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Mourning a Hero - Remembering Senator John McCain

This past Shabbat, America lost one of it’s finest sons – Senator John McCain from Arizona. To me, Mr. McCain represented what it meant to be an American Mensch and was a tremendous role model for how American politicians should conduct themselves. In addition to his efforts on behalf of America and the American people, Mr. McCain had very deep ties to the Jewish community and was a very strong supporter of Israel.

To gain a little appreciation of Mr. McCain’s connection to our world, I share with you the following tribute written by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller:

John McCain, the long serving US Senator, war hero, former presidential candidate and long-time conscience of the nation, has died at the age of 81. In service to the nation that spanned six decades, Sen. McCain championed human rights, defense spending, campaign finance reform, and was a relentless voice for civility and decency in public policy. He was also a great friend and supporter of Israel.

Here are four unique ways Sen. McCain connected with the Jewish community through his long years of service.

Support for Soviet Jews                                                                                                                           

One of John McCain’s earliest political positions was support for Soviet Jews. Sen. McCain came to national prominence for his incredible bravery during the Vietnam War. The son and grandson of US naval officers, John McCain followed in his family’s footsteps and became a naval pilot during the Vietnam War. He was shot down in 1967 and was held in inhuman conditions and tortured for five years, until his release from a Vietcong prison in 1973.

His time as a POW made McCain acutely aware of the values of freedom and human rights. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain later recalled. “I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for.” For the rest of his life, he remained fiercely committed to supporting human rights.

In his first job after coming home, McCain worked as the US Navy’s liaison to the Senate. One of his roles was to accompany Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Washington) – a strong supporter and defender of Soviet Jews – to Israel. Sen. McCain later recalled his first moments in the Jewish state: “I will never forget at the there was a crowd of people that were there to show their appreciation for (Sen. Jackson), and he stopped some in the crowd and told us to stop so that he could greet Natan Sharansky’s wife...I will never forget that...as long as I live.”

At the time of that visit, Sharansky was being held in a Soviet prison, but years later, after he was released, Sharansky once again inspired John McCain. “Some years ago,” McCain wrote, “I heard Natan Sharansky, the human rights icon, recount how he and his fellow refuseniks in the Soviet Union took renewed courage from statements made on their behalf by President Ronald Reagan.” That reminded him of his own anguish as a prisoner, when he took comfort from the thought that others had not forgotten him and were working for his release. McCain identified on a deep, visceral level with the plight of Soviet Jews who yearned for freedom and right to move to the Jewish homeland they longed for.

Staunch Friend of Israel                                                                                                                         

 Since entering the Senate in 1986, John McCain was an outspoken supporter of Israel. “I’m a student of history,” the Senator recalled, explaining that “anybody who is familiar with the history of the Jewish people and with the Zionist idea can’t help but admire those who established the Jewish homeland. I think it’s remarkable that Zionism has been in the middle of wars and great trials and it has held fast to the ideals of democracy and social justice and human rights.”Sen. McCain supported a strict stance on Iran, opposing Iranian nuclear ambitions. Appearing on Israeli television in 2008, McCain promised Israelis, “I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust.” Sen McCain visited Israel dozens of times over the years, and was a steadfast ally of close US-Israeli relations.

Jewish Political Ally                                                                                                                           

Through his long career in the Senate, John McCain was a voice for civility and reason. He often reached across the aisle to work with senators who didn’t share his party nor his views. Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in Sen. McCain’s long fight for campaign finance reform, one of his signature pieces of legislation.

As outside money increasingly swayed elections in the 1990s, Sen. McCain became determined to act to curb such “soft money” from distorting elections. A conservative Republican, John McCain nevertheless teamed up with a Jewish liberal Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, to tackle the issue. Despite representing very different political world views, the two Senators worked on legislation to regulate political donations, and lobbied their fellow Senators to support their efforts.

The resulting 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (colloquially known as McCain-Feingold) sought to limit outside money in political races. Although it was repeatedly challenged (and eventually rendered toothless by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v FEC decision), Senators McCain and Feingold remained close, counting each other as good friends.

Jewish Best Friend                                                                                                                                     

Ever the political maverick, John McCain bucked convention in another way too, becoming the best of friends with Sen. Joe Lieberman, formerly Democrat from Connecticut and an Orthodox Jew. McCain and Lieberman, as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina), became extremely close, dubbing themselves the “Three Amigos”. Together they would travel to conflict zones – often similarly dressed in open-necked button-down shirts – and emerged as a strong voice in the Senate for a robust foreign policy based on upholding human rights around the world.

The friendship between McCain and Lieberman seems to have run particularly deep. When Sen. Lieberman changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Independent in 2006, that freed him to formally endorse McCain when he ran for president in 2008. After John McCain became ill with cancer, Joe Lieberman said that being “John McCain’s friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life.”

His many years of travelling and spending time with Joe Lieberman gave John McCain an appreciation for Judaism and Jewish ritual. In a memorable speech at the Israeli embassy in 2012 honoring Sen. Lieberman, McCain reminisced about walking Joe Lieberman home from the Senate on Friday afternoons, when Shabbat began early and Sen. Lieberman was unable to drive. He recalled waking up groggily on an airplane to see Sen. Lieberman wearing a tallit and saying Jewish prayers. McCain joked about all the kosher food he’d eaten in Sen. Lieberman’s company, and joked about Shabbat elevators. (“Pushing all those buttons – and nothing!”)

Mourning a Hero                                                                                                                                                

In this age of hyper-partisan fury, John McCain stood out as a rare voice of civility. Friends and even political foes have described him as a beacon of courtesy and decency.

“He loved Israel and believed in its righteousness and always supported its security,” recalled Tzipi Livni, former Foreign Minister and leader of Israel’s Labour Party. “I had the privilege of working with him and will always remember the rare person he was” she explained; “Israel owes him a big thanks.”

In the US, Sen. Chuck Schumer (Democrat from New York) has already proposed naming the Senate building in which McCain had his offices after the Senator. Despite being from different parties and reflecting different worldviews, Sen. Schumer explains that Sen. McCain’s decency bridged political divides. “As you go through life, you meet few truly great people. John McCain was one of them.”