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A Tribute to Senator Moynihan

May 9, 2009 | by David Luchins

Remembering a great friend of the Jewish people.

In the late 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a new Senator from New York, was surprised, while walking across Lafayette Park in Washington D.C., to discover that he was being escorted by two uniformed policemen. When he inquired about their presence they told him that the B'nai B'rith building in Washington had been seized by Muslim extremists and they had be assigned to protect him.

"Does every Senator get two policemen of their own?" a bemused Pat Moynihan asked.

"No sir," one of the officers replied, "only the Jewish ones."

Senator Moynihan -- a full-blooded Irish-American -- was very fond of that story, for many good reasons.

Throughout his career, Moynihan was an extraordinary friend of the Jewish community in general and the Torah community in particular. He participated in every aspect of Jewish communal life with a passion and a conviction that came from deep within them.

In spring of 1986 a United States Ambassador reported that the new Soviet regime headed by Mikhail Gorbachev was interested in reopening negotiations on the question of Soviet Jewry, but wanted assurance that Congress would reward any concessions on their part with tangible political favors.

Moynihan declared, "When it's a question of Jewish survival, I vote with the rabbis."

Senator Moynihan polled 10 Jewish leaders on how to react to this exceptional offer. Eight secular Jewish leaders urged that the message be ignored. Two great sages -- Rabbi Aaron Soleveichik and Rabbi Shimon Schwab -- urged the Senator to spell out exactly what the Soviets could and would receive. Moynihan read all 10 letters and declared, "When it's a question of Jewish survival, I vote with the rabbis."

Within two weeks a letter was sent to Gorbachev signed by 59 Senators, reflecting, almost wholly, the suggestions of the two sages -- and the decade long "logjam" in securing freedom for Soviet Jewry began to unravel.

To the Jewish community he will always be remembered for three historic contributions: the battle against the United Nations' infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, the struggle to save Soviet Jewry, and his yet-unrequited effort to relocate the United States embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. In all three campaigns, he played a remarkably defining role, challenging accepted wisdoms with utter disregard for political niceties.

In the 16 years between 1975 and 1991 he gave over 750 speeches addressing the "Zionism is Racism" slander. While others dismissed the General Assembly resolution as "just words," he insisted that "words matter" and was fond of quoting the Talmudic dicta (which he had learned from his fellow Hibernian, Chaim Herzog) that "life and death can be shaped by words.”

When he discovered that many, if not most, young Jews did not share, or even understand, his passion for Jerusalem and Israel, he joined then-Israeli President Chaim Herzog in creating the Jerusalem Fellowships of Aish HaTorah, an organization which continues to bring hundreds of young Americans to Israel every year, usually for the first time.


He insisted on "connecting the dots"; on seeing the struggle over this resolution as a 'subset of the Cold War" in which Israel was a "veritable metaphor for democracy" in the "life and death twilight struggle" between the Soviet empire and western civilization.

And yet this very insight led him to challenge one our community's most sacred shibboleths.

We were driving to a synagogue on Long Island one winter evening in 1983, the Senator reviewing his draft remarks, when he turned around and said, "But I can't say Israel is a strategic asset of the United States."

"But everyone says that." I pointed out.

An aircraft carrier is a strategic asset, but Israel is a moral asset.

"Well," he declared, "everyone may be wrong. That's a Cold War argument, and we're witnessing the death throes of the Soviet Union. An aircraft carrier is a strategic asset, a poker chip is a strategic asset -- and can be traded for one that is dripping oil. Israel is a moral asset of the United States, nothing less -- and nothing can be more important than that."

He then promptly strode into a packed synagogue, ignored my draft and turned that 2-minute thought he had just shared with me into a polished 20-minute speech.

He was deeply committed to the religious prerogatives of all Americans, and took the lead in battling for the rights of Sabbath observers. When an Orthodox Jewish New Yorker was asked to remove his kippah in the Senate gallery in 1982, Pat Moynihan wrote the legislation assuring this "simple but fundamental demonstration of what America is all about."


Politicians tend to tell us what we want to hear. For 40 years Pat Moynihan told us what we needed to know, no matter how unconventional or controversial it might have been.

My first week on Senator Moynihan’s staff, in February of 1981, I prepared, as was the custom in every other Senate office, two draft letters to be sent to people writing to the Senator about a particular issue -- an enthusiastic one for those who held the same position as us and a much vaguer letter for those who didn't. Within hours the Senator was on the phone.

"This office," he snapped, "has only one position on any and every issue -- we are not interested in shaping our views to satisfy anyone."

He was a scholar, a thinker, an author who, in George Will's famous aphorism "wrote more books than most of his colleagues ever read."

Pat Moynihan was much more than the Senate's leading expert on social policy, tax policy, foreign affairs, architecture, mass and surface transportation and diplomatic history. He was blessed with what his Irish forbearers taught was the leprechaun's gift of being able to "see around corners.”

Where others saw an immutable ever-stronger "Evil Empire", he saw the death-thrashings of a doomed Soviet Union, collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradiction.

Where others saw random thuggery at the United Nations, he saw a calculated plan to discredit democracy, and almost single-handedly rallied support for the State of Israel which he unforgettably declared to be a "metaphor for democracy."

Where others saw peculiar behavior, he saw "defining deviancy down."

We were together in Jerusalem at Yeshivat "Aish
HaTorah" in 1990 when a student asked the Senator, "How are we to react to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe?"

The Senator's response was swift and sure: "Learn a lot more Torah -- that's the secret of your people's survival in this all-too-confusing world."

This article originally appeared in Hamodia.

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