This week Nixonfoundation.org spoke with Jeffrey Donfeld, a former member of the Nixon White House staff who was on the ground in Israel when the Yom Kippur War broke out 40 years ago in October 1973.
Mr. Donfeld joined the White House as Staff Assistant to the President in 1969. He co-authored legislation to create the White House Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention and then became the office’s Assistant Director in 1971. Following his time with the office for drug abuse prevention, he became the Director of the Office of Hearings and Appeals in the Department of Interior.
In the interview he recounts the firsthand experience of being in Israel as the surrounding Arab armies invaded, and watching the planes fly overhead from the U.S. airlift that was ordered by President Nixon and ultimately turned the tide of the conflict.
How did you first meet Richard Nixon?
I clerked for the Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander and Mitchell law firm between my second and third years of law school, which was the summer of 1967. When I was a senior at UCLA, I was student body president and was the only student body president out of all the UC campuses, who publicly campaigned for the Republican Party. At that time the chairman of the California State Republican Party was Dr. Gaylord Parkinson.
Parkinson subsequently became the first chairman of the committee to elect Richard Nixon president. So when Dr. Parkinson would come to New York, that summer when I was at the law firm, he would invite me to sit in on meetings between him and the President.
How did you join the White House staff?
Well, it was a result of my working at the Nixon law firm during my second and third years of law school, which was Summer of ‘67, and during that summer, I was introduced to Tricia Nixon, and as a result of that relationship, I was supposed to work on the campaign, but the advance man school was being given in New York the weekend before the California bar exam, and I didn’t want to jeopardize performance on the bar exam. But John Ehrlichman said if you don’t come to the advance man school, you don’t work on the campaign. And I said, ‘I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but whatever you’re going to teach these advance men over the weekend, I’ll learn in a week,’ and he said, ‘No, if you don’t come to the school, you don’t work on the campaign.’ I said fine. I wasn’t going to jeopardize three years of law school.
I got a job when I graduated working for a large Beverly Hills law firm and was very unhappy there, but Tricia and I had maintained contact, and she said, If you’re unhappy, why don’t you to come work at the White House?’ I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that because I didn’t work on the campaign.’ She said, ‘Well I think I can arrange that.’ So that’s how I got there.
What did you do in the White House?
Well, I first worked for Bud Wilkinson, then I worked for Bud Krogh, and had the responsibility for crafting the administration’s non-law-enforcement anti-drug abuse programs. I ultimately had responsibility for dealing with our soldiers’ drug problems in Vietnam, and was involved in setting up treatment and detoxification programs worldwide. I was involved in setting up a urine analysis program in Vietnam to identify soldiers who were addicted to heroin and then to get them into treatment programs before they’d come back to the United States.
That’s quite an undertaking.
Yeah, it was. I also had an assignment to try to identify useless boards and commissions in the federal government to recommend termination and defunding. Those were my essential undertakings.
In October of 1973 you were in Israel when the Arab armies launched the surprise attack. What was it like being on the ground?
Well, I arrived in Israel the day before the Yom Kippur War broke out. I went to synagogue with my sister and brother-in-law, and during the break, when the services were over at noon time, 1pm or 2pm, we went outside and sirens went off, and a woman ran out on a balcony yelling “Milkhamah! Milkhamah!” and I knew enough of my Hebrew to know that that word means “war.” And so my sister and brother-in-law got on an airplane to go back home the very next day, and I decided to stay in Israel and see what this was all about. I tried to volunteer help, but the Israelis were self-sufficient, well organized, and said you’d just get in the way.
And I was staying with a friend that I had gone to grammar school with in a little town called Rishon LeZion and literally no one in the world knew where I was. In the middle of the night the telephone rings in his apartment, I jumped up and I said hello, and on the other end of the telephone the voice said, “This is the White House Operator calling, we’re looking for Jeffrey Donfeld.’ And I said, ‘This is Jeffrey Donfeld.’
Well, my to-be wife to whom I’m still married, got on the phone. She was crying, saying the State Department says Israel’s losing the war. You got to promise me that you’re going to come home right away. I said, ‘I can’t make that promise.’ I went back to bed and sirens went off, and I ran into my friend’s bedroom and said, ‘Is this the real thing?’ And he sat on the edge of the bed rubbing his eyes as different scores of sirens went off, and he said ‘yes.’ I grabbed one of his infant children and stuck my passport in my back pocket and as we went down to grade level, I looked outside and said, ‘You moron, you’re never going to see the light of day again,’ thinking this apartment building is going to collapse over the bomb shelter.
Nothing happened, but the remarkable thing was that the White House Operator who’s got this phenomenal reputation, was able to find me. To this day, I don’t know how they knew where I was.
That is a remarkable.
It was just extraordinary. But my to-be wife prevailed on. It was Rob Odle, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the White House, who was able to prevail on the White House Operators to find me. Rob was my closest friend in Washington, and he and his wife and my to-be wife were really good friends, so that’s how that came about.
On the seventh day of the war, President Nixon ordered a massive airlift to supply Israel with emergency military supplies. Can you recount your experience as you witnessed the U.S. airlift from Israel?
I watched those planes fly in over the Mediterranean and to this moment I have chills just telling the story and thinking about it. Because every major witness and historian including Golda Meir says had it not been for Richard Nixon supplying Israel war materiel, today there would not be a state of Israel. The United States of America was the only country in the world who had the fortitude and the foresight to supply Israel with war materiel. And what was the President’s motivation? Maybe it was to preserve a democracy, maybe it was to make sure that the Soviet Union didn’t have an unfettered foothold in the Middle East, but whatever the motivation was, the bottom line is were it not for Richard Nixon, there would not be a state of Israel today, no two ways about it.
Yes, his actions spoke for that.
His actions were infinitely louder than any words that he may have spoken in private. And one other comment with regard to his alleged anti-Semitism. In the Winter of ‘67, I lived in the Nixon co-op apartment in New York for 10 days because I was invited to escort Tricia Nixon to the International Debutante Ball. And I was a poor Jewish kid from California. I didn’t know what a tuxedo or tails looked like. I happen to have been the very same size as the President, and I wore Richard Nixon’s tails and shoes to the International Debutante Ball.
You mentioned Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and how much she admired President Nixon, and how much President Nixon admired her. Do you see their relationship as a model for US and Israeli relations today?
We should be so lucky. I mean, we should just be so lucky. I think that the current president is just out of his league in so many ways, especially in foreign policy. And here’s a man that came to the White House, and said he was going to repair the United States’ image and relationships worldwide. Name one country in the world that has admiration for the United States of America. He’s proven, in my view, that the Unites States is an unreliable ally, and I personally fear for the well-being of the state of Israel with a man who is so wishy-washy, and doesn’t have the fortitude to make the hard decisions and follow through on them.
How long were you in Israel?
I was there for about 10 days. I went with my friend, drove to a town, an ancient town called Safaad, which overlooks the Golan Heights and I watched the Israeli planes bomb the Syrian positions there. I set up at a hotel in Saffad, having something to eat, and a young Israeli soldier with a blackened face came in, I talked to him, and said, ‘What happened to you?’ He was the tank commander whose tank was disabled by the Syrians, and his buddies were all killed in the tank and he just said I just ran out, left the tank, took my Uzi, and went and shot Syrians in their tanks, and I was just listening to this story, and I was saying this a bunch of bullshit. This is just a fantasy story, and literally the next day in the Jerusalem Post I’m reading about this same guy, with his heroic feats.
It was exciting and instructive for me and as a Jew it made me very proud not just for the accomplishments of the Jewish people in Israel, but once again, for the remarkable efforts that Richard Nixon made.
When you returned home, how was the action of the White House perceived back in the United States?
Well, in the Jewish community, for some reason, to this day, no one is willing to–or very few outside the Orthodox community, are willing to recognize what Richard Nixon did for Israel. I’ve had so many conversations with Jews over time in which I’ve told the story that I’ve just told you, and they say, ‘Well, gee, I didn’t know that.’
There are so many comments that Richard Nixon was anti-Semitic, and my response to that is that I wish that every president of the United States, including the current president was as anti-Semitic as Richard Nixon. Looking out for the well-being of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.
Yes. That’s what we hope to accomplish here at the Nixon Library – to enlighten our visitors as to the accomplishments of the Nixon administration, because 40 years later, it’s time to take another look at Richard Nixon.
Well, I think one of the things which could be great is if the library hosted a forum for leaders in the Jewish community on the Yom Kippur War. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I would invite leadership in the Jewish community, I would invite rabbis to come and lay out, here’s what happened. And then folks why don’t you speculate in your minds what would have happened to the state of Israel had Richard Nixon not acted the way he did. I think that that has the potential to make an unprecedented impact on how Jews in America vote.
That’s a great idea.
If there’s anything I can do to help in that regard and that kind of forum to put together, I’d be delighted to participate.
I appreciate that Jeff. Thank you for your time.