Hearing of Sen. Paul Simon for the first time, many American Jews presumed he was a co-religionist, if only because of his name.
But when they learned that Simon was the son of a Lutheran missionary, most Jews quickly warmed to him anyway because they agreed with the late senator’s convictions.
The Illinois Democrat, who served in the Senate from 1985 to 1997, died Tuesday from complications of heart surgery. He was 75.
“He was a non-Jew that every Jew could feel comfortable with,” said Hyman Bookbinder, a former Washington representative for the American Jewish Committee. “He came with a Jewish heart and an understanding of Jewish pain.”
Simon was elected to the Senate in 1985 after defeating the incumbent, Republican Charles Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Percy was considered anti-Israel and had embraced Yasser Arafat, at that time widely considered a terrorist as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Simon’s victory, attributed in part to American Jewish activism and finances, created a kinship between the new senator and the sizeable Jewish community in Chicago and around Illinois.
“He was a folk hero for defeating Percy,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Bob Asher, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says he still has the headline from the Chicago Sun-Times posted on the wall of his Chicago office: “Landslide: Simon Beats Percy.”
“Paul was very optimistic and always tied to make the best of things,” Asher said. “But he was realistic and understood the issues Israel faces.”
Simon last visited Israel earlier this year, Asher said.
On Tuesday, Jewish community officials in Washington and Illinois remembered Simon as a strong friend of Israel who was closely aligned with Jews on domestic policy as well.
Tom Dine, former executive director of AIPAC, had dinner with Simon several months ago. The retired lawmaker was “his same spry, probing self,” Dine said. “He was a natural political leader for the pro-Israel movement in Illinois and across the country.”
Michael Kotzin, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said Simon would often talk to Jewish audiences about the importance of access to fresh water, especially in the Middle East.
Simon’s 1998 book, “Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What we can do About it,” quoted the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as saying the Middle East would “explode” if the water crisis was not resolved.
“Simon was a true friend of Israel, and many in my country will remember him warmly,” Danny Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “He was out front on the issue of Soviet Jewry and he was known for his consistent ongoing support for the state of Israel.”
Simon was first elected to Congress in 1974, after a stint as Illinois’ lieutenant governor, and he served in the House of Representatives for 10 years before seeking Percy’s Senate seat.
“Paul Simon set the standard of integrity and decency for those who seek the public trust,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “He always took the principled position, not the popular one, and never wavered in his fight on behalf of ordinary Americans and working families.”
Simon ran for president in 1988 but won only his home state. He wore his signature bow tie in nearly every campaign appearance.
Steve Rabinowitz, a media consultant for Jewish organizations in Washington, traveled with Simon as a press aide on that campaign.
“What made him stand out is that he may have actually been the genuine article,” Rabinowitz said. “You could see it in the most private moments with him, he was the real thing.”
JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.