Throughout his distinguished political career, Californian congressman and former Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, was firmly committed to Israel and the Jewish people.Tom Lantos was truly one of a kind in the US Congress. His passing is an incalculable loss not only for his constituents, the US Congress, and the United States, his adopted country, but for Israel.
I first befriended Tom before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. Even back then, I was impressed by his incredible life story – surviving the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the Holocaust, coming to the US on an academic scholarship, earning a doctorate in economics, and making a name for himself in California.
I first encountered Tom’s commitment to Israel and the Jewish people in 1976 when he called on me at AIPAC to discuss the Democratic presidential primary elections. At the time, almost all pro-Israel Democrats were, for good reasons, backing Henry M. (“Scoop”) Jackson. After our meeting, Tom wisely decided to help Sen. Frank Church because of his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Over the next three decades during his 27 years in Congress, Tom’s contributions to Israel and the Jewish people were unparalleled. It was not only his considerable intellect and unique personal story that differentiated him from his 434 House colleagues, but the way he approached them.
Tom was definitely Old World when it came to his manners and charm. He didn’t keep a desk in his office so that he could treat his guests as if they were in his own living room. Unfailingly polite and attentive, he treated his Democratic and Republican colleagues with equal respect, forging strong bipartisan bonds that endured even after partisan rancor became the order of the day on Capitol Hill.
And then there was the energy and devotion he applied to all of his causes, and the relationships he cultivated with foreign leaders, which culminated in his ascension to the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Tom was thus able to influence policies affecting Israel positively more than any other single Member of Congress. For example, his strong working and personal relationship with former Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, now ranking Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, led to the kind of effective bipartisan legislative actions that are rarely seen in Washington’s present acrimonious environment.
Prior to that, he was able to work harmoniously with the late Republican chairman Henry Hyde, someone whose background and views on a host of issues were so different than Tom’s. During this period, Hyde essentially left one particular geographic area up to Tom.
Tom’s activities involving Middle East policies and US-Israel relations dovetailed beautifully with the outstanding leadership he provided in championing human rights. He founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to highlight abuses worldwide, taking a leadership role and thereby increasing his credibility on Israel-related matters.
Not only did he highlight anti-Semitism, but genocide and, more recently, Darfur. In this cause he enlisted his wife, Annette, who worked on human rights issues on a daily basis, and had her own desk in his offices. But whether it was Tom’s closeness to Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi, or his intimate conversations with President George W. Bush, Tom’s overriding passion has always been his support for a secure Israel as being not only in the best geopolitical interests of the United States, but also one of our nation’s highest moral callings.
Tom’s admirers spanned both the American political spectrum from Left to Right, and also the often-fractious organized American Jewish community. This is quite a remarkable accomplishment considering the differences of opinion (and animosity), which unfortunately exist today as Israel engages in the latest peace process, and confronts threats from Hamas and Hizbullah on its borders, and the growing menace of Iran.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that, “the State of Israel owes a great debt to Lantos.” She is certainly correct. However, much of the good that Tom accomplished in his 27 years in Congress to assist Israel’s well-being has gone unrecorded. Very few are fully aware of all of Tom’s efforts behind the scenes to benefit Israel and the Jewish people.
On a personal level, I will miss our wide-ranging conversations, where we exchanged information, probed each other’s views and even engaged in the latest political gossip, of which there was always an abundance on Capitol Hill. But the backdrop invariably was how it all affected Israel.
It was during one of our meetings last spring when Tom suggested that my 16-year-old daughter intern in his office last summer. I thought she might be too young to take full advantage of this opportunity. As it turned out, it was an experience she will always treasure. It gave her the opportunity to be close to a great man, and an opportunity which I hope she takes advantage of later on in her life.
My friend, Tom Lantos, was someone who was truly able to make a difference. That is why he will be missed by so many, and particularly those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.