Ed Koch may not have caused a change in Obama’s Israel policy, but he’s forced the administration to shift its message to Democratic Jewish voters
When it comes to city politics—a subject about which he’s every bit the expert—Koch has a tendency to eulogize himself. He explains that his legacy will be one of saving New York from bankruptcy, balancing its budget, and restoring its sense of pride. Almost in the same breath, he will insist that he doesn’t care what people write about in his obituary.
The animosities and rivalries that mark a politician’s career have, for the most part, dissolved. Andrew Cuomo? “Strangely enough, we have a very good relationship,” he said of the man he endorsed for both attorney general and governor of New York. “There was a time when we didn’t.” (Cuomo, as many recall, just happened to be running his father’s 1977 mayoral campaign when “Vote Cuomo, not the homo” signs began popping up in select neighborhoods around the city.) Rudy Giuliani? “I happen to like Giuliani, even though I wrote a book about him called Giuliani: Nasty Man.” Ultimately, the former mayor saved his most effusive praise for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I think he’s doing a marvelous job,” he gushed. “He’s been very generous to me. He urged the city council to name the Queensboro Bridge the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, and I’m very grateful.”
On some of the city’s more pressing political issues, the former mayor appears markedly mellow. Although he sympathizes with the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Koch is quick to dismiss the long-term viability of their demonstration. One can hardly fault him his skepticism. Having weathered the Tompkins Square Park riot of 1988, the former mayor is not easily fazed by scores of people camping out in a public park. For better or worse, New York is a more orderly city than it was 30 years go, and Koch would know: He was, according to many observers, one of the principle architects of its rebirth.
Over the past decade, however, a single issue has all but hijacked his politics. Perhaps it was only inevitable then that our conversation turned to the subject of Israel. Koch insists that his views on the Jewish state have remained largely unchanged over the course of his career. While this may be true, it’s difficult to ignore a certain reordering of priorities and heightening of hyperbole. In 2004, he supported the re-election of George W. Bush, a decision as grounded in Koch’s support of the Bush Doctrine as it was in his affinity for the president’s commitment to Israel’s safety. This past December, in one of his weekly email blasts—streams-of-consciousness that Koch claims reach upward of 10,000 readers—the former mayor unloaded on New York Times columnist Tom Friedman for suggesting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s standing ovation from a joint session of Congress was “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby.” “Coming from an alleged supporter of Israel, a Jew himself, this canard is especially offensive,” Koch wrote. “This infamous statement will be joined with the Protocols of Zion, one a libel, the other a forgery—because of the status of its author—and used around the world by those who hate the Jews and Israel.”
Koch’s support for Turner may prove even more destructive to the aims of his political party if, in fact, he can still call it his own. As he enters the final year of his term of office, the president remains as devoted to Israel as his predecessor while the gridlock in Congress has grown that much more intractable.
However myopic or misguided his vision has become, the former mayor has emerged as the indisputable victor of his recent face-off with Obama, albeit for different reasons than he might like to admit. Koch hasn’t fundamentally altered the president’s Israeli policy, but he has changed the tenor of his message to the Jewish base. And with the former mayor likely to campaign for the president in Florida, the message has become the medium. “I served in World War II,” Koch told me, “and it was clear to me early on that if Israel had been alive, every Jew able to leave Nazi Germany would have been saved. I also believe that it is possible for anti-Semitism to reach heights comparable to those in Nazi Germany.”
Koch rejects the notion that he’s grown more religious as he’s gotten older. He has also revealed, in conversations with other journalists, that the final words of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl will be engraved on his tombstone: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
On Jan. 25, Beit Morasha inaugurated the Edward I. Koch Center for Public Policy and Jewish Ethics. “I’ve spoken to many Jewish organizations,” Koch told the Jewish Week, “But as best I can recall, I’ve never been honored by one before.” He was long overdue.
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