Israel lost one of its best friends ever to serve in the US Congress with the
passing of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. The nine-term senator, who sold Israel
Bonds and once considered converting to Judaism, died Monday at Walter Reed
National Military Medical Center from respiratory complications. He was
Inouye was the senior member of the US Senate, the second-longest
serving senator in the history of the chamber and its president pro tempore,
making him third in line to the presidency. He was also chairman of the powerful
appropriations committee, and for many years had been the chairman or top
Democrat on the foreign operations and defense subcommittees, where he played a
pivotal role in advancing US-Israel relations.
He once told me that he
sold Israel Bonds to help work his way through college, and that he had
considered converting to Judaism. He joked that he didn’t convert because being
Japanese and having only one arm, he had “enough tzoris.” The real reason,
apparently, was the effect it would have had on his devoutly Methodist
His integrity, his quiet modesty and his firm belief in
bipartisan cooperation won him the admiration and trust of his Senate colleagues
and all who knew him.
Nowhere more than among the supporters and people
of Israel, where he was affectionately nicknamed “Trumpeldor,” after the
one-armed early Zionist hero.
Joseph Trumpeldor, who died in the 1920
battle of Tel Hai in the Upper Galilee, had lost his left arm in the
Russo-Japanese War in 1904; Inouye lost his right arm in Italy in the closing
days of World War II. For his heroism, Lt. Inouye was awarded the Medal of
Honor, but it took 55 years to get that recognition because Japanese-American
Nisei servicemen were denied appropriate recognition for their heroism at the
time because of their race.
The badly injured Inouye – his arm had been
amputated in a field hospital without anesthetic – was sent to recuperate in
Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, where he became friends
with two other wounded GIs, who would go on to be lifelong friends and serve
with him in the Senate: Bob Dole of Kansas and Philip Hart of
When he lost his arm he lost his dream of becoming a surgeon,
and turned to public service.
Inouye was elected the first full member of
Congress from his native Hawaii in 1959. He was also first Japanese- American in
the House and later the first in the Senate, eventually becoming the
highest-ranking Asian American politician in American history.
his career he enjoyed close ties to the Jewish community, in Hawaii and
nationally, and was consistently one of Israel’s staunchest supporters. His
combat experience as a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated
Japanese-American unit, in Europe in World War II, and learning about the
Holocaust affected his worldview. Recovering after the war he studied Jewish
history and became a registered Israel Bonds salesman.
“He was a man who
saw two injustices – genocide against Native Americans and against Europe’s Jews
– and he wanted to make sure the Native Americans got help in their restoration
and that Israel had America’s support in securing itself against those who did
not wish Israel’s population well and who wished the nation-state did not
exist,” said Tom Dine, the former executive director of AIPAC. “He believed in
One of the last of the Greatest Generation, he saw
the Jewish state come into existence and fight for its survival, and he played
an important role for more than half a century.
His voice on
Israel-related issues carried considerable weight in the Senate not only because
he was held in high esteem by his colleagues but also because there was no doubt
that his personal political fate was not dependent on Jewish votes or
Many Jewish groups also admired him for his relative
progressivism, including reproductive rights and civil liberties.
Senate office was filled with plaques, pictures, awards and memorabilia
testifying to his support for Israel and the affection and admiration of
Israel’s friends and supporters. One of those mementos was an Israeli battle
flag he had asked me to get for him.
Ambassador Dan Halperin, a friend of
the senator since his days as the Israeli Finance Ministry’s man in Washington,
said, “His commitment to Israel, especially to its security, was unwavering and
even at times in which budget constraints were in the forefront, he insisted
that security assistance to Israel remain intact. I believe that his
personal history as a soldier and as a person who saw persecution based on race
made him a staunch ally of a young and beleaguered democracy which fights for
survival in a hostile region.”
He was not one of those Senate moths drawn
to the light of a camera or microphone; he rarely made floor speeches or held
The National Jewish Democratic Council called him “a
true mensch in every sense of the word.”
His former Senate colleagues
Barack Obama and Joe Biden were among the many who paid tribute.
country has lost a true American hero,” said the president.
courage personified," Biden said, displaying heroism on the battlefields of
World II and “incredible moral bravery” in the Senate.
His last word,
according to his staff, was “Aloha.”
M. Bloomfield www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloomfield