Inouye, stalwart Israel advocate in US Senate, dies

"Thank God there is Israel," American lawmaker told Jerusalem students this year; Netanyahu says we owe him a "profound debt."

US Senator DANIEL INOUYE 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
He was 88.
“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 1945.
“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.
“I 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 camp.
“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.
‘No,’ he 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.”
Those thoughts 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 aid.
“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 1980s.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Tuesday saying the people of Israel will forever owe the senator a “profound debt of gratitude.”
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 state.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a statement mourning the loss of “an extraordinary American patriot and hero.”
Inouye “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 people.
He will be missed by all who appreciated his many decades of leadership in strengthening the ties between America and Israel,” AIPAC said.
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.
He joined 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.
When asked 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 career.”
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 official.
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.
US President 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 OK.”
Inouye’s death will propel Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, in line to become the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Leahy is considered as among the more critical voices of Israel in the Senate.Reuters contributed to this report.