John Glenn, astronaut and former senator, died today at the age of 95. Glenn had a complicated relationship with Jewish people, as a 1983 New York profile reveals. (Glenn himself was not Jewish, despite having the middle name “Herschel.”)
The profile describes Glenn as he was preparing for his ultimately doomed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination and details Glenn’s close but fraught relationship to Jews. His closest advisers included two Jewish ambassadors, Milt Wolf and Marvin Warner, and the man Glenn described as his best friend, Henri Landwirth, who narrowly survived the Holocaust after being left for dead by a Nazi guard.
However, despite Glenn’s closeness to Jews, his relationship with Jewish voters was always more fraught. He criticized Menachem Begin and his Irgun, equating it to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and received flack for his 1979 vote in favor of selling F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Glenn defended the latter decision by saying that Saudi Arabia would just purchase planes from France if not the U.S., and France would place fewer restrictions on how Saudi Arabia would use them. Viewed from 2016, U.S. support of Saudi Arabia feels frankly route and usually doesn’t require the reasonable explanation that Glenn offered at the time.
Another of Glenn’s positions on Israel seems similarly ahead of its time, though in a more positive sense. In 1979, and again in 1981, Glenn said that Israeli-Palestinian peace-talks should include the P.L.O. “To say that we will not have any contact with one of the major parties…is not the way to go,” Glenn said. “If we could get together with our antagonists in World War II, it couldn’t hurt to sit down with the PLO and see if we can find any commonality for an agreement.”
The position was so politically costly that Glenn took it back by the time he was running for president. That’s a shame, though, since it proved to be the correct position. 1993’s Oslo Accords only came together once Yitzhak Rabin agreed to meet with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and although the Oslo Accords certainly did not bring peace to Israel, they remain respected by the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to this day.
Whether it came to space travel or Israeli peace negotiations, John Glenn was always a pioneer.