Senator Robert Byrd, The Six Day War, and The Jews of West Virginia
(Opinion Appeared in Jewish Journal, July 6, 2010 Rabbi Norbert Weinberg)
What did the Rabbi’s son share in common with the Preachers daughter?
Answer: They both kept Shabbat.
I introduce my comments on events in West Virginia of some forty plus years ago,with this curio because West Virginia, like the late Senator, was, when I lived there as a teenager, a state of unusual contradictions, as unusual as the idea of Jews in West Virginia.
Yes,Virginia, there are Jews in West Virginia, and they, together with Senator Byrd, played a significant role in 1967 during the Six-Day War to bolster vital support for Israel from the United States.
My father served as Rabbi to the Jewish community in a small city in the center of the State( Clarksburg), which had been the home town of a former Vice-Presidential candidate.
There were aspects of the state that we associate with hillbillies or the old South. When I went on hikes in the countryside, I could see farmers still plowing their forty acres with a mule. A devout Christian woman from a small neighboring town who read the Bible literally would come to the synagogue on Jewish holidays bearing first fruits from her garden. It was a land marked by coal mines that till today devour those who work them.
The KKK at one time had a strong appeal, and even the late Senator Byrd had his start in their nefarious ranks.It took him a long time to break with old segregationist attitudes ( He tried to block the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in 1967, opposed Thurgood Marshall’s appointment to the Supreme Court , for example. Remember that the Democratic Party has had its great failure in its dealings with African-Americans from before the Civil War until the 1960's).
There was a different West Virginia ,as well, and Senator Byrd was aware of it.
The Jewish communities were doing well, and in Clarksburg, the local Jews were active in civic affairs. I personally never experienced any anti-Semitism, joined the local DeMolay (a kind of junior Masons) because the club-house was next door to the synagogue, and hung around at the local YMCA (yes, Christian,not Hebrew) with the rest.
Mother’s Day was an innovation of a church in neighboring Grafton, and my father, as Rabbi, delivered a Sunday sermon on Mother’s Day.
When the Principal of the High School blocked the selection of a black student as a cheerleader, the students made him back down. When Kennedy, a Catholic, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1960. the people of West Virginia, a heavily devoutly Protestant state, gave him the win, a fact which led to his nomination and then Presidency. If a Catholic could win West Virginia, he could, and did,
You couldn’t even escape the Beatles craze—I had the first Beatles collarless jacket in town.
As for the Rabbi’s son and the Preacher’s daughter, the two of us would commiserate that we missed out on so many activities that our less religious coreligionists would attend on Friday evenings. Her father was a Minister of the Seventh-Day Baptist ( not Adventist) denomination, similar in all other ways to Baptists except that they insisted on observing the Seventh Day( Shabbat),not the the First Day.
Another Shabbat observer was Senator Byrd’s colleague, the other Senator from West Virginia, who some forty years before Senator Lieberman, was the only Shabbat-observing Senator.No,not his contemporary , Senator Javitz of New York,but Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia.( He belonged to the same Baptist denomination as my class-mate).
This factoid leads me now to the Six-Day War.
Recall that in May of 1967, Nasser closed blocked the access to the Straits of Tiran, ordered the UN forces out of the Sinai ( they politely obliged him), and massed tanks and troops in the Sinai. In Israel, mass graves were being readied for the casualties of war.My father reported to me the words of Vice-President Hubert Humphrey at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly that the United
States of America would protect Israel.No assistance came forth.
In June, the fighting broke out; the people of Israel scrambled their jets and American Jewry scrambled as well- to demonstrate support for Israel.
The Jews of West Virginia, as from the rest of the country, sent delegations from the various communities; we were joined by noted journalist and the biographer of Ben Gurion, Robert St. John. At the time, I was home on vacation from NYU, and I was selected to join the delegation.I assume that I was one of the youngest of the delegates to go. We flew out of the small airport on one of the last of the DC-3s to still be flying.( Did I say it was a small airport?)
In Washington, we met with our Senators and Congressmen. The above -mentioned Senator Randolph assured us of his sympathies and made mention of his being the only Sabbath-keeper in the Senate.
It was Senator Byrd, however, who made the great impression on us.Senator Byrd was leveraging his long-career in the Senate ( since the early 50's) to move up in the ranks. By 1967. he became the Secretary of the Democratic Majority and he was a close friend of President Johnson.
Ten years earlier, he told us, when the first Suez Campaign broke out in 1957, he had been a vocal opponent of Israel’s actions, as had President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles. At that time, he was sure that Israel was in the wrong to go into the Sinai.This time, all was different. He had studied the documents and treaties regarding the rights to the use of the Suez Canal and access to Eilat through the Straits of Tiran. Egypt, this time,was the aggressor and the closures were clearly causus belli. Israel was acting in self defense.
Furthermore, the next morning, he declared, he would introduce a major appropriations bill on the floor of the Senate for immediate funding and arms for Israel. Indeed, that is what happened next. Appropriations were issued and President Johnson met with his Soviet counterpart at Glasboro State College. The US replaced France as Israel’s great ally. The rest is history.
Did we, the tiny Jewish community of West Virginia, cause this change of heart?
I would love to take the credit, but more probably, it was Senator Byrd, who looked to the changing landscape of America, and saw his future in the new direction of America—Israel as an ally and an America open to all races and creed. This was a major shift for a master politician who know how to move ahead..He became the longest serving member of the United State and the most powerful Senator as Majority leader and as President Pro Tempore, third in line of succession to the White House.