Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died on Aug. 25 at age 81, was an extraordinary friend of the Jewish people. He was an outspoken defender of Israel and a close friend of former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The many articles written about McCain and Israel have not included some of the most amazing acts of friendship and love he had for Israel and the Jewish people. Being a member of the local Phoenix Jewish community for 39 years allowed me to meet the senator on a number of occasions, and we were privy to some amazing actions and comments by the senator that have not been widely reported.
In September 1991, President George H.W. Bush made the infamous comment of being “one lonely guy” going up against “a thousand lobbyists” in his opposition to lobbying efforts for Israel to obtain U.S. loan guarantees to help it borrow money to absorb 1 million Soviet Jews. Shortly after this remark, Bush visited Arizona, and McCain privately lambasted the president for these remarks.
McCain previously made his voice heard when Secretary of State James A. Baker publicly stated in June 1990 regarding Israel: “When you are serious about peace. Call us.” The senator blasted Baker for these remarks in front of his colleagues in a meeting with Republican senators and then directly to Baker himself shortly thereafter. McCain not only disagreed with the comments, but understood that they hurt the Republican Party among Jewish voters as Bush went from receiving 35 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1988 U.S. presidential election to only 12 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1992 election.
The Republican Party has never reached 35 percent of the Jewish vote since then. McCain himself received less than 25 percent of the Jewish vote when he ran for president, despite his tremendous friendship to Israel.
At our Young Israel of Phoenix dinner in the summer of 2010, McCain strongly defended Israel’s handling of the Gaza flotilla incident. And he made strong efforts to help Israeli efforts to obtain the return of Israeli MIAs, including Israeli American Zachary Baumel, who was taken as a prisoner of war back in 1982.
McCain also exhibited an amazing ability to be open-minded on issues; rare among politicians, he was not afraid to change his opinion and to publicly say so. McCain had initially opposed the release of convicted U.S. spy for Israel Jonathan Pollard and sent me a letter that we would need to “agree to disagree” on the issue. However, after speaking to former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, and hearing from his constituents (including me), McCain changed his view and told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that he supported Pollard’s release from prison. There is no question that McCain’s support helped the bipartisan efforts for Pollard’s release.
On a personal level, the senator was a very considerate person. We were told that he could not attend our Young Israel of Phoenix synagogue dinner because his daughter was graduating that night. We asked if he could start the dinner early so that he could speak at the beginning and then make it to the graduation on time; he graciously agreed to do so. I proudly display on my wall a picture taken immediately after McCain spoke at that dinner, which includes my mother, Judge Irene Weiss, of blessed memory. My dear mother passed away just a few days before McCain did, and I was sitting shiva for her when I heard of the senator’s passing. It was a tremendous honor in my life that I was able to introduce him at that dinner and to be able to publicly thank him for being such a great friend to Israel and the Jewish people.
McCain was a man who became one of the greatest friends Israel ever had in the Senate. He was also a person who had a great affinity for the Jewish people. We were fortunate to have him in the U.S. Congress for more than 30 years, and we are grateful for his friendship and leadership. His actions were a tremendous blessing to Israel and the Jewish people. Our hearts go out to the McCain family, and we wish to offer not only our condolences, but our deep gratitude for all that he did for America, Israel and the Jewish people.
Farley Weiss is president of the National Council of Young Israel. He is an intellectual property attorney for the law firm of Weiss & Moy.
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