This article is reprinted with permission of The (Boston) Jewish Advocate. Visit www.thejewishadvocate.com.
BOSTON, July 19--Eighteen years ago, in May 1986, when Ronald Reagan was president (and George W. Bush was drilling for oil in Texas), Sen. John Kerry, a new member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew an Israeli training jet over the Negev and learned first-hand about Israel's security needs.
The flight, in a Fuga trainer, was arranged in an impromptu manner at the Ovda Air Base near Eilat by an Israeli colonel, an ace from the 1967 Six-Day War. Kerry, a pilot, flew toward Aquaba with the Israeli ace as his co-pilot.
In a recent talk detailing his experiences on that first trip to Israel, Kerry recalled: It was an extraordinary lesson to get this sense of how compacted and small (Israel) was."
Kerry's week-long visit, coordinated by Lenny Zakim, the Anti-Defamation League of New England's Executive Director, served as a seminal event in shaping Kerry's strong support for Israel.
Again and again, Kerry was struck by the extraordinary security issues faced by Israel, according to Esta and Bob Epstein, who were part of the small entourage traveling with him. The group also included Sheldon and Beverly Cohen, Phyllis Simpkin and Mel Ross.
"We were on a kibbutz on the Golan Heights that had recently been under attack," Esta recalled. "The reality of how small Israel was--that Damascus was just a few miles away, just a few seconds in a jet fighter--truly resonated with John. He was astounded by the dramatic security risks faced by Israel every day."
During the visit, Kerry met one-on-one with Israeli leaders, generals and members of the Knesset, including Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, and then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Kerry also met with U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and American Consul Morris Draper.
A photo essay of the visit was published in The Jewish Advocate ("Senator Kerry Visits Israel with Boston ADL Mission," The Advocate, July 24, 1986).
Kerry also engaged in a sometimes-contentious dialogue with Palestinian leaders who, according to the Epsteins, were unwilling to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Kerry also laid a wreath at Yad Vashem, unaware then that his own Jewish relatives had been killed in the Holocaust.
At Masada, Kerry went to the edge of the mountain where the Israeli air force is sworn in. "We stood on the edge and we yelled, 'Am Yisrael chai!' And boom, across came the echo. We looked at each other, and we felt as if we were hearing the sounds of those who had died there, speaking to us."
"Perhaps equally important, the Epsteins said, was the strong relationship Kerry developed with Lenny Zakim, the former director of the regional ADL and for whom the newest bridge spanning Boston is named. "John depended on Lenny as a sounding board on issues related to the Jewish community and to Israel," Bob Epstein said. Using a familiar metaphor to describe Zakim, Epstein said, "Lenny was a bridge-builder; he forged bridges with so many people in the community. John Kerry was one of those people with whom he had a special relationship."
On the last night of the trip, at dinner, the Epsteins said that there was a very meaningful and emotional conversation that had gone late into the night. Kerry spoke about how moved he had been by his experiences.
"Many of us had tears in our eyes," she said.
Recalling that first visit, Kerry said recently: "Israel is special. It is a place to be guarded and cherished by all. And, I want you to know that, as president, my promise to the people of Israel is this: I will never force Israel to make concessions that cost or compromise any of Israel's security. The security of Israel is paramount."
Bob Epstein, watching Kerry's perceptions evolve during the trip, praised Kerry's ability to grasp the issues so quickly.
"John Kerry is a very intelligent person," he said. "He's a very quick study. It's remarkable how he understood everything so rapidly. John is--and always will be--a fervent supporter of Israel."
The Epsteins mentioned that Kerry's brother, Cameron, married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism.
"The important thing that Jewish people should understand about John Kerry is this," Bob Epstein said, striking a partisan tone. "While our current president is overwhelmingly committed to Israel, he may fall down on other issues. John Kerry doesn't fall down on those issues, and he is equally fervent and committed to Israel."