McCain put human rights, Israel at center

Sen. John McCain, right, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, shown in 2014. Their relationship was emblematic of McCain’s dedication to national security and bipartisanship.
Photo by Joerg Koch/Getty Images

Sen. John McCain once fell asleep on a plane and woke to find his friend and colleague Sen. Joseph Lieberman praying in a tallit.

“I hear this mumbling and I look and there’s this guy wearing a shawl — I thought maybe I’d died,” McCain joked later.

For the Arizona Republican, who died Aug. 25 of brain cancer, the relationship that was perhaps most emblematic of his dedication to national security and bipartisanship was his close friendship with Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish senator from Connecticut.

And the very same qualities that perhaps cost McCain the presidency in 2008 helped make him a hero of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. The robust interventionism that he insistently espoused, even as the chaos engendered by the war he championed in Iraq turned Americans off foreign adventures, included a fierce commitment to standing by Israel.

“A passionate advocate for American global leadership, Senator McCain rightly bemoaned those who favored a U.S. pullback from world affairs,” David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called McCain “an extraordinarily courageous defender of liberty.

“Throughout his congressional career Senator McCain stood with Israel because throughout his life he stood up for America’s allies and our shared democratic values,” its statement said.

And McCain’s willingness to reach across the aisle even to liberal Democrats, which likely kept some conservatives away from the polls, extended to the Jewish community, where he worked with human rights activists.

“He was a tireless champion of the issues and principles that he held dear, from reforming the broken campaign finance system, to the effort to bar the use of torture by U.S. authorities, to his pivotal vote just last year to save the Affordable Care Act,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “On those issues and others including combating climate change and strengthening US-Israel relations, we were honored to work with him. And when we engaged him around areas of disagreement, Sen. McCain was always honest and straightforward.”

In its statement mourning McCain, the Jewish Democratic Council of America noted that he “rose above politics and represented his values.”

McCain was a scion of a fighting family. His grandfather and father had graduated the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and he did as well and was soon a combat pilot flying missions over Vietnam. His plane was shot down and he was captured in 1967. Upon his release in 1973, he remained in the Navy and eventually became its liaison to the Senate, which is where he became interested in politics.

It was in that capacity that he first visited Israel in the late 1970s, and a scene at Ben-Gurion Airport fused what were to become two overarching passions in his political career: Israel and human rights. McCain was accompanying Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), who had spearheaded pressure on the Nixon and Ford administrations to squeeze the Soviet Union into allowing Jewish emigration.

“And I will never forget at the airport there was a crowd of people that were there to show their appreciation for Scoop, and he stopped some in the crowd and told us to stop so that he could greet Nathan Sharansky’s wife, and I will never forget that one as long as I live,” McCain said in a 2008 campaign interview with the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Sharansky at the time was a Prisoner of Zion.

McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986. Two years later, Lieberman joined him in that body and they soon formed a fast friendship. They traveled together countless times to Israel, and in the mid-2000s, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined them on their overseas trips, to Israel and everywhere else where McCain determined the United States should make its strength known to allies and enemies. They were often photographed together — they called themselves “the Three Amigos” — each grinning, wearing the senator-abroad uniform of a blazer and an open collar button-down shirt.

They seemed to have had a blast together, and McCain went deep blue at an Israeli Embassy reception in 2012 that honored Lieberman as he retired from the Senate. He described the alternating sensations of alarm and boredom that was the job of being a companion to an Orthodox Jew.
“Why in every f***ing kosher menu do we have to have salmon?” he said.

The friendship even earned a gibe from Jon Stewart, the late-night comedian who was both a friend and nemesis of McCain. Someone ought to tell the senator, he joked on the “The Daily Show,” that there are plenty of Jews in Israel, he doesn’t have to bring his own.

Lieberman by 2008 was no longer a Democrat but was still caucusing with the party. That didn’t stop him from endorsing his friend, and McCain thought seriously of repaying the compliment by naming Lieberman his running mate. The Republican establishment mightily resisted, saying Lieberman’s backing for reproductive rights would drive away conservatives, and McCain at the last minute chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” he wrote this year in “The Restless Wave,” his final book, describing the GOP insistence that Lieberman was a bad bet. “But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.”

In a May 2017 appearance at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, McCain admitted that he and his fellow members of Congress had been going through “some degree of shock” since Donald Trump was elected president. “I worry about a divided America,” he said.
File photo

It will never be known if Palin — who seemed callow and unprepared — cost McCain the presidency, but she appeared to have cost him Jewish votes. In polling before the pick, Barack Obama was at 60 percent, low for a community that tends to vote for Democrats in the 70s. On Election Day, Obama garnered at least 74 percent of the Jewish vote.

McCain in that election and subsequently was a vigorous advocate of using all means of pressure to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 during the campaign.

McCain repeatedly hammered Obama for his expressed willingness to meet with Iran’s leaders and later on led the charge against the 2015 deal spearheaded by Obama that swapped sanctions relief for a partial rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. (President Donald Trump despised the deal and pulled out of it this year.)

McCain’s willingness to buck his party was perhaps most pronounced in his outspokenness on torture, and that was an issue where he found common cause with liberal Jews. He had a long meeting with Rabbis for Human Rights (the group now known as T’ruah) in 2005 and it left an impression. The group briefed McCain on Israel’s High Court ban on torture in 1999 — and it subsequently became a talking point for him.

He also joined with Jewish former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) in passing an act informally named for them that limited campaign giving..

His credo was forgiveness — seeking it from others and proffering it. Appearing with Obama at a 2008 faith forum, McCain said his Christian faith “means I’m saved and forgiven. Our faith encompasses not just America but the world.” In the 1980s and 1990s, he joined then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), another Vietnam War veteran, in leading the normalization of relations with Vietnam.

He was magnanimous to those who opposed the war at home as well. An anti-war activist, David Ifshin, traveled to Hanoi to speak out against the war, and his words were piped into McCain’s cell. Years later, Ifshin, who had become a lawyer with AIPAC and came to appreciate a robust U.S. military posture, sought out McCain for his forgiveness.

They became fast friends.

Ifshin died of cancer in 1996, and McCain spoke at his funeral.

“What David taught me and, I suspect, what he taught a great many people,” McCain said, “was how narrow are the differences that separate us in a society united in its regard for justice, in a country in love with liberty.”

—JTA News and Features

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  1. We have lost a friend in a period where we need every friend that we can have. With his bipartisan approach, he helped to moderate the increasing anti-Israel and even anti-Semitism coming from the radical left. Unfortunately we shall not see the likes of his patriotism in our time.


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