Daniel Inouye, the long-serving Japanese-American Democratic senator who – though
representing Hawaii, a state with only a tiny Jewish population – was considered
by many as Israel’s best friend in the US Senate, died on Monday.
“Shalom and Aloha,” he told a group of Jerusalem high school students
in his deep, bass voice in January, during his last visit to a country that he
viewed as a key US ally, and which he supported strongly and consistently
throughout his nearly half century as a senator.
“If one looks at most of
this world, especially the Middle East, one country stands out as a foundation
of stability and as a pillar of democracy.
And at a time like this, when
you have revolution in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan, thank
God we have Israel,” Inouye told his young Jerusalem audience, summing up the
strategic reasons for his support of Israel.
He also described the
emotional foundation of that support.
Inouye, who lost an arm while
fighting in Europe during World War II, and was later decorated with a
Congressional Medal of Honor for his service, traced his interest in Jews and
Judaism to his rehabilitation in a military hospital in New Jersey in
“My journey to Jerusalem and Judaism begin in the last week of June
1945,” Inouye told the Israeli youngsters, many of whom never heard of him before.
was shipped out of a hospital in Florence, Italy, and arrived in New Jersey on
July 4. I was assigned to an officer’s ward, and the next day the bed was filled
by a young American officer, blonde and blue-eyed.”
Inouye, relating the
tale in a matter-of-fact manner, said he made conversation with his roommate,
asked how he was wounded, and was told it happened after liberating a prison
“I asked him what kind of camp?” Inouye said. “He said a camp where
there were ovens, and people cooked in the ovens, and bodies stacked up like
cordwood, like firewood. And the smell was atrocious.
“I asked him what
kind of prison was that, was it for murderers,” Inouye recalled.
said, ‘they were Jews.’ “I asked what crime they committed, and his answer
changed my life. He said, ‘Well you know, Dan, people don’t like Jews.’” Inouye
said this left an indelible impression on him.
“There was a time I
considered conversion,” he said. “But I decided not to because my mother
was such a devout Christian, she might not get over it.”
about Judaism were a long way from where he grew up, in a neighborhood in Hawaii
where there were no Jews.
“The only time I heard the word ‘Jew’ was in
Sunday school, where every once in a while someone said the Jews killed Jesus
Christ,” he said. “I got the impression Jews were bad people. That was my
introduction to the Jewish people. Then I decided to do some studying, and what
I learned changed my outlook in life completely.”
Inouye recalled how
when he went to law school at George Washington University that a gentleman
named Sheldon Cohen was the editor of the law review, and another man – Bruce
Philipson – was No. 2. Both were Jews, and – because of that fact – were denied
admission to the school’s honor society.
He said he told the group that
if the Jews were blackballed, “then kick me out, too.”
Inouye dated his
concrete connection to Israel back to 1951, when he was a salesman in Hawaii for
Israel Bonds. He quipped that he was the first person in Hawaii to buy an
Israeli bond, and still has it framed in his office, along with a mezuza on the
door and “menorahs all over the place.”
Inouye told the students that in
1984, as chairman of the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign
Operations, he had a large role in determining which countries received foreign
aid assistance, and asked his clerk to see which nations were receiving
“I noticed that there were dozens of countries who were receiving
non-interest loans over 35 years. Then I came across Israel, and saw they had
gotten loans and were paying the highest interest rates. Everyone else got free
grants, Israel got loans,” he said. “I convinced my committee that Israel would
no longer receive loans, but grants. I am proud to say we have continued that –
this is just a small token of our friendship.”
Inouye manifested his
friendship through support for dozens of pieces of pro- Israel legislation over
the years, and in taking a leadership role on pro-Israel issues.
He was a
also a key senator in the fight to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Tuesday
saying the people of Israel will forever owe the senator a “profound debt of
Since Israel’s establishment, Netanyahu said, “it has been
blessed to have had the unwavering support of outstanding American leaders who
were dedicated to strengthening the security of Israel and to deepening the
unique and powerful alliance between Israel and the United States. But even
among these leaders, the contributions of Senator Inouye stand out. His
friendship to the Jewish people knew no bounds, and he worked tirelessly
throughout his public life to safeguard the one and only Jewish
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a statement
mourning the loss of “an extraordinary American patriot and hero.”
“deeply understood the importance of the USIsrael relationship, and as chairman
of the Appropriations Committee, worked tirelessly and effectively to ensure
that America’s ally, Israel, had the necessary resources to defend her
He will be missed by all who appreciated his many decades of
leadership in strengthening the ties between America and Israel,” AIPAC
Inouye, who enlisted in the US army to prove his loyalty to
America, represented Hawaii in Congress since it acquired statehood in 1959,
serving for four years as a congressman, and then as senator.
the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit of US soldiers of Japanese ancestry.
Serving in Europe with distinction, Inouye lost his right arm while charging a
series of German machinegun nests on a hill in Italy in 1945.
by one of the Jerusalem students why he chose a career in law and then politics,
Inouye said that as a child he wanted to be a surgeon because he admired an
orthopedic surgeon he knew. “But as a result of war wounds, I lost my arm and
couldn’t do surgery with one hand. So I thought public service should be my
Inouye was chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations
Committee and third in the line of presidential succession as the Senate’s
senior member. He was the highest-ranking elected Asian-American
During a political career spanning seven decades, he gained
national attention on the Senate Watergate Committee and as chairman of the
Select Intelligence Committee during the 1970s.
He was also chairman of a
special panel that investigated the Iran Contra affair – involving secret US
support of anti-Communist Nicaraguan rebels with illegal sales of missiles to
Iran – during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s.
Barack Obama saluted Inouye as a “true American hero” for his wartime service
and his work on Capitol Hill to “strengthen our military, forge bipartisan
consensus and hold those of us in government accountable to the people we were
elected to serve.”
When asked in recent days how he wanted to be
remembered, his office said Inouye replied, “I represented the people of Hawaii
and this nation honestly and to the best of my ability. I think I did
Inouye’s death will propel Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat,
in line to become the chairman of the Senate Appropriations
Leahy is considered as among the more critical voices of
Israel in the Senate.
Reuters contributed to this report.