Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died today, spoke to Tablet in 2011 about politics and Judaism
Since leaving Gracie Mansion 21 years ago, Ed Koch has written more than a dozen books, including a screed against a successor (Giuliani: Nasty Man), a compendium of wit and wisdom (How’m I Doing?); an autobiographical children’s book (Eddie: Harold’s Little Brother), and a series of paperback murder mysteries (Murder at City Hall; Murder on Broadway) starring a mayor-cum-sleuth named Ed Koch. But perhaps the most telling of Koch’s book titles is one from 2007—Buzz: How to Create It and Win With It. In a society obsessed with self-promotion, Koch has turned talking about himself into an art.
Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx and raised in Newark, New Jersey, as a Conservative Jew. He represented New York City in Congress from 1969 to 1977 and served as its mayor from 1978 to 1989. Now 86, he is a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave, where the windowsill of his office, overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is decorated with a silver-colored Hanukkiah and dozens of pictures of himself shaking hands with celebrities. Koch is vague about what he does there, beyond building buzz. He has never been married and has no children, and he neither confirms nor denies persistent rumors of homosexuality. “What do I care?” he told New York magazine 13 years ago. “I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply: Fuck off.”
When I asked Koch about the importance of Judaism in his life, he called out to his secretary. “Jody! Bring him the tombstone!” She handed me a copy of Koch’s pre-written epitaph: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved the people of the City of New York.” The headstone also quotes Daniel Pearl’s last words—“My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish”—and notes that these words were spoken “immediately before his beheading by an Islamic terrorist.” Koch believes in God but describes himself as secular.
You came into office in the wake of New York’s financial crisis of the 1970s.
I said, “Whatever it takes, no matter what bricks are thrown at me, I will do to bring New York back to its great past.” And that means sacrifice. You know you’re hurting people. But if you want to keep the city from going in bankruptcy, which would injure even more, there’s no other way out. Now, everybody understands it. Now, guys like [New Jersey governor] Chris Christie—they applaud him. He’s doing what I did. Jerry Brown in California—he’s doing what I did. When I did it, it was unique.
When I ran for a fourth term, I got 42 percent of the vote [in the Democratic primary], and David Dinkins won. What is interesting is that I’m Jewish, but my biggest supporters were Catholic. Italian and Irish Catholic. I generally, over the years, would get 81 percent of their vote. With Jews, I would get 73 percent. People say, “How is that possible? You’re a Jewish boy!” And the answer is that the liberal wing of the Jewish nation doesn’t find me liberal enough. Because I’m a liberal with sanity.
What are some specific issues on which you clash with liberal Jews?
Well, for example, the death penalty. I have supported the death penalty from the beginning of my professional life, when I ran for Congress. I believe it’s liberal, if you believe that protecting society is liberal.
Do you think you’ve moved to the right over the course of your career?
When I was in the Congress, I was opposed to the Vietnam War. I went to Canada and talked to American young men who had left the United States to avoid the draft. And I came back and proposed that American soldiers who resisted the draft, evaded it, be given amnesty; and in addition, American soldier deserters—this is in the middle of the Vietnam War—be given amnesty. People said, “Are you crazy?” President Carter, six months later, gave amnesty to draft resisters and deserters. So I believe, on social issues, I’m as left as you can get. On fiscal issues I’m moderate. I hope I’ve changed over the years, but I certainly don’t believe you could say I’ve moved from the left to the right.
Do you ever feel that American Jews are afraid to support Israel?
I know there was a dearth of support when Obama changed the policy of the United States towards Israel not very long ago. I’m very proud that I aroused the Jewish community and the Christian pro-Israel community and Obama changed his anti-Israel position, most illustrative of that being when he insulted Bibi Netanyahu. As you undoubtedly know, when George Bush ran for reelection—not election—when he was running against, what’s his name—John, Massachusetts …
Kerry, right. Kerry was not good on Israel, in my judgment. So I supported Bush. And I said at the time, publicly, “I don’t agree with him on a single domestic issue. But on the issue of fighting Islamic terrorism”—which, to me, is more important than any other issue, not just because of Israel; it is because Islamic terrorism is seeking to destroy Western civilization. I said, “The Democratic party doesn’t understand that.” The Republican party did. I was shocked when I saw a poll which said that of Democrats, 48 percent supported Israel. 48 percent! Republicans, 70 percent. So I stood up and supported Bush. I have no regrets.
So why didn’t you support John McCain in 2008?
Well, because I’m a Democrat, and I believed that Obama was as good as McCain.
And now you feel you were misled?
I don’t say misled. I misjudged.
Do you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are good for the Jews?
No. They’re not good for America, which is more important. We are spilling American blood for nothing. We are having American treasure looted by Karzai in particular in Afghanistan. We should pull out today.
So how does that mesh with your take on Islamic terrorism?
I don’t believe that we should fight them the way they want us to fight them. I believe we should bomb them with drones. Afghanistan—it’s not a country.
So you’re supportive of the drone attacks in Pakistan?
Absolutely. Pakistan is not a friend anymore. These are not countries you can depend upon. We shouldn’t have people there, and we shouldn’t give them the billions that we’re giving. With respect to that area, India is our true ally, not Pakistan.
Do you have views on Israeli politics?
Sure I do. I believe in a two-state solution. I believe that Bibi Netanyahu should throw out Lieberman and all those arch right wingers and form a broad cabinet with the center, and that you can have an Arab capital in Jerusalem along with a Jewish capital in Jerusalem. You should have boroughs in the Arab area and the Jewish area where they elect their own local leadership. It’s doable!
Do you think New York Jews stand up for Israel?
I don’t think [they do] enough. I think young people no longer understand the meaning of the Holocaust. Young Jews don’t understand that when Hitler offered to let the Jews out of Germany, there was no nation that would take them—including the United States. And all you have to do is remember the U.S.S. St. Louis, which was turned away. So I think that somehow or other the Jewish community has to educate, and say, “We’re Americans. But we also are like any other people that love our ancestry and our traditions.” And in our case it’s even more important, because there’s never been an effort to exterminate a people, a whole people, as was the case with Hitler and the Jews. Jews who think they’re not included in that extermination effort, should it ever occur again, they’re dead wrong. And we know the nation of Israel will stand up to the best of its ability. It will use its armed forces to protect Jews, as it did at Entebbe.
How did Judaism influence your life growing up?
I’m a secular Jew. I believe in God, I believe in the hereafter, I believe in reward and punishment, and I expect to be rewarded. That’s a partial joke. But I identify as a Jew. And I think when I was mayor, I made that clear. As a result of just being up front about it, I think I was helpful in changing relations vis-a-vis the Jews and making them more positive. I hope so.
Was being Jewish a big part of your life?
No. I go to synagogue twice a year. Park East Synagogue. It’s Orthodox, but that’s only because I like Rabbi Schneier. It has nothing to do with me. I would consider myself a Conservative—the reason I say Conservative, not Reform, is that I am very unhappy to be in a synagogue without a yarmulke. I feel naked.
I wanted to be buried in Manhattan. Near a subway stop, to make it easy to get there. So I got the last burial plot at the Trinity Church up at 155th Street. My tombstone is up there, and it has the Shma Yisroel, in English and Hebrew, and it has the last words of Dan Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I’m Jewish.” Now, they probably made him say that as they cut his throat on television. Doesn’t make any difference. I think that should become a prayer on Saturday.
There was a forum recently in New York magazine debating who was the best mayor in New York history.
Oh, I saw that. Those were liberal—the historians who were there were all very liberal. They don’t like me. On the other hand, there was just a book out by a liberal historian [Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, by Jonathan Soffer]. He says, when he announced to his confreres, who are all liberal, “I’m going to do a book on Koch,” they said, “Go get him.” But in his book he says that I was better than LaGuardia. He said the problems that I confronted were greater than LaGuardia’s and my responses were better. That’s what he says; I’m not saying it. I don’t mind others saying it, but I’m not saying it.
What do you think makes LaGuardia so popular today?
’Cause he’s dead.
You recently defended Sarah Palin’s use of the term “blood libel.”
Fairness! Don’t you think we should have fairness? What they were trying to do, some of the talking heads, was to blame her for the shooting of the Congresswoman in Tucson. In fact, she sent me a response—Jody! I’d like to give him the Sarah Palin response, her comment to me.
Sarah Palin’s email:
Mr. Koch: I hate to bother you through a personal email account but I wanted to send a “thank you” for your encouraging words. Thank you, sincerely, for sticking your neck out in such a public manner. My family and I appreciate your boldness!
My best to you,
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T
Thank you for your e-mail. I was delighted to speak out because I believe you were being unfairly attacked by some who wish to politicize the tragedy in Arizona. I believe in spirited political debate, and so do you. Yes, we disagree on many public issues, and that debate is good for America. I wish you and your family the very best in your own pursuit of happiness. God bless America.
All the best.
This article originally appeared on March 4, 2011.
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