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Francis Albert Sinatra (1915-1998) may have been one of America's most famous Italian Catholics, but he kept the Jewish people and the State of Israel close to his heart, manifesting life-long commitments to fighting antisemitism and to activism on behalf of Israel.
Sinatra stepped forward in the early 1940s, when big names were needed to rouse America into saving Europe's remaining Jews, and he sang at an "Action for Palestine " rally (1947). He sat on the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and he donated over $1 million to Jerusalem's Hebrew University, which honored him by dedicating the Frank Sinatra International Student Center. (The Center made heartbreaking headlines when terrorists bombed it in 2002, killing nine people.)
As the result of his support for the Jewish State, his movies and records were banned in some Arab countries. Sinatra helped Teddy Kollek, later the long-serving mayor of Jerusalem but then a member of the Haganah, by serving as a $1 million money-runner that helped Israel win the war.
The Copacabana Club, which was very much run and controlled by the same Luciano-related New York mafia crowd with whom Sinatra had become enmeshed, happened to be next door to the hotel out of which Haganah members were operating. In his autobiography, Kollek relates how, trying in March 1948 to circumvent an arms boycott imposed by President Harry Truman on the Jewish fighters in Eretz Yisrael, he needed to smuggle about $1 million in cash to an Irish ship captain docked in the Port of New York. The young Kollek spotted Sinatra at the bar and, afraid of being intercepted by federal agents, asked for help. In the early hours of the morning, the singer went out the back door with the money in a paper bag and successfully delivered it to the pier.
The origins of Sinatra's love affair with the Jewish people are not clear but, for years, the Hollywood icon wore a small mezuzah around his neck, a gift from Mrs. Golden, an elderly Jewish neighbor who cared for him during his boyhood in Hoboken, N.J. (Years later, he honored her by purchasing a quarter million dollars' worth of Israel bonds).
He protected his Jewish friends, once responding to an antisemitic remark at a party by simply punching the offender. Time magazine reported that Sinatra walked out on the christening of his own son when the priest refused to allow a Jewish friend to be the godfather. As late as 1979, he raged over the fact that a Palm Springs cemetery official in California declared that he could not arrange the burial of a deceased Jewish friend over the Thanksgiving holiday; Sinatra again threatened to punch him in the nose.
Sinatra famously played the role of a Jewish pilot in Cast a Giant Shadow, the 1966 film filmed in Israel and starring friend Kirk Douglas as Mickey Marcus, the Jewish-American colonel who fought and died in Israel's war for independence (Sinatra dive-bombs Egyptian tanks with seltzer bottles!) He donated his salary for the part to the Arab-Israeli Youth Center in Nazareth and he also made a significant contribution to the making of Genocide, a film about the Holocaust, and helped raise funds for the film.
Less known is Sinatra in Israel (1962), a short 45-minute featurette he made in which he sang In the Still of the Night and Without a Song. He also starred in The House I Live In (1945), a ten-minute short film made to oppose antisemitism at the end of World War II, which received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.