Israel lost one of its best friends and the U.S. Senate lost a true legend Monday with the passing of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. A genuine hero in war and peace, he was one of the last of the Greatest Generation, a generation that saw the Jewish state come into existence and fight for its survival, and he played an important role in advancing U.S.-Israeli friendship for more than half a century.
Recovering from his wounds following the war, he began to study Jewish history, sold Israeli bonds and even considered converting to Judaism, he once told me. It was the beginning of a lifelong dedication to the survival and security of the Jewish state that made him a hero in both countries.
Danny Inouye may have been the most powerful senator who most people never heard of. He didn’t like press conferences, rarely gave speeches, eschewed dramatics and was not only a believer in bipartisanship but a true practitioner who was widely admired by colleagues in both parties.
He served in Congress since Hawaii became a state in 1959, starting as its first full member of the House and then as its senator for nine terms. He was the senior member of the U.S. Senate and its president pro tempore. He was the first Japanese-American in either chamber and eventually became the highest-ranking Asian American politician in American history.
He chaired the important Appropriations Committee but had also previously chaired the committees on Intelligence and Indian Affairs. Through these he brought a focus on national security and justice. Many Jewish groups also admired him for his relative progressivism, including reproductive rights and civil liberties.
He fought injustice though most of his life. As a Japanese-American he waged a battle to convince the War Department to let him and fellow Nisei enlist in the U.S. Army. He served in the 442d Regimental Combat Team, a segregated Japanese-American unit, and served in combat in Italy, where he was severely wounded, losing his right arm, in the closing days of the war. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Amb. Dan Halperin, a friend of the senator since his days as the Israeli finance ministry’s man in Washington, said, “His commitment to Israel, especially to it’s security, was unwavering and even at times in which budget constraints were in the forefront he insisted that security assistance to Israel will remain intact. I believe that his personal history as a soldier and as a person who saw persecution based on race made him a staunch ally of a young and beleaguered democracy which fights for survival in a hostile region.”
The cause of death was respiratory complications. He was 88.