WASHINGTON — In the early 1990s during his first term as a U.S. senator, Paul Wellstone was accused by some pro-Israel activists as having a bad voting record regarding the Jewish state.
The Minnesota Democrat did not sign on to a number of other letters and resolutions, including a 1998 letter urging President Clinton to stop publicly pressuring Israel to make concessions and criticizing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for violating the Oslo peace accords.
The charge that he was weak on Israel greatly upset the Jewish senator, according to Steve Silberfarb, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
"Nothing angered him more," he said. "That really got under his skin."
But by the time he died at age 58 in a tragic plane crash last Friday in Eveleth, Minn. — along with his wife; Sheila, 58; his daughter, Marcia; three campaign staffers; and two pilots — the two-term senator was hailed in Jewish circles for being one of the Senate's strongest supporters of Israel.
In recent years he signed or co-sponsored various congressional letters in support of Israel, including one to President Bush criticizing Arafat and urging the administration not to meet with Arafat until the Palestinians ended violence against Israel.
Wellstone also supported moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
At the time of his death, Wellstone was in the midst of a heated re-election battle against a Republican challenger, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. The race was the only Senate contest pitting two Jews against each other, much like the 1990 race Wellstone won to join the Senate.
Both Wellstone and Coleman had strong backing within the state's 45,000-strong Jewish community.
With Democrats clinging to a one-vote majority in the Senate, every race is considered important, and Wellstone's race with Coleman was seen as neck and neck. Former Vice President Walter Mondale announced Wednesday that he would replace Wellstone on the ballot.
During a 3-1/2-hour tribute at a University of Minnesota sports arena Tuesday night, more than 20,000 people cried and cheered for Wellstone, his wife, daughter and five other victims in the plane crash.
For the first two hours, speakers remembered the eight with poignant anecdotes. But when Wellstone's friend and longtime campaign treasurer Rick Kahn took the stage, he adopted the late senator's fiery speaking style and set aside the restraint that had held back most political speeches since the accident.
"If Paul Wellstone's legacy in the Senate comes to an end just days after this unspeakable tragedy, our spirits will be crushed, and we will drown in a river of tears," Kahn said. "We are begging you, do not let this happen."
In remembering Wellstone, most of his admirers, like JCRC's Silberfarb, recalled that he spoke passionately about the environment, health care and social justice, all issues that reflect moral teachings of Judaism.
Wellstone was admired and respected for his convictions and was not afraid to be a lone voice on an issue, Silberfarb said.
And a lone voice he was — especially in recent weeks before his death.
Well known for his liberal views, Wellstone voted against the bill authorizing the use of military force against Iraq — a bill that won easy passage in both the House and Senate.
"In private or in public, he was really the same person," Silberfarb said. "He stuck to his guns."
Wellstone was a frequent contributor to the dovish S.F.-based Tikkun magazine. Tikkun's editor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, issued a statement praising Wellstone's "vision of hope that affirmed the best in Judaism and the best in the secular humanist traditions." Beyt Tikkun, Lerner's San Francisco congregation, will hold a memorial service tonight for Wellstone, honoring his Jewish legacy, at Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St., S.F. The service is open to all and will include public officials.
Before coming to Washington, Wellstone was a community activist who taught for 21 years at Carleton College. He was born on July 21, 1944, the son of Russian immigrants, and raised in Arlington, Va. He married the former Sheila Ison in 1963, and the couple had three children. They are survived by two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.