WASHINGTON, Dec. 12 (JTA) – U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg admits he can’t escape his personal connection to Israel – and therefore many Jews are sorry to see one of the dominating Jewish leaders in Congress retire.
Speaking to JTA in an office of bare walls, moving boxes, and bubble-wrapped pictures of his home state, the 18-year Democratic senator from New Jersey talked recently about the U.S.-Israel relationship, his career and the influence his work has had on the Jewish community.
Lautenberg, 76, is retiring at a volatile time in the Middle East peace process, and as the Senate appears headed for an even Democratic-Republican split. Though he is concerned that he won’t be around in this critical period, he believes U.S. support for Israel is bound to continue, no matter which party is in charge.
“There’s a natural affiliation between the democratic societies, an enormous friendship,” Lautenberg said.
If the number of visits to a country means anything, then Lautenberg’s 80 trips to Israel might be an accurate depiction of his personal commitment to the Jewish state’s well-being. Some of those trips came when Lautenberg was chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in the mid-1970s.
Though his grandparents kept Jewish homes, Lautenberg developed an interest in Israel and Judaism only as an adult.
The 1956 Sinai War and the 1967 Six-Day War showed Lautenberg the precariousness of Israel’s existence, he said. His first trip to Israel, in 1969, solidified his belief in the need to protect the Jewish homeland.
“It brought me right back to the root of my being,” he said.
U.S. support for Israel has gotten “much stronger” over the years, according to Lautenberg, who says Congress has great respect for the Jewish state.
The U.S. abstention from a U.N. Security Council vote in October condemning Israel for the recent Middle East violence – which allowed the vote to pass – did not shake Lautenberg’s belief that the U.S.-Israel relationship is firm
“One doesn’t worry as much as we used to about whether or not the support for Israel is there,” he noted.
Though he would have preferred a U.S. veto, Lautenberg says he understands that the United States had to abstain so it would not be perceived as hostile by the Palestinians and biased toward the Israeli position.
The current Israeli-Palestinian crisis has reminded Lautenberg of the difficulties in bringing the two parties to the bargaining table, but also the necessity of helping to bring peace to the region.
Lautenberg is severely disappointed with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s lack of effort to stop the violence, which has now lasted for 10 weeks.
As a result, Lautenberg, who has served on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations Subcommittee, which decides how foreign aid is distributed, said he would consider legislation to stop U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.
He has reservations about such a step, however, because many Palestinians are living in substandard conditions, Lautenberg said.
Lautenberg was stunned when Arafat came to shake his hand at the signing of the original Israeli- Palestinian peace agreement in 1993. When Arafat kissed Lautenberg’s cheek, the senator said he was at first repelled, but then felt he had to change his mind because “this man wants peace.”
After having gone from a “totally hostile” position to the Palestinian leadership to embracing the Palestinian people, Lautenberg now finds himself upset again with Arafat’s policies.
Arafat’s bellicose statements provoke and inflame the hostilities, Lautenberg said.
“You can’t permit this anti-Jewish slander that goes on constantly on television stations and newspapers without fomenting anger and hatred that doesn’t get us anywhere,” Lautenberg said. He also has spoken to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about similar vitriol in Egypt, which is considered moderate among Arab countries.
Lautenberg took a stand on terrorism during his career, co-sponsoring legislation passed this year that allows American victims to collect damages from the frozen assets of countries that sponsor terrorism. Because of Lautenberg’s efforts, the families of Matthew Eisenfeld, Sara Duker and Alisa Flatow – all young American students killed in terrorist bombings in Israel and Gaza Strip – should be able to collect millions of dollars from Iran.
Another major accomplishment of importance to the Jewish community was Lautenberg’s work to assist immigrants, resulting in a 1990 bill that required immigration officials to take into account historical persecution when judging an applicant’s refugee status.
The Lautenberg Amendment allowed many Jews from the former Soviet Union, some 350,000 to 400,000 by the senator’s count, to gain entry into the United States without having to prove they were persecuted.
Though he is proud of his accomplishments, Lautenberg leaves the Senate with remorse, wishing he had accomplished more on issues such as gun violence, drunk driving and the environment.
“I might have been able to do more,” he said, with just a bit of Jewish guilt.
Despite the sharp partisan division in the 107th Congress, which will convene next month, Lautenberg predicts legislative work will get done. The split will produce cantankerous discussions but also more bipartisan agreements, he said.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, credits Lautenberg with accentuating the positive aspects of his role in Jewish organizational life when he first entered the Senate.
“He showed you can be an active Jewish political figure and have a life in the American political process,” Forman said.
Lautenberg has been an inspiration to Jewish activists over the years, said Stephen Greenberg, a New Jersey businessman and close friend of the senator for more than 25 years.
As an example, Greenberg noted that when former President Reagan made a controversial visit to Bitburg, Germany, that upset many Jewish leaders, Lautenberg visited the concentration camp at Dachau.
Lautenberg worked on both the local and the global levels, Greenberg said, from helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union settle in New Jersey to working on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“He was the go-to guy,” Greenberg said.
Still active in UJA, Lautenberg says some people have suggested that he take a leading position in a Jewish organization. He is considering that idea, so the Jewish community could see Lautenberg’s face again soon.
In addition, he will dedicate some of his time to his Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, an research and instruction unit in immunological science at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem. Lautenberg’s father, grandfather and uncle all died of cancer.