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