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Hizzoner

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died today, spoke to Tablet in 2011 about politics and Judaism

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Ed Koch speaking in New York in 2010. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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,
Sarah Palin

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Koch’s response:

Dear Governor:

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.
Ed Koch

This article originally appeared on March 4, 2011.

***

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Koch was a great Mayor and Congressman – and he is still doing public service in his writing and speaking!

Izzy says:

I hope we don’t have to see that tombstone for a very long time. I really like Spike Milligan’s wording better. In gaelic it reads “I told you I was ill”…

My recollection of the SS St. Louis is that the ship was German owned and of German registry,
consequently it could not have carried the descriptive designation ‘USS’, United States Ship. Koch is mistaken, an embarrassing minor goof for a New York lawyer!

Chaim says:

Thank you Tablet Magazine. Great and delightful interview.

Nitin Pandey says:

Liked it… he was too blunt about the US policies on AF/Pak

Nancy says:

The SS St. Louis WAS an American ship.

Charles says:

Good to hear Koch support a two state solution and dividing Jerusalem. It makes a lot of sense. Too bad he doesn’t support a strong US policy to make it happen in spite of Israeli intransigence.

Tibbins says:

Koch provides good ideas for getting to a two-state solution and real peace in Israel. So why does he think that Obama is not the right person to get us there? Obama’s given Israel more aid than any other president, and he’s making a concerted effort to get Israel to make the necessary concessions for peace. Given what Koch sees as a fair and equitable solution to the conflict, what more could he ask for?

Jim M says:

Maybe he practices celibacy. That would explain his ‘magic touch’ with Catholics.

jerry pappert says:

To Mr tibbins
Where do you get your information about Pres. Obamas aid to Israel being
considerably more than any other Presidents?I believe you are terribly wrong and giving out misinformation.

lana says:

I hate to speak ill of the deaths, and I hope sincerely that God will be merciful to him , but this man hated muslims, just like Hitler hated jews. By him sayind that Afganistan in not a country and to drone or nuke it, and for him to so hatefully disregard the millions of lives that lives there ,IT’S NOT SO different from when Hitler(the butcher) called for the annihilation of the jews.

I think that the so called “jewish state” and with it, the zionism idiology of isolationists, have corrupted some jewish harts and minds(not all them of course) and turn them into a intolerent, prejiduce and hatefull bunch, specially toward muslims.

NOWADAYS some hardcore jews won’t hesitate to befriend with their old tyrans and oppressors the(christians extremist)againt muslims, forgetting all about their own persecution and (for what?) for the sake of zionism, and forgetting all about the past mutual respect and friendship of jews and muslims.
I’m NOT saying that everything was rosy and perfect between muslims and jews before, and I’m NOT saying that muslims are agents of tolerence toward jews or that there’s no hatefull muslims, because there’s plenty of them ,especially since the creation of the “jewish state” and the palestinians struggle, but what I’m trying to say is that they had an upright respect and appreciation and even admiration for each other, especially amongst the easterns jews and muslims, and they build one of the most great civilisation(islamic civilisation)together, of course some muslims fundamentalists would denie that nowadays, because of the tensions between the two communities, but without jews cooperation and assistance they would’t be (Al andalous muslim spain) legacy. But of course that was before the zionism idiology that had divided them and the christians radicals extremists (far right) who gladly take adventage of this division.

I sincerely HOPE for both community to GET UP from the ashes of intolerance, and to rekindle their pass f

lana says:

I hate to speak ill of the deaths, and I hope sincerely that God will be merciful to him , but this man hated muslims, just like Hitler hated jews. By him sayind that Afganistan in not a country and to drone or nuke it, and for him to so hatefully disregard the millions of lives that lives there ,IT’S NOT SO different from when Hitler(the butcher) called for the annihilation of the jews.

I think that the so called “jewish state” and with it, the zionism idiology of isolationists, have corrupted some jewish harts and minds(not all them of course) and turn them into a intolerent, prejiduce and hatefull bunch, specially toward muslims.

NOWADAYS some hardcore jews won’t hesitate to befriend with their old tyrans and oppressors the(christians extremist)againt muslims, forgetting all about their own persecution and (for what?) for the sake of zionism, and forgetting all about the past mutual respect and friendship of jews and muslims.
I’m NOT saying that everything was rosy and perfect between muslims and jews before, and I’m NOT saying that muslims are agents of tolerence toward jews or that there’s no hatefull muslims, because there’s plenty of them ,especially since the creation of the “jewish state” and the palestinians struggle, but what I’m trying to say is that they had an upright respect and appreciation and even admiration for each other, especially amongst the easterns jews and muslims, and they build one of the most great civilisation(islamic civilisation)together, of course some muslims fundamentalists would denie that nowadays, because of the tensions between the two communities, but without jews cooperation and assistance they would’t be (Al andalous muslim spain) legacy. But of course that was before the zionism idiology that had divided them and the christians radicals extremists (far right) who gladly take adventage of this division.

I sincerely HOPE for both community to GET UP from the ashes of intolerance, and to rekindle their pass friendship

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The first two things that come to mind about Ed Koch, whom I served for six years as Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs, are what a quick study he was on any subject — sounding like an expert 30 seconds after a 5-minute briefing — and how he would mimic prepared statements as he read them to signal the audience that they weren’t really his words.

tendilla says:

As a Jew, as a Los Angeleno and as a Liberal Democrat…Looking on Mayor Koch over the years…I have nothing but the Greatest Respect for the man no matter how “crotchety” he became in later years…he was a Buster…we loved him!!!

ED KOCH was an excellent mayor and a very good man. Unlike a lot of politicians he could not double talk, wouldn’t know how, unlike Charles Shumer who swears how he supports Israel while at the same time makes a deal with Obama not to oppose Hagel nomination. What was the deal. Tune in.

jtlsalisbury says:

Muddled thinking.So common amongst his ilk…
Not sure how anyone could truly believe in the idea of the Founding Fathers and support the idea of Israel.They are diametrically opposite.

    And yet our Founding Fathers accepted a foreign army and navy from the authoritarian King of France to kick out the British. And how about World War II, was that also a bad entangling alliance? Maybe we should have let Hitler to sort out all those darned Europeans.

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Hizzoner

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died today, spoke to Tablet in 2011 about politics and Judaism

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