies. Allies need and use each other. Its symbiotic, not altruistic.

The reductive pass/fail approach is not only problematic because it fails to pass intellectual muster. I fear that the friend/enemy duality is an exilic Jewish vestige. Zionism is the movement that demands the Jewish nation to stand on its own. We should appreciate when an ally helps us, but remember that they are helping themselves. Presidents aren’t our saviors or destroyers. We must be open to allies, but ultimately self-reliant.

This has run a bit long, but allow me a last anecdote. When I was 10 years old, thousands of Jews went to New York’s Central Park to hear Menachem Begin speak. This was after the Salute to Israel parade down 5th Avenue that day, and was months after Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem. Peace talks were coming up. Prime Minister Begin informed the massive crowd that he was receiving assurances from the US and other governments that Israel could take risks for peace with Egypt. They would guarantee her safety. I don’t have the text of his speech, but I do have a memory of that moment. I remember him telling us that we Jews have learned from bitter experience not to rely on the guarantees of others. “Guarantees? There is only one source we can rely on for guarantees.” And then lifted his arm, pointing one finger towards the sky. Tens of thousands of Jews erupted with applause. It took my breath away.

Whether they understood him as referring to one nation or one God, the message resonated. Allied politicians should be appreciated and respected. And viewed with suspicion.

We take care of our own.