U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being remembered in the Jewish community for his huge impact on domestic issues such as education and health care, but also as a giant in the Soviet Jewry movement.
Kennedy “was one of the earliest, strongest champions on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “He was always proactive and didn’t wait for NCSJ and other organizations to come to him—he was always looking to see where he could make a difference.”
In his 2006 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Natan Sharansky specifically mentions Kennedy as the first Western politician to meet with refuseniks “in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment.”
And Levin noted that whenever Kennedy met with Soviet officials, in Washington or in the Soviet Union, he would bring lists of those he wanted to see released.
“He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families,” Levin said.
Kennedy also will be remembered as a strong champion of Israel. Jewish organizational officials noted that he was a stalwart supporter of foreign aid, opposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a strong backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also publicly rebuked President George H.W. Bush when he linked settlements to U.S. loan guarantees for the emigration of Soviet Jews, and was a leading voice in speaking out against the Arab boycott of Israel.
Israeli official rushed to praise Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “an American patriot” and “a great friend of Israel,” according to media reports.
And Israeli President Shimon Peres said Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over.”
“Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help,” he added.
The late senator drew praise from a broad range of Jewish organizations, including both the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They noted that he had worked on a vast array of domestic issues over his 47 years on Capitol Hill, from religious liberty bills such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to his efforts on children’s health insurance.
In a statement, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Ratzan, said: “We were honored to work by his side on so many critical issues: Family and Medical Leave, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, the Americans with Disability Act, hate crimes prevention, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, health care, the increase in the minimum wage, and numerous judicial nominations—to name a few.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement that the “greatest tribute” to Kennedy would be to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.
“On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. “There wasn’t an issue he wasn’t on top of.”