An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Dov Zakheim

Rabbi Dr. Dov Zakheim served as the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from May 2001 to April 2004.  He also served in various Department of Defense positions during the Reagan administration, including Deputy Undersecretary for Planning and Resources.  He is the author of Flight of the Lavi: Inside a U.S.-Israeli Crisis and A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.[i]

Did your upbringing influence your choice to pursue work in the government?


My father, in addition to being a Rov, was the legal counsel of the Jewish community of Lithuania and the advisor to R. Moshe Berzinski. He worked both worlds and had a tremendous influence on me in that regard.


When did you decide to enter public service?


I was working in a bank in England that got into trouble after a series of bank failures all over Europe. I went to the man who examined me for my thesis, a man named Alastair Buchan, whose father was John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and a noted anti-Semite. Alastair was totally different. I had done work on defense-related politics and economics at Oxford University, so I was looking for a job, and he said, “Go back to Washington!” He headed what was then the leading defense institute in the world, known as the Institute for Strategic Studies (now known as the International Institute for Strategic Studies). All he did was place a few phone calls into Washington and by the time I got there I had interviews set up. Within three weeks, I had landed a job in a new office called the Congressional Budget Office. It had been approved in February and I got my job in August. I became the Naval Analyst.


Why did you choose the field of National Defense?


It interested me. It has always interested me. Foreign policy, defense/security policy was what I did my doctorate on. I was also interested in world history, which, at least in those days, was more about political and military history than cultural history.


You have been Undersecretary of Defense, a position in which you undoubtedly had to make some pretty tough decisions. Can you recall your most difficult decision?


Probably, in many ways, the most controversial decision I had to make was when I was Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (theComptroller of the Pentagon) and I took on the Israelis and cut funding for a fighter plane called “The Lavi,” which made a lot of people consider me a “traitor” to Israel. Actually, though, at the same time I convinced Caspar Weinberger (Secretary of Defense to President Ronald Reagan) to support the Israeli Submarine Program. Just about any Israeli who knows anything about security– certainly anyone in the military— would say that given a choice between a fighter plane that would now be obsolete, or at least obsolescent, and a submarine that they are still using, the choice would be obvious.  Still, that was one major and difficult decision.

Most of the decisions that I made as Undersecretary were more along the line of allocating funding to different projects. In our days, the first years of the Bush administration, we did not have problems with funding the way they do right now. It was easy to allocate money when everyone was getting a piece of it. When we were deciding funding for the war in Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq, I had additional responsibilities looking after fundraising and troop-raising for both war operations. That work was not necessarily about tough decision-making but about implementing decisions already made. Sometimes it was very tough.


Did you have to make any tough decisions about halakhic observance while working for the government?


No, no; it was pretty straightforward. In fact, I just wrote an article about halakhic decision-making for government officials in the recent volume of Conversations. I told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that I was not going to work on Shabbos. He said to me, “Well, that seems fair enough.” I said, “To be honest with you, if life is in danger, I’ve got to work.” He replied, “Great, lives are always in danger in the Pentagon.” I told him I could not come in for ordinary meetings and he understood that. Shabbos was never an issue.

I had a deputy. My deputy was not Jewish. He went to Saturday meetings. Unfortunately, I had to work many Friday nights, week after week. I could not walk away from work. In the Pentagon, it seems that the tough work happens after five o’clock on a Friday. My staff members, some of whom knew me before I came to the Pentagon, were really concerned that I was missing what they called “services” every Friday night. It really bothered them that I had to be working.

Fortunately, I never worked on Shabbos. Though I remember right after 9/11 it was Shemini Atseres and I told Rabbi Bieler, our shul rabbi, that on Shemini Atseres I had a few firsts. It was the first time I worked on yuntif. I was driven by my driver to shul; my Pentagon driver had never driven me to shul before.  And I got there just in time for minhah.


You have traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. How were you able to keep Shabbat and kashrut?


I did not eat meat and I had to eat vegetables.  Actually, the military now has kosher MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. Of course, it depends how strict you are. If you are not going to eat salad out, forget it. But, as I have written, a lot of de-rabbanan rules fall away in these sorts of circumstances.

Part of the problem is that if you are, say, sitting down for a meal with Afghani President Hamid Karzai or one of his ministers, they are going to be really offended if you do not eat. Of course, up to a point they will accept. So, for instance, I remember I was at the home of my friend Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who was the Afghani finance minister, and they served this massive, beautiful roasted sheep. I couldn’t eat it! He knew that, so I had vegetables. They have a few of them in Afghanistan…


Do these people know you are Jewish?


Yes, yes; they all know. It was quite funny: I remember we were flying in a C-130 over territory in Afghanistan that was a little dangerous. Minister Ghani was sitting next to me touching his prayer beads. There was a Catholic fellow, a military official sitting next to me, crossing himself, and I was saying Tefillas ha-Derekh.


Do you feel any conflict between your American patriotism and your feelings about Israel nationalism or Zionism?


In my first book, I quoted Alan King who said, “America is my wife and Israel is my mother; you can love two women.” The fact is that, at bottom, and we have seen this over and over again since the creation of the state, which I consider to be a miracle, America and Israel have shared baseline values and baseline interests. They are going to differ tactically. They may even differ more than tactically. But, at the end of the day, they are going to come out on the same side. And I think that has to do with the fact that this country is overwhelmingly Christian— and believing Christians. A lot of these people take their Bible seriously and they take the State of Israel seriously. And there are a lot of people who share the values of Israel. If it were just the Jewish community here I do not think Israel would have anywhere near the amount of support it has. And, you know, Israel was a bastion against Communism. It is now a bastion against terrorism. There are just an overwhelming number of commonalities.


Do you have any recommendations for young Jews who want to go into government or political work?


When I started in my career there were not that many of us in the government. There are a lot of committed Jews now. Whether its Senator Pat Toomey’s (R-PA) press secretary Nachama Soloveichik, who is a committed Jew, or Jack Lew (White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama), who I am personally friendly with but with whom I totally disagree on politics. He is obviously a yerei Shamayim who sends his kids to Jewish schools, is a member of an Orthodox shul and a proud Jew.  Eliot Cohen (Counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under President George W. Bush) is another example.

Some of us do not wear kippot, some of us do wear kippot. Take someone like Tevi Troy (Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush). He has a wonderful picture from the Oval Office with the president, his wife, and his little kids who are running around with their little peyos and big kippot. President Bush looks like he is really having a good time. There are a lot of people in government who are truly mekadesh Hashem. Eliot Cohen’s son Rafi went to Harvard, finished first in his U.S. Army Ranger class, which is unusual for a nice Jewish boy—or even a Harvard boy. He then goes off to Iraq hunting down improvised explosive devices that kill people. When his father was sworn in as Counselor at the State Department, Secretary Rice was there and Rafi was there in his uniform with his medals and yarmulke on.

There are many younger and older Jews who are in government and serving their country in lots of ways. General Richard Myers (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush) told me that he would like to see more Jewish officers because they make good officers. The former number two man in the Marine Corps, General Robert Magnus, spoke to the Jewish Midshipmen Club at the Annapolis Naval Academy with his yarmulke on and told them to be good Jews and serve in the military. It’s different. This is not the Tsarist Army and we’re not living in Tsarist Russia.


You are an eighteenth generation rabbi. Why was it important for you to receive rabbinic ordination?

Well, I didn’t want to be the one to break the chain! The truth is, I do not think the rabbis in my family have practiced rabbinics for years. I’m glad I received semikhah. It taught me how to think. I don’t worry. My eldest son is at Gruss Kollel in Israel and my second son will hopefully be starting semikhah after he gets out of politics.



[i] Biography adapted from the back cover of his book, A Vulcan’s Tale (Harrisonburg, VA: Brookings Institution Press, 2011).