In Appreciation: John McCain was my friend

During challenging times in US-Israel relations, John always stood firmly with Israel.

Michael Oren with John McCain (photo credit: SHMULIK ALMANY/ISRAELI EMBASSY IN THE US)
Michael Oren with John McCain
The accolades are by now familiar. Patriot, war hero, maverick, devoted father and husband, a man of unswerving principles, and a staunch defender of Israel. I can only add one more: John McCain was my friend.
That friendship began in 2008, when I was on sabbatical in the United States. I was invited to a dinner held in John’s honor outside of New York. He was then in the thick of his presidential campaign, running 20-hour days. And yet, when it came time to leave, he offered me a lift into the city, and rather than sleeping, spent the entire trip asking me about Israel. What had motivated me to move there, he wanted to know, and what was it like raising an Israeli family and serving in the IDF? And he kept asking me about life in Israel right up to the moment he dropped me off at home.
I had other occasions to meet John after that – at an award ceremony for his hero, Nathan Sharansky – but not until my appointment as ambassador in 2009 did I have the honor of working with him. And on every issue impacting Israel – missile defense, the peace process, Iran – John was passionate.
"Maverick" Senator John McCain dies, August 26, 2018 (Reuters)
These were the Obama years, a challenging time in US-Israel relations, and John was tireless in assuring that the Senate in particular, and Congress in general stood firmly with Israel. Together with senators Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman – the “three amigos” – John preserved the bipartisan support so vital to Israel’s security. It would be difficult to overstate the debt Israelis owe to John and our profound gratitude.
But in addition to pressing diplomatic and defense matters, most memorable were the hours John spent with me, my family and friends, chatting in his office, listening to his harrowing Vietnam war stories. The most extraordinary event, though, was a retirement banquet at the Israel Embassy for Joe Lieberman.
After speeches by Ehud Barak and other dignitaries, I suddenly realized that John had not been invited to speak. I simply passed him the microphone, and impromptu John launched into one of the warmest and funniest addresses in Washington’s memory.
“I have an announcement to make,” he began, “I’m converting to Judaism.”
Over the audience’s laughter, he explained how he’d been traveling with Joe for years and putting up with his kosher meals, Shabbat elevators, and in-flight davening. “Since I was doing all this s**t anyway,” he concluded with his characteristic spice, “I thought, hell, I might as well become Jewish myself.”
The coming days will no doubt bring more praises for John McCain, for his courage and moral clarity. Of course, he possessed all of these but, for me, far more. He was a neshema – cherished soul – a man of immense heart and, above all, a mensch.