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A Tribute to Senator Moynihan

A Tribute to Senator Moynihan

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.

April 5, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Willard Prevost, October 19, 2007 3:28 PM

I loved that mans mind

I told ma kids(all 8) to learn all about this man. Form your life after his words.

(4) Anonymous, July 27, 2006 12:00 AM

I thank Senator Moynihan

When I was about to graduate from Columbia University I saw a poster from Aish Hatorah advertising the Fellowship trip to Eretz Israel. Senators Moynihan and Specter lent their names to this project, which lent it a lot of legitimacy in my eyes ...and possibly made the difference in my deciding to go on the Fellowships and eventually becoming frum. I can't say that I agreed with the more liberal elements of the Senators' views, not at all. But I do owe Hakaros HaTov to them and David Luchins (who must have been the person who asked for their sponsorship) for sure!!

(3) Anonymous, October 8, 2003 12:00 AM

Daniel Patrick Monyihan

I read you artilce on the Tribute to Senator Monyihan for his contribution to the Jewish struggle. Please remember that Irish peoples are also locked in a long and arduous struggle of their own. We would be grateful to someday tribute a courageous Jewish figure who would stand up against the Anglo-American powers that be in our fight for freedom and justice.

(2) Aura Slovin, April 11, 2003 12:00 AM

A true Chasid U'mos HaOlam

Thank you David Luchins for sharing your first hand experience of working so very closely with such a wonderful man as the late Senator was. I'll never forget that cold day in 1974 when the Terrorist Arafat had the gall to stand at the U.N with a gun on his hip and declare to a standing ovation equating Zionism with Racism. Then U.S ambassador to the U.N, Mr. Moynihan was as eloquent, front and center on target representative to the Jewish state that we have ever known.
That same year I was active with
Americans for a Safe Israel, at a dinner at the Waldorf I was working the press office for AFSI, when I noticed someone extraordinarily tall standing nearby, it was Pat Moynihan being friendly and unassuming as usual, it was the closest (physically) I had ever gotten to the 'great man' but it was a moment I will always remember. Am Yisroel lost a great friend with his passing, however his wife and children have lost an entire world. My wishes to his family of comfort and compassion over their loss yet with the knowledge that his legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of many the world over.

(1) David Scop, April 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Thank You Dr. Luchins, and Sen. Moynihan

I had the privelage of listening to you speak in my undergraduate days in Touro College as a Political Science major. I was intrigued at an Orthodox Jew being the right hand man of one of the most powerfull men on Capital Hill, and cetnainly the most respected across the isles. My Professor (Norman Bertram) fondly referred to Senator Moynihan as a "Republican in Democrat clothing". He had a way of expressing his opinions beyond party lines, and agree or not, you understood and respected his opinions.
Prof. Bertram made sure to remind us Moynihan was (together with Sen. Alfonse D'Amato) the best frineds Jews had on "The Hill"
His quote from a speach on the Senate floor in 1982 or 82' when the US send a few hundred Marines to Lebenon brought his wisdom to our level
"If we went to fight, we sent to few, If we went to die, we sent to many". He was ALWAYS a friend to Israel, and had the sense to realize who wasn't, and knew that a few hundred wouldn't cut it, and a show of force was just that. The Senate just took his speach in stride, and less than 1 month later, more than 200 marines were blown up in their barracks in a homicide mission by a suicidal Hizbollah driver of a truck.
We miss you Danny Boy, here's a pint raised in your honor. (he had a sense of humor about his Irish heritage)

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