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Jack Kemp, longtime Israel friend, dies at 73

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jack Kemp, the one-time Republican vice-presidential candidate known for his affection and activism for Israel, has died.

He died of cancer at home Saturday in Bethesda, Md., reports said. He was 73.

Kemp, a star quarterback in the 1960s with the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, was elected from upstate New York to the U.S. Congress in 1970 and early on forged ties with the pro-Israel movement.

He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current prime minister, and addressed a symposium on terrorism Netanyahu convened three years after his brother Yoni was killed leading the 1976 raid that freed a plane held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda. In that speech, Kemp likened Israel to the early United States, “a city on the hill, a place where it was important to protect, defend and display the light of freedom even if you never made it personally to the citadel.”

Kemp served nine terms as a congressman before making an unsuccessful bid for the1988 Republican presidential nomination.

Kemp also was a vocal advocate for Soviet Jewry. He was a co-founder of the Congressional Coalition for Soviet Jews, his wife, Joanne, was a founder of Congressional Wives for Soviet Jews, and Kemp was one of the first co-sponsors of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a law designed to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish emigration by denying the Soviets trade privileges with the United States.

"He was someone who made a real difference in making sure that this issue was in the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy agenda," said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, which advocates on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Kemp became housing secretary in the first Bush administration. In that role he became known as the approachable Cabinet secretary who stood out from a remote and elitist administration and insisted on cultivating minorities, particularly among Jews and African Americans. Kemp called himself a “bleeding heart conservative,” and led unsuccessful efforts to increase home ownership among minorities.

In 1991, Kemp defied James Baker, then the powerful secretary of state, and met with Ariel Sharon, his counterpart as Israel’s housing minister and the godfather of the settlement movement that Baker saw as an impediment to peacemaking.

Kemp was Bob Dole’s running mate on the 1996 GOP ticket. His presence helped assuage Jewish concerns about Dole, who had had a number of bitter clashes with Israel advocates during his career as U.S. senator from Kansas.

Out of politics, Kemp remained close to Israel and was active in the America Israel Friendship League, a group that took pro-Israel messages to non-Jewish communities.

He maintained a reputation for integrity. In the last election, Kemp campaigned hard for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) but berated conservatives who depicted Barack Obama as allied with black radicals.

(JTA staff contributed to this report.)

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