Late Senator Frank Lautenberg: An Early Victim of the 'Militant' Jewish Right's Strong-arm Tactics

The Jewish senator's 1988 letter questioning Israeli positions earned him 'venomous response,' despite his long record of Jewish activity and philanthropy.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Senator Frank Lautenberg, who passed away on Monday, was one of the Senate’s most consistently liberal lawmakers, but he was also considered one of Israel’s staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill.

Nonetheless, Lautenberg was also one of the first victims of the harsh approbation and strong-arm tactics that the self-described “pro-Israel” right employs against Jewish lawmakers who appear to be straying from their favored party line.

In his book “Jewish Power,” author J.J. Goldberg describes the retaliation against Lautenberg in the wake of his decision to sign a 1988 letter to then Secretary of State George Shultz. The letter commended U.S. peace efforts and questioned what appeared to be then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s refusal to countenance territorial compromise in the West Bank and Gaza.

The letter, signed by 30 senators, including four other Jewish senators, lambasted Arab refusal to cooperate with Shultz’s peace plans but also criticized Shamir’ s statement to the New York Times in which he said that ''. . . this expression of territory for peace is not accepted by me.''

Shamir reacted angrily to the senators’ letter, writing in response that it “hurts even more because it comes from friends who have Israel's security and welfare at heart.”

The “militant right”, as former Forward editor Goldberg describes it, took their cue from Shamir and launched a vicious campaign against Lautenberg, lambasting his congressional achievements and drumming up support for his non-Jewish Republican rival, Pete Dawkins. The campaign against Lautenberg was waged in synagogues across his home state of New Jersey.

“What I saw was almost a venomous response,” Lautenberg told Goldberg. “Suddenly I was painted like a pariah”

“I was national chairman of the UJA, for God’s sake. I’m on the board of Bank Leumi, the Hebrew University, the Diaspora Museum of Tel Aviv. But having taken an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States, with all my love and affection for Israel, my primary responsibilities begin with my country. And thank goodness I have not had to make decision between my country and Israel.”

“I was shocked by the response from some segments of the Jewish community. I was practically accused of being a traitor. In fact, the pain was more severe than the shock.”

In recent years, Lautenberg lined up behind most of the Israeli government’s positions, though he was harshly criticized once again on the Republican Jewish right for his staunch defense of President Obama’s Middle East policies and for his decision to support the appointment of former senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

One can deduce from this incident that in over 30 years of U.S. peacemaking and inter-Jewish politics, the more things change the more they remain the same. But it is highly doubtful whether any senator, Jewish or otherwise, would be inclined to sign a letter today that implies any criticism whatsoever of Israeli policies.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Sen. Frank Lautenberg in February 2013.Credit: Reuters

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