Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the liberal lion of the US Senate, a son of one of America's best-known political families and a vociferous advocate for issues ranging from social justice to health care to Israel, will be remembered as "a great friend of Israel," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday.
Kennedy, who died at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, after a battle with brain cancer on Tuesday night, will be buried alongside his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery.
A Senate stalwart who fought relentlessly for health care, education and civil rights throughout his 46 years in office, Kennedy, 77, was also a staunch supporter of Israel and lent considerable clout to the Soviet Jewry movement.
"Senator Kennedy broke down the iron curtain that separated Soviet Jews from official US politicians," Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "He wasn't the only one, but he was one of the big figures, one of our biggest allies, for Soviet Jewry."
"Kennedy was clearly a friend of Israel all the way, and in every place that he could help us he did," said President Shimon Peres. His death was "a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over."
Elected to the Senate in 1962, Kennedy consistently supported US aid to Israel. He battled for arms shipments to Israel during the Yom Kippur war, and in the 1980s, he fought proposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
In 1974, Kennedy was the first American politician to meet with Soviet refuseniks, paving the way for other American lawmakers to meet with dissidents and bring attention to their cause.
"When we were in prison - when I was in prison - Senator Kennedy was one of the most important contacts for our wives and families," Sharansky said. "When my wife visited Capitol Hill, the first stop she made was at Senator Kennedy's office, and sometimes he even made it her ad hoc headquarters, allowing her to use the space to meet with other senators and officials.
"Senator Kennedy was an important player both in public diplomacy and quiet diplomacy, and according to my wife, he also informed them about the steps that were being made through diplomatic back channels. I can tell you now that my wife knew some days before that I would be released, and Senator Kennedy was a crucial part of those negotiations."
Under Kennedy's chairmanship, the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs published a report citing the humanitarian needs of Russian Jews resettling in Israel. In 1992, when president George H.W. Bush opposed loan guarantees for the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel because of settlements, Kennedy publicly rebuked the administration.
"He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. Levin portrayed Kennedy as "proactive," not waiting for others to approach him to take on an issue.
Kennedy was also a major force in fighting the Arab League boycott and criticized the UN's anti-Israel tone. He was a strong advocate for recognizing Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
"During his more than four decades in the US Senate, Kennedy consistently supported American assistance to Israel, particularly during the Jewish state's most trying times," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement. His leadership in the Soviet Jewry movement, among other things, "are hallmarks of his historic career devoted to serving the best interests of the American people and our values."
Longtime associates recalled that Kennedy embraced a pro-Israel stance during his failed 1980 presidential run against Jimmy Carter. Though he ultimately dropped out of the race, the Jewish community came out solidly for Kennedy during the Democratic primary, said Morris Amitay, who served as president of AIPAC from 1974 to 1980. "By then they realized that Carter was becoming increasingly negative [toward] Israel," said Amitay.
That year, Kennedy also spoke to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, calling Israel a "tried, trusted, and true" friend.
"Our alliance with Israel is an alliance based on common democratic ideals and mutual benefit. In the critical region of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, Israel is a rock of strength, stability, and friendship," he said, according to a copy of his 1980 speech. "We must never barter the freedom and future of Israel for a barrel of oil - or foolishly try to align the Arab world with us, no matter what cost."
Amitay, who briefed Kennedy several times throughout the years on Israel, said the Massachusetts senator was sympathetic and eager to learn. "Although today a lot of people on the American left tend not to be as friendly toward Israel, he maintained a very strong friendship," he said.
But it was on domestic issues - education, civil rights and health care - that Kennedy staked his career and his legacy. "Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time," President Barack Obama said in a statement following the announcement of Kennedy's death.
On Wednesday, a broad range of Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism mourned his passing and noted their partnership with him on issues like religious liberty and children's health insurance. The National Jewish Democratic Council said the "greatest tribute" to the late senator would be passing comprehensive health insurance reform.
"The United States not only lost a senator, but a friend to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the United Jewish Communities/Jewish Federation of North America's Washington office.
In Massachusetts, where Kennedy lived, Jewish leaders echoed a similar sentiment. "On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us," said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council.
Steve Grossman, a longtime advocate for Israel and former chair of AIPAC, said Kennedy's support for Israel and the warm relationship he enjoyed with Boston's Jewish community coincided with the commitment to social justice that defined his legislative career. "It cut across a variety of issues, obviously Israel was a prominent one," said Grossman, a longtime personal and political friend and ally of Kennedy's, who recalled the late senator's annual phone calls wishing him and his family a happy Rosh Hashana. "There was never a time I called him," Grossman said, "that he did not respond."
Grossman drew a parallel between the Kennedy family's Irish American immigrant experience and the experience of Jewish immigrants. "He came from a tradition in which his own people, the Irish immigrants, were persecuted in so many ways similar to what the Jewish community experienced," Grossman said. "That sense of outrage against injustice, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, racism, ethnic stereotyping - these were all the 'isms' he fought against his whole life. I think it gave him a special relationship with the Jewish people and a strong sense and commitment to the state of Israel."
Jonah Newman contributed to this report.