On Tuesday, May 10, 2011, the State of Israel will celebrate Yom Haatzmaut – Israel Independence Day. This is a day that marks the 63rd anniversary of the proclamation in May, 1948 of Israel’s Declaration of Independence by the Jewish State’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
In my opinion, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust was a modern day miracle, tantamount to the miracles of the Bible. As the British author, Christopher Sykes wrote in his landmark book, Crossroads to Israel, “Within three and a half years of sufferings such as few other people had undergone in the whole course of recorded history, after the loss of a third of their whole population in the world, the Jews had formed a Jewish state….”
In the decades that followed, Israel won the admiration of freedom loving peoples throughout the world for its triumph over the armed might of those neighboring states and terrorist entities who sought its destruction. The famed American journalist, Emmet John Hughes stated it best: “Israel was a triumph of moral unity and political creativity.” The accomplishments of this new democracy in science, technology, and economic development truly made Israel “a light unto the nations.”
Yet the miracle of Israel was not achieved by Jews alone. Thankfully, the State of Israel was fortunate to have non-Jewish allies in the political realm who gave the Jewish State vital support during the trying days leading to Israel’s creation and the decades that followed. In New Jersey, a father and son stand out above all others in this regard: Congressman Robert Kean and his son, former Governor Tom Kean.
Not enough New Jerseyans know of the valiant efforts of Robert Kean on behalf of European Jewry during the Holocaust and his actions in support of the creation of the State of Israel. As noted by Alvin S. Felzenberg in his definitive biography, Governor Tom Kean, Robert Kean was one of the few members of the Congress ” to call upon the Roosevelt administration to undertake vigorous efforts to rescue Jews in Hitler-occupied Europe from certain death.”
Robert Kean’s advocacy occurred at a time when due to the then-prevalence of anti-Semitism in America, Jewish political figures and community leaders were often fearful of pressuring the Roosevelt administration to undertake efforts to rescue European Jewry. Jewish historians, however, have not overlooked the heroism of Robert Kean. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, an eternal flame burns for Robert Kean in honor of his condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism on the floor of the House of Representatives in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.
Robert Kean’s brotherhood with the Jewish people did not end with the Holocaust. As Felzenberg also notes, he was an early proponent of the establishment of the State of Israel. It was advocacy from key members of Congress like Robert Kean that played a pivotal role in the decision of the Truman administration to vote in favor of the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine and the creation of Jewish and Arab states.
Robert Kean did something more. He created a family legacy of brotherhood with the Jewish community and support for the State of Israel that his son, Tom would build upon when he became the Governor of New Jersey in 1982.
As Governor, Tom Kean issued two unprecedented executive orders that were truly historic in terms of the New Jersey Jewish community. The first created in 1982 the New Jersey Holocaust Council, later renamed the Commission on Holocaust Education. The work of this commission culminated in the enactment of the Holocaust Education Act in 1994, mandating the study of the Holocaust in New Jersey’s public schools.
The second was Kean’s issuance of an Executive Order in 1989 creating the New Jersey-Israel Commission. This had been preceded by the execution of a Sister State agreement between the State of Israel and the State of New Jersey in 1988. The goal of the Sister State agreement was the promotion of trade, cultural, educational, and economic development exchanges between New Jersey and Israel. The purpose of the establishment of the New Jersey-Israel Commission was to implement the goals of the Sister State agreement. Since the establishment of the New Jersey-Israel Commission, governors of both political parties have utilized it to attain these goals and enhance the relationship between New Jersey and Israel.
There is another aspect of Tom Kean’s tenure as Governor of which few people are aware. His direct communications with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of a Russian refusenik, Fred Klotz resulted in the former Soviet Union permitting the Klotz family to emigrate to Israel in 1987.
I had the good fortune to travel with Tom Kean to Poland and Israel in 1995 on a Holocaust education mission under the auspices of the New Jersey-Israel Commission. Since then, I have had the honor of sharing his company on a number of occasions.
Having had the opportunity to get to know Tom Kean on a much more intimate basis, I can say without hesitation that his friendship with the New Jersey Jewish community and the State of Israel is genuine and heartfelt. I am only one of hundreds of thousands of Jews residing in the State of New Jersey. On this Yom Haatzmaut, however, this column gives me the opportunity to thank Robert and Tom Kean for their brotherhood and all their accomplishments on behalf of World Jewry and Israel.
To paraphrase the New Jersey slogan of Tom Kean himself, I say Israel, Robert Kean, and Tom Kean – Perfect Together!
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.