Israel loses a friend in Senator Lautenberg

Reporter's Notebook: Frank felt that helping Israel and America were one and the same.

June 5, 2013 05:21
3 minute read.
U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). (photo credit: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid )

When the Senate voted 99-0 two weeks ago to support Israel should the Jewish State be compelled to take military action in self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program, many wondered who was the mystery anti-Israel senator who did not vote.

They were surprised to find out that it was New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg, who under normal circumstances would have been the first senator to back such a resolution.

But he was hospitalized due to the viral pneumonia from which he died Monday at age 89.

Knowing Frank personally, had he known he would miss that vote it would not have helped his health. I saw his love of Israel first-hand on his frequent visits here in my role as Israel correspondent for the New Jersey Jewish News.

Frank told me more than a decade ago that he had come here more than 80 times. He chaired the United Jewish Appeal, was president of the American Friends of Hebrew University, and donated 30 years ago the central park in a former Rishon Lezion slum, now a relatively nice neighborhood.

But no Israel visit impacted him more than a September 2001 MetroWest New Jersey Jewish Federation mission that he took with 50 local Jewish leaders to show solidarity following a spate of deadly suicide bombings. On September 10, he lit candles outside the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem that had been blown up a month before.

The following day, he and his group visited Kibbutz Erez on the border with the Gaza Strip and met with its resilient residents.

On the bus from the kibbutz to MetroWest New Jersey’s sister community Ofakim, I heard on my radio that planes had hit the World Trade Center.

As a reporter, I often have had to tell people bad news.

But that day I had to personally convey to a busload of wealthy people that they had lost loved ones in a terrible act of terror back home.

Frank and the rest of the group watched the news from New York in horror on cable television at an Ofakim community center. But then he said he could not take it anymore.

“I know things that can help America,” he said. “I need to get to Jerusalem, where I can be reached.”

I told him I also needed to get to Jerusalem, because Binyamin Netanyahu, who did not have a job at the time, called a press conference to announce that he had predicted the attacks on the World Trade Center in a book he had written many years earlier.

The Federation paid for Frank and I to take a long cab ride back to Jerusalem, during which I translated Israel Radio for him and he reacted with increasing horror.

“Watching terrorism in the United States from Israel is surrealistic,” he told me. “We are safe and they are in trouble. It’s absolutely incredible.”

He had a bittersweet reaction when he heard about a solidarity rally of Israeli youth near the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.

“The fact that Israel has to shed tears for us now is amazing,” he said. “It just shows how much out countries are intertwined.” That last sentence sums up Frank’s worldview.

He felt that helping Israel and America were one and the same.

He wrote the laws that have allowed families of the victims of terrorism to bring legal action against foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks. He passed bills supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rocket fire, condemning Hezbollah, and opposing the unilateral formation of a Palestinian state.

Before his 2001 trip to Israel, Frank had retired after 19 years in the Senate and was trying unsuccessfully to relax and enjoy the wealth he built before entering politics. But that experience persuaded him that he had to come back to the Senate, where he could maximize his impact on the two countries he loved.

He returned to the Senate a year later, was re-elected in 2008, and announced in February that his term that was set to end next year would be his last.

But Frank was not one for retirement. A World War II veteran, he continued fighting until he no longer could.

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