WASHINGTON (JTA) — On a wintry day at a small Iowa shul in November of 2003, John Kerry got all verklempt.
The man whose opponents had taken to depicting as aloof and patrician, whose campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination had been all but written off by that point, leapt onto the dais at Tifereth Israel synagogue in Des Moines. Kerry delivered an emotional account of his then-recent discovery that his grandfather was Jewish and recalled how, on a visit to Israel standing atop Masada, he had cried out, “Am Yisrael Chai!”
The bond Kerry has forged with the Jewish community because of his roots and because of his interest in the Middle East has helped smooth over rough patches when he has criticized Israel.
“We’ve had disagreements in the past, but on the whole he’s a staunch advocate and defender of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israeli security,” the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, told JTA in a telephone interview from Israel, where he was meeting with Israeli leaders.
Kerry rallied to win the 2004 nomination but lost the presidency, felled in part by images of him windsurfing and tales of high-society living with his heiress wife, Teresa Heinz.
He won big among Jews, however — 75 percent of their vote, in large part because of a connection based on shared liberalism.
Staff close to Kerry’s campaign at the time said the discovery by the Boston Globe of his Jewish antecedents — and the knowledge that relatives had perished in the Holocaust — deeply affected him.
His brother, Cameron Kerry, converted to Judaism before marrying a Jewish woman, Kathy Weinman. Cameron is active in the Jewish communities in Boston and Washington, where he is general counsel at the Commerce Department.
Jay Footlik, who ran the Kerry campaign’s Jewish outreach, recalled that Kerry would take time out to be briefed on every new wrinkle in matters affecting Israel.
“He took a deep interest in the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Footlik said. “The community ought to be thrilled.”
These connections are helping Kerry win Jewish support for his nomination to replace Hillary Clinton as U.S. secretary of state. President Obama made the announcement that Kerry was his new choice on Dec. 21, after the candidacy of Susan Rice, currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was derailed by opponents.
In welcoming the nomination, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested an emotional bond with Kerry.
“John Kerry and I have been friends for many years,” Netanyahu said. “I very much appreciated the fact that six months ago, after my father passed away, he came to visit me during the week of mourning.”
As chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry often has acted as an advance man for Obama’s foreign policy, touting ideas the administration might not be ready to fully embrace. In March 2009, he called for a settlement freeze months before it became the centerpiece of tensions between the Obama and Netanyahu governments.
“Over these many years, John has earned the respect and confidence of leaders around the world,” Obama said last week at a White House appearance alongside Kerry. “He is not going to need a lot of on-the-job training.”
In a statement, the ADL noted, “Kerry has consistently been an effective advocate for Israel’s security in a dangerous region and demonstrated his commitment to fighting against anti-Semitism and bigotry all over the world.” The statement said that Kerry’s first visit to Israel was in an ADL congressional mission in May 1986.
Kerry’s nomination also earned kudos from J Street, the liberal Jewish group that advocates for more U.S. involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and encourages U.S. pressure on Israel to stop West Bank settlement expansion.
“Kerry would be well positioned to play a leading role should President Obama move to revive peace efforts aimed at achieving a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” J Street said in a statement. “Kerry understands that peace is not only essential for Israel’s survival, but also a fundamental U.S. interest.”
Such agreement in the Jewish community on Kerry’s nomination stands in contrast to another rumored Obama nomination: former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) for defense secretary.
Little of substance distinguishes Kerry and Hagel, insiders say. Each has advocated outreach to pariah nations like Iran and Syria, and each has issued sharp criticism of Israel — Hagel in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War and Kerry in 2010, against what he saw as the gratuitous excesses of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
What differentiates Kerry from Hagel, pro-Israel officials say, is his willingness to engage even when he disagrees, and his familiarity with the issues.
"Will we always agree? No," Foxman said. "But we’re going to have in place someone who is knowledgeable, and that always works well for us."
Daniel Mariaschin, who directs B’nai B’rith International, said he hoped that as secretary of state Kerry would show awareness of the uncertainties roiling the region, particularly in Egypt, where the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has asserted control, and in Syria, which is mired in civil war.
“I would hope that as secretary of state, at least on questions related to Israel, he would take into account the fast-moving variables,” Mariaschin said.
Even before Obama’s announcement, Kerry had the backing of Senate colleagues, Republicans as well as Democrats. He has a longstanding friendship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz); both men are Vietnam veterans and in the 1980s paved the way to reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam.
The pick earned quick plaudits from a leading pro-Israel stalwart in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
“As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has worked to marshal support for tough sanctions against Iran and defend our ally Israel, and played a critical role as an envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Lowey said in a statement.
Kerry has a solid voting record on issues favored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but rarely has taken the lead on legislation AIPAC favors.
Kerry was a leader in the 1980s on Soviet Jewry issues in Congress, and he has maintained close ties with the successors to the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement, said Mark Levin, who directs NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.
“For the last 20 years he’s been intimately involved in every issue impacting the U.S.-Russia relationship,” Levin said. “He’s had an open door on Russia when it comes to xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”