August 29, 2012
The year was 1984 and I was a student at Duke University. During the fall semester I spent time working on Jim Hunt’s senatorial campaign. It was not so much that I was working on behalf of Jim Hunt but rather, I was working to unseat incumbent Jesse Helms, one of the most anti-Israel senators at the time. His record on Israel was, as one article put it, “the most negative of any member of the Senate.” Among other things, Helms was the sole senator to vote against prohibiting American companies from joining the Arab League boycott of Israel. During the 1982 Lebanon War, he called for the United States to break all diplomatic relations with Israel. While Hunt won our district, Helms kept his seat and remained in the Senate.
The next year, I was living and studying at the Rothberg School for Overseas Students at Hebrew University when I received a call asking if I would attend worship in the university’s beit knesset the next morning. The reason? Senator Jesse Helms was coming to Israel and would be attending. I wasn’t interested in meeting Helms but I did attend. Upon returning home an amazing thing happened. Helms, long an opponent of all things Israel, did an about face and became a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “It was,” according to Morris Amitay, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “a complete switch.” Helms continued to be a supporter of Israel until his retirement from the Senate in 2003.