Rev. Billy Graham died on Feb. 21. The 99-year-old ordained Southern Baptist minister had close relationships with U.S. presidents, world leaders and dignitaries and was described as one of the “most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century.”
His annual Billy Graham Crusades, held from 1947 to 2005, consistently reached massive audiences. A 1996 TV special was viewed by 2.5 billion people internationally, and his lifetime radio/TV audience was estimated in 2008 to be 2.2 billion.
He also built bridges with different communities. Powerful support for racial equality and civil rights enhanced his ties with African-Americans, and while the aim of his crusades was for people to accept Jesus as their lord and saviour, he maintained a strong relationship with Jews, aided by friendships with Jews (and non-Jews) in Hollywood.
Appearances on shows like Texaco Star Theatre, The Jack Benny Program, The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast and a 1969 Woody Allen special to discuss theology, were well-received. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989.
Jews didn’t agree with all of Graham’s religious beliefs, but it was impossible to view him as anything other than an admirable man of faith. Yet, this admiration came crashing down in the strangest of circumstances.
A persistent rumour existed that Graham agreed with former U.S. president Richard Nixon’s troubling remarks about Jews during a 1972 White House meeting. When former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman’s diaries were released in 1994, he’d recorded Graham using the term “satanic Jews” to discuss America’s ills.
Graham denied these allegations, and most people believed him, that is, until that Oval Office conversation was made public in 2002 by the National Archives.
Graham, in fact, had agreed with Nixon about a dominant left-wing Jewish media. In his view, this “stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.” (The term “synagogue of Satan” was heard on the tape, too.)
Graham also said, “A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine. They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.”
Although Graham didn’t remember making these comments, he issued two heartfelt apologies. Several Jewish leaders, including the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman, accepted them. But this episode left a bad taste in some people’s mouths.
What Graham said to Nixon was abhorrent, but it’s possible he was telling the president exactly what he wanted to hear. Nixon’s love-hate relationship with Jews was well-known, and perhaps Graham tried to flatter him to get on his good side. As he said in a 2005 interview, “I guess I was sort of caught up in the conversation somehow.”
It’s also possible he only felt this way about left-wing Jews. He had strong relationships with right-leaning and/or religious Jews like Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Maybe he was frustrated by progressives, Jewish or otherwise, who regularly challenged authority, morality and religious freedom.
Meanwhile, Graham often spoke of his love for the Jewish people, the fundamental right to practise Judaism in western democracies and defended Israel as a Jewish homeland. There’s no evidence of other negative comments against Jews, either.
Could it have been hidden for so long and from so many people? It seems unlikely.
I don’t believe Graham was anti-Semitic. He said some profoundly stupid things in a momentary lapse of reason, forgot about them and expressed remorse when they were unearthed. The good he did in his lifetime, including for Jews and Israel, shouldn’t be extinguished because of one foolish mistake.
Let it go, everyone – and rest in peace, good reverend. n
* Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist, Washington Times contributor and TV/radio pundit, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.