In a state known for public officials who are staunchly supportive of Jewish causes, particularly its members of Congress, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood out in the crowd, friends and community leaders said this week.
"He was the unique combination of a scholar and intellectual, but also a pragmatic political personality who was often ahead of his time," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Senator Moynihan, a Democrat whose husky frame, bowtie and soft-spoken elocution made him a distinctive presence on the local and national political scene, died last week at 76 in Washington. The cause of death was complications from a burst appendix.
He was a lecturer and teacher at several institutions in the capital following his retirement from the Senate in 2001 after four terms.
Senator Moynihan endeared himself to Israel supporters even before he won his Senate seat from Republican James Buckley in 1976. During the previous year he served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and fought vigorously against Resolution 242, the Arab-led measure equating Zionism with racism.
So incensed was Senator Moynihan when the resolution passed that the erudite former Harvard professor reportedly approached his Israeli counterparts and disparaged the General Assembly with an obscenity.
"His was one of the most heartfelt defenses [of Israel] that one has ever heard at the United Nations," recalled Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Senator Moynihan continued his efforts against Resolution 242 even after joining the Senate, and in 1991 he saw the General Assembly repeal the measure on the cusp of the Oslo agreements signed two years later.
He was also a tireless advocate for Soviet Jewry. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the mid-1980s, leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement consulted with Senator Moynihan about how best to respond to the promise of the new presidentís perestroika reforms and the rising tide of emigration.
"There was a sense that there should be a reciprocal gesture in the part of the Jewish community," recalled Zeesy Schnur, the former executive director of the Greater New York Coalition on Soviet Jewry. "One of the senatorís recommendations was, would you consider setting aside Solidarity Sunday for a year?"
Senator Moynihan’s suggestion was implemented and the annual march in Manhattan was postponed for two years as an unprecedented exodus of Jewish refugees made their way to Israel and the United States. The marches later resumed because of a rise in Russian anti-Semitism.
Senator Moynihan also successfully championed legislation requiring the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The measure passed Congress in 1995, but both President Bill Clinton and his successor, George W. Bush, have utilized a loophole allowing them to bypass the measure if they believe it endangers peacemaking efforts.
On the domestic front, Senator Moynihan was receptive to the needs of local Jewish community organizations. He played a key role in obtaining federal funds for a housing project run by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty at Co-op City in the Bronx.
"He was a good friend," said William Rapfogel, executive vice president of Met Council, who said the agency was seeking an appropriate site to be dedicated in his memory. "One possible example would be to have the Senator Moynihan Gardens, which like our relationship would renew itself every year."
The garden would be at the Weinberg Council Towers, the subsidized housing complex in the Bronx.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki announced last week that a new train terminal to replace Penn Station would be named after Senator Moynihan.
Senator Moynihan, who employed Jewish activist David Luchins as a top adviser for most of his Senate tenure (see appreciation on page 12), was also outspoken on a host of other issues of interest to Jews, from restitution for Holocaust survivors to the pursuit of justice in the 1991 Crown Heights murder of Yankel Rosenbaum.
As chair of the Senate Finance Committee, he also worked with Jewish groups to push Social Security and welfare reform as well as education issues.
"He had a kind of kinship with us, not only as Jewish people but as people who had ideas and concepts of what the world should be like," said Bernice Tannenbaum, a former president of Hadassah and chair of the World Zionist Organization.
Hoenlein said Senator Moynihan was often ahead of his time even when it came to warning the Jewish community about threats to Israel’s welfare.
"He lectured in the Jewish community for years warning that the Fourth Geneva Convention [relating to occupying powers and displaced persons] would be used against Israel," said Hoenlein. "Nobody else was paying attention to these references."
In 1999, the United Nations convened a conference on implementing the powers of the Fourth Geneva Convention to protect Palestinians in territory controlled by Israel.
Senator Moynihan was born in Tulsa, Okla., on March 16, 1927, and his family moved to a New York suburb that same year. When his father, John, left the family they moved to Manhattan, where as a young man Daniel would work as a shoeshine boy and stevedore before enrolling in City College. After a stint in the Navy as an officer, he earned his undergraduate and masters’ degrees at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. He later attended the London School of Economics on a Fulbright scholarship.
Senator Moynihan entered politics in 1953 while working on the mayoral campaign of Robert Wagner. Two years later he married the former Elizabeth Brennan, whom he met while working in the administration of Gov. Averell Harriman. He would later work in four successive presidential administrations, from John F. Kennedy to Gerald Ford, during which time he was ambassador to India and the United Nations.
In 1965, he ran unsuccessfully for New York City Council president. The next year he became a graduate professor of education and director of an urban affairs center at Harvard. He wrote 18 books, and spent much of his time at his farm in Pindars Corners in upstate Delaware County.
In 1998, Senator Moynihan, who was plagued by health problems, including chronic back pain, announced that he would not seek a fifth term in 2000, setting off a wave of speculation about who would succeed him.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled an interest in the race, a slew of potential candidates stepped out of the way and Senator Moynihan, who had long sparred with the presidential administration of Clinton’s husband, ultimately endorsed her for a successful bid to win his seat in a race against Republican Rick Lazio.
Sen. Hillary Clinton this week called Moynihan "our Jefferson, our Lincoln … New York’s architect of hope."
For Jewish activists, the senator’s legacy will be one of a man whose passion and commitment transcended political machinations.
"He cared about Israel and the Jewish people as if he were Jewish himself," said Klein of the ZOA. "You could not speak with that type of passion unless it is heartfelt and sincere." Speaking in New York last Thursday, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman called Senator Moynihan "my rabbi. Every time you walked away from him you learned something."
Senator Moynihan is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; two sons, Timothy and John; a daughter, Maura; and three grandchildren. He was buried Monday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.