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America Decides 2004 Kerry’s Brother Visits Israel and Explores His Jewish Roots

July 19, 2004
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His sneakers crunching under a stony path, Cameron Kerry makes his way to an overlook and sees Israel’s security fence slice between the slopes of two villages — one Israeli, the other Palestinian. The brother of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry looks on as a guide shows him where they are on the map of the country — on the easternmost edge of the pre-1967 borders of the Jewish state, which at its narrowest measures only 10 miles across.

“Seeing it for real makes it clearer, closer, more vivid,” Cameron Kerry said in an interview with JTA as he traveled in a minibus from Tel Aviv to the northern border. “One of the things when you come here for the first time; you notice how close together everything is — from hilltop to hilltop, village to village.”

Kerry, an adviser to his brother’s presidential campaign, was in Israel for the first time last week, traveling throughout the country on what he terme! d a personal visit.

The Kerry campaign is seeking to maintain support in the November election from Jewish voters, who have long been a solid Democratic voting bloc.

Cameron Kerry grew up Catholic, but converted to Judaism when he married Kathy Weinman, a Jewish woman he met while the two worked at a Washington law firm. She traveled with her husband to Israel and recalled the very different trip she first took to Israel — backpacking across the country after college in 1976.

It was revealed last year that the Kerry family has Jewish roots in Europe. Their paternal grandparents were Jews from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire who changed the family name from Kohn to Kerry before immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century.

There is just a feeling of “an extraordinary sense of irony,” he said of the revelation. “I called up Kathy’s parents and said ‘I’m Jewish,’ and they said, ‘Yeah we know’ and I said, ‘No, I’m really Jewish.’ “

Kerry sa! id that according to family legend, the family chose its new last name by blindly planting a pin on a map of Europe. According to the story, the pin fell on County Kerry, Ireland.

During the trip, sponsored by a branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Kerry traveled with his wife and Jay Footlik, the Kerry campaign’s Jewish senior adviser on Middle East and Jewish affairs.

While in Israel, Kerry met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the three most recent past prime ministers — Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Israel, Kerry was the first in his family to see the Nazi rosters that showed the deportations of his great aunt and uncle, Otto and Jenny Lowe, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. One died there; the other died after being transported to Treblinka. Both were siblings of his paternal grandmother.

The typed lists of names, addresses, occupation and deportation dates were preserved in extra carbon copies made surreptitiously by Jewish inmates.

This, Kerry notes, “was at great r! isk to themselves to preserve a record of what was going on.”

Kerry was shown the original lists at Yad Vashem’s archives. Now Kerry is taking copies of those lists to his brother and other relatives.

Seeing the records of relatives he only recently found out existed gave him, he said, “a remarkable sense of the moment” of the dark period in history in which their lives were stolen.

He takes pride in the Lowes. They were, he said, “apparently a big, distinguished family, artists and scholars.”

Kerry said he became especially curious about visiting Israel after hearing about travels to the region made by his brother, the Massachusetts senator.

“John has been here many times and one of the reasons I have wanted to come here is that he’s talked so vividly about his experiences here and about his own connections,” he said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

Among the places he visited was a center for new immigrant, most of whom are from ! Ethiopia.

“I’ve grown up with a sense of Israel as a pioneering cou ntry and to see people still coming and sharing those aspirations is a strong link to Israel as I’ve come to understand it even before becoming a Jew myself,” he said after visiting the Jewish Agency for Israel-run facility outside of Jerusalem.

Kerry, who has taken a leave of absence from his law firm in Boston to help advise and campaign for his brother, said he sees a historic link between the founding ideals of the United States and Israel.

Both societies have tried “to carve out a unique society as pioneers and pilgrims. That is what my non-Jewish forebears did in New England,” said Kerry whose maternal line came to North America in 1630 from England.

Weinman, also a lawyer, said she was moved by the trip.

“It’s like coming home for me,” she said. She added: “I had not been here for many years, but Jews in the Diaspora maintain a very strong emotional and intellectual connection to Israel and I certainly have that and it’s been wonderful to share it with C! am,” she said.

Kerry was wary of revealing the message he would take back to his brother about his time to Israel.

He was more open about what he would tell his two teenage daughters: “They have to come,” he said.

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