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Taube: John McCain and the Jews

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U.S. Senator John McCain (Gage Skidmore Flickr photo)

Many U.S. presidents had a very good relationship with the Jewish community, strongly supported Israel, or both. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt are among them, along with more recent examples like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Yet, it’s quite possible that Arizona Senator John McCain, had he been elected president in 2008, could have topped this list.

McCain, who passed away after a battle with brain cancer on Aug. 25, was a Republican who was generally onside with fiscal and social conservative ideas. Nevertheless, he frustrated conservatives with his long-held reputation as a political maverick who would work against his own party if he felt they were taking a wrong or misguided position.

Nevertheless, he was widely regarded an engaging figure in U.S. politics. He loved to read fiction and history books, worked with Democrats on bipartisan issues such as campaign finance reform, and had an intellectual curiosity for people, places and things.

The latter characteristic would include Jews and Judaism.

McCain, like many Republicans and Democrats, had Jewish friends. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who worked for Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, gave a eulogy at Washington’s National Cathedral. So did Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic-turned-Independent Connecticut Senator who was Al Gore’s Democratic running mate in 2000. He was McCain’s first choice in 2008, and was advised against it by Republican strategists, which he always regretted.

The latter friendship was, in many ways, a defining moment for both men. They travelled together on international missions with South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, dubbing themselves the “Three Amigos.” McCain and Lieberman also greatly respected one another’s faith, traditions, beliefs and values.

McCain’s hilarious, cuss-laden roast of Lieberman at his Nov. 2012 farewell celebration at Washington’s Israeli Embassy showed how close they were. “I have an announcement to make,” he started off, “I’m converting to Judaism.” It wasn’t because of a theological awakening by the Episcopalian-born Baptist, since “I do this not because of any particular liking for the religion. It’s just that I’ve had to for so many years put up with all the bullshit…that I might as well convert.”

He continued, “Any of you ever been on a Shabbat elevator? It takes you a goddamn half an hour to get anywhere!” He also went after a fish dish that often swims on kosher plates. “If there’s anything I never see again in my life, I will die a happy man, it’s salmon. Why at every fucking kosher meal do we have to have salmon? I’d like to have a round of applause tonight because we didn’t have salmon.”

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Lieberman told People magazine on Aug. 24, “Becoming John McCain’s friend has been one of the great blessings of my life.” The feeling was mutual.

McCain’s relationship with Jews went much further than this.

He defended Soviet Jews, aided by his admiration for human rights activist Natan Sharansky. He called for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. He criticized Syria, Lebanon and Hezbollah due to links to terrorism. And, as a foreign policy hawk, he strongly defended Israel, visited on many occasions, and spoke glowingly about the Jewish state.

When asked whether he supported Zionism during the 2008 presidential campaign, he answered in part, “I think so. I’m a student of history and anybody who is familiar with the history of the Jewish people and with the Zionist idea can’t help but admire those who established the Jewish homeland. I think it’s remarkable that Zionism has been in the middle of wars and great trials and it has held fast to the ideals of democracy and social justice and human rights.”

It’s impossible to know what McCain would have been like as a U.S. President. But it’s clear that a McCain presidency would have been something many Jews would have respected, appreciated and admired.