Days of awe: Meeting with President Bush

On Sunday night I wrote that our rabbi (Jonathan Ginsburg of St. Paul’s Temple of Aaron) would be meeting with the president on Monday afternoon. Here is Rabbi Ginsburg’s account of his meeting yesterday with President Bush, retaining Rabbi Ginsburg’s subject headings.

It started with a phone call from Senator Coleman the Monday night before Rosh Hashanah telling me that the President wanted to meet with a few rabbis right after Rosh Hashanah, and asking me if I could go to Washington to meet with him. Senator Coleman told me that I could expect a call from the White House.
I came into the synagogue office on Tuesday morning, and the secretarial staff was excited because the call had come in from the White House. They told me that there would be a meeting with the President on Monday. There were going to be eighteen people around the table — [16 rabbis and] the President and an aide. I asked what rabbis were going to be there, and they told me that they were a broad distribution, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox, Military, Hillel and Pulpit. They gave me the time and the place.
I announced [from the pulpit] on Rosh Hashanah that I was going to go see the President. I thought it would provide interesting material for the Rosh Hashanah dinner table conversations. As we were walking around in the Torah procession, some congregants stopped me and gave me agenda items that they asked me to talk about with the President.
It seemed a little strange to spend eighteen hours traveling for a one-hour meeting. On the other hand, I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to have this once in a lifetime experience. The toughest decision I had to make was which kepah [skullcap] to wear. I decided on the one I have which has alternating American and Israeli flags. I was so curious as to what the President had in mind to talk about, and also what other colleagues would there be, and whether I know any of them. We went through security and arrrived in a very nice, small room with a conference table. There were 18 chairs around it, with the rabbis and the president.
I could not believe I was sitting literally across the conference table from the President of the United States. One rabbi mentioned something that another rabbi had said to Lyndon Johnson once, which was that the President of the United States rules over more Jews than any other leader in history, including the President of Israel or Moses.
When I was in Orthodox Day School, as a kid, when we were late for the services the headmaster would say to us, ‘Would you be five minutes late if you were meeting the President of the United States?’ And guess what, we were. Somehow they left us standing at the tent, and so they rushed us in, and I walked into the room, and a man reached out to shake my hand. He says, “Here’s a good fellow, Rabbi Ginsburg.” I looked up and it was President Bush, already there and waiting.
He was utterly charming, eloquent, gracious and humble. President Bush covered a large range of topics in his opening fifteen minute talk, emphasizing war on terror, support for Israel and fighting anti-Semitism worldwide. Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, recession, working hard to pull the country out of the impact of September 11th, and of the negative impact the war has on the economy. He spoke about his need to stand firm, the need to support the forces for peace in the world, but that there are cold blooded murderers he has to deal with. He said he’s not anti-Muslim, he’s not anti-Palestinian. He does believe there should be a Palestinian state someday, but he’s anti-Palestinians who are terrorists. He ended by saying, “This is not a political event. Keep your politics close to your vests. I just wanted to talk with rabbis during the ten days of awe” (or close to that).
I told him that I had met him one time before when he was running for election when he came to Minnesota for a fundraiser, and former Senator Rudy Boschwitz invited me to this estate at Lake Minnetonka where this fundraiser was held. President Bush gave a speech inside a room that housed an indoor pool. The room itself in this house held hundreds of people. I happened to be just a few feet away from the podium and when then Governor Bush came off, he walked right past me, stopped for a minute, saw my kepah, and I said, “I’m Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg. It’s good to meet you.” He said, “Oh, Rabbi, I’m so glad you’re here. I want you to know that I’m going to do everything I can to help Israel. Israel is our friend, and we stand by our friends,” and he walked on by. And I do believe he’s lived up to that ever since…
I mentioned that to him, and I said, “The Jewish people believe you have, and thank you.” And then I told him a story that I told over Rosh Hashanah about an elderly volunteer for an Israel organization who said that his passion for volunteering for Israel was driven by the fact that he had been part of a l iberating group at at one of the concentration camps. An inmate came up to him and saw his name tag and saw that he was Jewish, and said, “Are you Jewish?” in Yiddish. Expecting a hug from this recently freed inmate, the soldier said, “Yes.” Instead of a hug, he got a slap, and the former inmate said “You’re too late.”
The President looked at me in the eye and said, “Part of my job is to make sure we’ll never be too late.”
A large part of the conversation was about Israel. One rabbi asked him about the security fence. He said that, if he were the Prime Minister of Israel, he would absolutely think pessimistically, but hope for the best and plan for long-term security. He said that you always have to leave open the opportunity for peace, and so there’s a fine line between security and closing off the options for peace. He said that when he disagrees with Prime Minister Sharon, whom he considers a close friend, he tells him in private. The one example he gave was feeling Sharon made a mistake surrounding Arafat’s compound with tanks, telling him that “we’re trying to marginalize the guy. We’re on the same page. Help us out here, you made him into a hero and martyr again.”
He told a very moving story about being in Israel with his wife when he was Governor of Texas. Netanyahu was the Prime Minister, and Sharon was the tour guide of a helicopter flight over the West Bank. When Bush woke up in the morning, he looked out of his hotel window, and it was Jerusalem in its golden hue. He talked about how humbling it is to know that millions of people pray for him every day, and the sacred responsibility that entails. We mentioned that in our synagogues every Shabbat, we offer a prayer for him and for the government of the United States. He said he prays every day that God blesses him with patience, wisdom and strength, and “I’m weak enough to know that I need God’s strength and support.”
He talked about his concern of increasing anti-Semitism in Europe, and how he’s trying to work with them to eradicate it. He said that we have to fight hard all the -isms. Then the Hillel rabbi there talked about the swatiska that Rutgers had recently and the shouting down of pro-Israel speakers on various campuses. He said that he knows about some of that, and that he is keeping abreast of it, that it’s a concern. He spoke often about peace and freedom, the importance of optimism and the love of America. He mentioned several times the speech he gave June 24, 2002, where he laid out his principles of fighting terrorism and said the key is to continue to stick to our values and not deviate from them.
A rabbi mentioned a book he was reading about how the Saudis have continued to profess to be our friends, but support radical Islam all over the world. He asked the President what he thought about it. The President said, “You basically stated the question. It’s not just the Saudis. We’re dealing with every country in the Middle East that way except the one democracy, Israel. We have to try to reform them and help them be true democracies.”
He had us laughing several times. He talked about the politics of the Israeli cabinet. He said that in Israel, the constituents elect the ministers, but he gets to appoint his ministers and cabinet members. He said that the elbows are very sharp in the Israeli cabinet, and he understands the political concerns and the political dynamics in Israel, and how complicated that makes things sometimes.
The aides were trying for half an hour to rush him out to sign the no telemarketing bill but he stayed and chatted awhile.
We’re such a small people, and we have been controlled, restricted and murdered by the greatest empires in history. We have arrived at this period of history, still a time of danger for our people, but we are living in the freest country in history.
I was just stunned to be sitting across the table from the most powerful person in the world, a man of true humility and belief in one God, who spent much of this hour and a quarter, speaking from the depth of his heart about his concern about anti-Semitism and his understanding of Israel’s predicament. I know many disagree with policies of his. I’m sure every rabbi there had some disagreements. But there was no denying the moment, the genuineness, the power of the experience. It felt surreal.
When I left I went across the street to the park and cried. I had so much emotion about being there. After all we have gone through as a people for 4000 years, so many tyrants under whom we have lived who have brutally mistreated us, to live in an an age when the leaders of the most powerful nation of the world care so deeply for this small people, as many presidents have, is amazing. It had a feeling of holiness to it — of feeling God’s words that “those that bless the childen of Israel will be blessed.”


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