On the eve of the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, with the 2017 New York City mayoral contest already in full swing, it is instructive to reflect on the impact that a similar coincidence had on a mayor’s race nearly 50 years ago, and on the nature and influence of the solidly Democratic yet independent-minded Jewish political base that proved decisive in that election. In 1969, New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay needed Jewish voters to win his reelection bid. But in the months before the election, survey and anecdotal evidence suggested that Jewish support at the polls would not be forthcoming. Many Jews had come to believe that Lindsay had not been effective and, more importantly, that he had little interest in supporting their particular interests.
Recognizing the necessity of courting Jewish voters, Lindsay took a series of important symbolic steps to reassure Jews that he understood and sympathized with their concerns. Most notable among these was an extraordinary reception he gave in a sukkah for Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during her visit to New York in late September of 1969. Lindsay’s advisers believed that this reception was the key factor that helped him win Jewish support and, by extension, the election. In his second term, Lindsay continued to focus on appealing to Jewish voters using the model set by the Meir visit—by embracing their international concerns. This included energetically snubbing foreign leaders whom New York Jews believed had anti-Israel agendas, traveling to Israel, and embracing the nascent Soviet Jewry movement.
Study of Lindsay’s approach to these issues is illustrative of the ways in which international and local politics intersected in New York City. In a city containing large and powerful ethnic communities with ties to foreign countries, Lindsay, like his predecessors and successors, recognized he needed to act as a kind of foreign minister for the city as a way of helping him to connect with ethnic voters. While this meant an occasional trip to Ireland and Italy and, later, to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, issues related to Israel were most significant throughout the postwar period. Many Jewish voters expected that their representatives, even ones on the city level who had little international power, would speak to their concerns about Israel’s future.
More directly put, study of Lindsay’s efforts regarding international politics helps to explain how Jewish political power operated in New York City, a venue in which Jews were extraordinarily influential. Eli Lederhendler, in his study of New York Jewish life in the 1950s and ’60s, wrote that the city served as a kind of “Jewish Camelot.” He argued that the city was a double urban utopia in which Jews could become leaders in a “cosmopolitan paradise, providing unhindered participation in the life of a world-city” and also a place where they could “build a Jewish cultural center that might sustain the entire Jewish people.” New York was both a great secular city that Jews had helped make great, and an object to advance Jewish concerns nationally and internationally. As a result of these two factors, New York City leaders had to make sure that their international policies reflected Jewish sensibilities, just as Jewish New Yorkers had come to understand that the municipal government could be an effective tool in influencing global politics.
Lindsay’s need to attract Jewish voters in the 1969 election was a function of basic electoral and demographic realities in New York City. In 1960, approximately 2.1 million Jews lived in the city, representing about 27.5 percent of all New Yorkers; ten years later, as suburbanization moved forward, 1.8 million Jews lived there—roughly 23.5 percent of the city’s population. Large as these numbers are, they do not reflect the full electoral power of the Jewish vote for two key reasons. First, of all ethnic groups in the city, Jews were the most likely to vote. Second, although most Jewish voters were registered Democrats, they were relatively independent, and critically, they were consistently supportive of liberal agendas. Historically, Jews had been willing to abandon the Democratic machine when Republicans presented liberal candidates like Fiorello LaGuardia (1934-1945). They were also susceptible to the charms of reform Democrats like Robert Wagner (1954-1965) who were committed to cleaning up corruption within the party. Jews thus acted as swing voters, consistently bringing liberal candidates into office. This is not to say that other ethnic groups did not have muscle. The Irish dominated the Democratic Party’s official hierarchy throughout the first half of the twentieth century and, by the 1960s, other groups, including Italians, blacks and, to a lesser extent, Puerto Ricans, had considerable electoral clout. However, Jewish electoral power, based on raw numbers, consistent turnout, and independent liberal sensibilities did not subside.
In his first mayoral election in 1965, as in 1969, Lindsay, a liberal Republican, needed Jewish support to win. He developed two strategies toward that end. First, he energetically pursued and gained the Liberal Party nomination by emphasizing his independence from the Republicans and his willingness to work with Liberal Party leaders. The party, founded in 1944 by Alex Rose and David Dubinsky, leaders in the Jewish-dominated textile trades, initially had served as a voice for leftist, anti-Communist unionized workers. By the 1960s, Jewish involvement in the textile trades had waned considerably, but the party, still managed by Rose and Dubinsky, remained an active force in city politics and pulled support from Jews of all economic classes. Most significantly, the party’s nomination was a recognized citywide indicator of the liberal bona fides of a particular candidate and an indicator of Jewish approval. Party activists consciously thought of their endorsement as a “kosher” label. They appreciated that they were indicating not only that a candidate was liberal, but also that he would back the interests of Jewish voters. Second, and as important, Lindsay engaged in retail ethnic politicking. During the campaign he focused on Jewish neighborhoods, wearing a yarmulke at every opportunity and explaining his liberal credentials, especially on civil rights issues, then important to Jewish voters.
The results of the Democratic Party primary in September 1965 complicated Lindsay’s electoral calculus. Abraham Beame, the city comptroller, defeated City Council President Paul Screvane and two lesser-known candidates to become the first Jew to run for mayor of New York City for the Democratic Party. Polling data suggested that Beame won the primary because of Jewish voters and that, as a result, Lindsay would win less than 30 percent of the Jewish vote in the general election. This forced Lindsay to focus on other ethnic groups where Beame had been weak in the primary, most notably among Irish and black voters, but Lindsay also continued to work to attract Jewish support. One of Lindsay’s most notable coups was receiving the endorsement of the Jewish Daily Forward, among the most important Jewish publications in the city. Its editors, writing about Beame, noted that “of course we are proud of Jews who have, through their great abilities, achieved high positions, but we are certainly not ready to support any candidate for the sole reason that he is a Jew… Lindsay, who possesses youthful freshness, energy, courage, and eagerness to fight for what is right will try to lead New York out of the swamp into which it is sinking.”
Ultimately, Lindsay won an impressive 43 percent of the Jewish vote by emphasizing his liberal credentials. Beyond Jews, Lindsay pulled roughly 40 percent of the black and Irish votes and won overwhelmingly among his own ethnic demographic, white Protestants from Manhattan. Among the factors that helped Lindsay was William Buckley’s decision to enter the race for the Conservative Party. Buckley, editor of the National Review and host of the television show Firing Line, was angered that the Republican Party had given its nomination to a liberal, and he hoped to make a point by offering voters a real conservative voice. Buckley siphoned off the support of many traditional Democratic working-class voters from Beame, mostly Irish and Italian, which allowed Lindsay to squeak through to victory.
Lindsay’s appeal was certainly not ethnic; it was his ability to suggest to New Yorkers that he would be able to halt the city’s obvious decline. To most observers, both in the media and on the street, New York faced a series of seemingly intractable problems, including failing schools, lack of housing, rising crime, traffic, pollution, and the loss of tax revenues as a result of businesses and middle-class residents leaving the city.Growing numbers of Puerto Ricans and expanding black ghettos often gave a distinctly racial flavor to these concerns, but even without race problems, New York City appeared to face a dismal future. The cool, handsome Lindsay, who channeled John F. Kennedy’s optimistic spirit, suggested that government action—if implemented with intelligence and vigor and imbued with concerns about social justice and an idealistic yet rational sense of the possible—could turn the city around.
However, Lindsay’s desire to focus on liberal principle and to do, as the Forward had written, “what was right,” led to a series of decisions in his first term that divided the city along ethnic and racial lines. Black and Puerto Rican leaders lauded his support for restructuring and empowering the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1966 to act more aggressively in reviewing improper police behavior. They believed that their constituencies routinely suffered from unfair and inappropriate police treatment. But the effort angered many others, most notably Irish and Italians, who were fearful that the board would reduce police effectiveness. The effort also alienated many Jews in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, who worried that crime seemed to be spiraling out of control. There was real evidence to support their fears: From 1965 to 1966, reported robberies in New York jumped from 8,904 to 23,539; reported burglaries rocketed from 51,072 to 120,903; and total reported crimes went from 187,795 to 323,107.
Lindsay’s handling of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school controversy, which pitted black parents and black elected school administrators against a group of mostly Jewish unionized teachers, further alienated many Jewish voters, who feared that Lindsay aimed to help the black community at the expense of the Jewish community. It is not practical to unpack the extraordinary complexities of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy here; many excellent scholars have explored the case and its implications for race relations in New York in a series of books and essays. Very briefly, the mayor believed in and promoted experimental community school management. This allowed the parents in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, a pilot area chosen to demonstrate the viability of the idea, to select an administrator committed to replacing the mostly Jewish teaching staff. Lindsay was unable to get the administrator to back down, even though the removal of teachers violated both city policy and a contract with the American Federation of Teachers union, as well as common sense (and political sense too). This suggested to many Jews that the mayor did not take anti-Semitism seriously. Lindsay’s failure to resolve the situation in a timely fashion led to three city-wide teacher strikes at the beginning of the 1968 school year.
Though far smaller than the issues of either the Civilian Review Board or the Ocean Hill-Brownsville fiasco, Lindsay’s mishandling of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia’s visit to New York City in June 1966 also suggested that he did not fully appreciate the need to represent the interests of Jewish voters. Faisal was on an official visit to the United States, meeting in Washington with President Lyndon B. Johnson and then traveling to New York City for a weeklong stay at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. At the request of the U.S. State Department, Lindsay agreed to give a dinner for Faisal at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
While still in Washington, Faisal gave a press conference where he was asked which country he considered a greater enemy, Israel or Egypt. At the press conference, Faisal said that even though he might have differences with Egypt, it was a “sister republic” and the Egyptians were “brethren.” Israel was another matter. He did not question Israel’s right to exist, saying “It was never our aim to exterminate Israel and drive it into the sea.” However, he added, Zionists who had pushed Palestinians from their lands were clearly an enemy. In the same press conference, when asked about Arab boycotts against companies that traded with Israel, Faisal said, “Unfortunately, Jews support Israel, and we consider those who provide assistance to our enemies [to be] our own enemies.”
Following Faisal’s press conference, Lindsay faced immediate pressure to cancel the dinner from outraged New Yorkers, both Jewish and not, who had found the comments offensive and antagonistic. But Lindsay initially resisted, suggesting that it was important to follow Washington’s lead. He told reporters simply, “I am happy to respond to the invitation of our State Department to give the dinner.” The Liberal Party leader, Alex Rose, who had become part of Lindsay’s inner circle, explained further: “It is the Mayor’s job to carry out the policy of the State Department, not contradict it. If the President of the United States and the State Department feel we have to accord honors to a head of state, it is only logical that the Mayor of New York should conform to this policy.” Lindsay evidently hoped to minimize the issue, as it seemed to him a national issue, not a city one.
Critics attacked Lindsay immediately. City Councilman Theodore Weiss asked, “Has the city administration no sense of decency and right?” Queens Congressman Leonard Farbstein said it was “reprehensible” that the city would welcome the leader of a nation that “openly and unashamedly boycotts American businesses and discriminates against Americans of Jewish faith.” City Council President Frank O’Conner told the press simply, “I was invited and I am not going.”
Lindsay had little choice but to reconsider the invitation. On the night of June 23, he met with two key advisors, Harvey Rothenberg and Bud Palmer, for a late dinner at Sardi’s Restaurant to discuss his options. During the course of the dinner, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk twice called Lindsay to encourage him to move forward with the reception. Rusk suggested including in a welcome speech some kind of criticism of Faisal’s comments as a way of finessing the situation. But the mayor would not commit himself to a position—neither to Rusk nor later to reporters waiting outside Sardi’s at 1 a.m. The next day, Lindsay flew to Washington to testify before the U.S. Senate in a previously scheduled session on urban poverty. According to press reports, Lindsay had struggled with the question that morning on his flight, and by the time he arrived at National Airport at 11 a.m., he had made up his mind. He called his press secretary, Woody Klein, from the airport and the two worked on a short statement that read: “The dinner is canceled. Under the circumstances, the Mayor has concluded that it would not be feasible to proceed with the dinner.” The statement did not explain much about Lindsay’s thinking. Later that afternoon, Lindsay told the press more, saying that he had an obligation to “prevent abrasive conditions within our city.” In the following days, Lindsay expanded on this theme, saying that Faisal’s comment “has made it impossible for me, as Mayor of New York City, to extend the official welcome of the city.” He noted: “The remark is extremely offensive, not just to Jews, but to all citizens of New York.” He further ordered that no city official meet with King Faisal during the mission. Still, Lindsay’s fumbling of the initial response was exactly the kind of misstep that suggested to New Yorkers, especially Jewish New Yorkers, that he was out of touch with their concerns.
That Lindsay failed to handle the Faisal situation masterfully demonstrates his general emphasis on principle over politics, but more importantly, the limitations of an approach that tried to ignore ethnic considerations for a New York City mayor of this era. It is worth mentioning that even though Lindsay had hesitated, national politicians attacked him for his ultimate decision. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, suggested that Faisal visit other parts of the United States, where he would find a warmer reception, adding, “I do recognize the emotions involved, but we should still maintain good manners.” Even New York Senator Jacob Javits, a Jew and a liberal Republican, said, “His visit could have served the purpose to indicate to Americans that as a leading Arab statesman his goal is a peaceful Middle East and progress for his people in an atmosphere of peace.”
In an essay in the New York Times, the popular satirist Russell Baker expanded on the theme of Lindsay’s lack of cooperation and suggested that although the snub had startled most Americans, that was precisely the effect that the “Manhattan Foreign Office” hoped to achieve. Baker mused that those who make New York’s foreign policy think the “trouble with Dean Rusk … is that he thinks he can make Washington’s foreign policy New York’s foreign policy. He treats us as if we were Great Britain.” Baker suggested that Lindsay was angling to join NATO, was planning a trip to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact between the Kremlin and City Hall, and was even hoping to have his own nuclear bomb. New York officials did not intend to build their own bomb, Baker joked; they would trade twenty megatons of corned beef with Washington for each bomb. That would have been a good deal for Washington, he wrote, given its lack of decent delicatessens.
Baker had missed the mark though. The Faisal incident demonstrated that, to the extent that Lindsay had an independent foreign policy before 1969, it was a reluctant one. It is also worth noting that the Faisal incident did not seem to alter Lindsay’s approach to foreign leaders from the Middle East. In April 1969, he met with King Hussein of Jordan for a low-key afternoon tea at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Fortunately for the mayor, this get-together did not lead to a public outcry. It did suggest that Lindsay continued to feel it was important to receive foreign leaders, no matter where they came from.
As Lindsay faced the 1969 election, his advisors once again understood that winning the Jewish vote would be critical. However, it was not his only challenge. City Republican leaders deeply opposed Lindsay’s reelection because of his emphasis on liberal principles and also because of his backing of Democrat Hubert Humphrey over Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. Republican John Marchi, a state senator from Staten Island, challenged the mayor and narrowly won the party’s primary election. Lindsay took the Manhattan vote by a 4-to-1 margin but lost badly in the other boroughs. In order to run again, Lindsay sought and obtained the Liberal Party nomination, as he had in 1965, which gave him a place on the ballot.
From the Democrats, Lindsay faced Comptroller Mario Procaccino, a relatively conservative party regular who won his party’s primary against a crowded field of more liberal candidates that included former Mayor Robert Wagner, Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo, a Puerto Rican, and the writer Norman Mailer. As the incumbent, Lindsay had no problem ensuring that he remained a “serious” candidate, but the symbolism of being abandoned by his party reinforced public sentiment that his mayoralty had been a failure. Lindsay’s strategy was to run what was then called a “mea culpa” campaign: to admit that the first term had not gone well, but that he was capable of improving and that neither of his Italian opponents would be able to do better.
A series of analyses of the electorate by Lindsay staffers and external observers suggested that the dynamics of the race would break down along ethnic and class lines and that Lindsay’s liberalism, given that he faced two significantly more conservative candidates, would be the major issue. The city’s poorest residents, mostly black and Puerto Rican, would vote overwhelmingly for Lindsay. The question was simply how to promote turnout among these groups, which usually had the lowest participation rates in the city. Among wealthy New Yorkers, especially white Protestant voters, Lindsay also remained popular. Aside from being one of their own, Lindsay seemed the smart and sophisticated choice. Both Marchi and Procaccino were conservatives, and Procaccino, especially, cultivated a deeply ethnic Italian working-class image. Lindsay would lose the Irish and Italian votes badly, but he could hope that these New Yorkers would split their votes between his two rivals. Given these factors, observers and Lindsay’s staff understood that Jews were the key. They were the only voting bloc that might swing either way. Using the same logic, a Procaccino aide asked rhetorically, “Is an Italian going to vote for Lindsay? How much of the Negro vote can we possibly get? …What we’re really talking about this year is the Jewish vote. Most of the other vote is locked in.”
It is important to point out, perhaps belatedly, that the Jewish vote and the Jewish community were not one entity. Although Jewish electoral power remained constant, the Jewish community itself was in a state of transition. By the 1950s, large numbers of college-educated, second- and third-generation Jews had entered professional white-collar occupations. These professional Jews often left the old neighborhoods. Some went to wealthier parts of the city, such as Jamaica Estates, Riverdale, or the Upper West Side, and many moved to the suburbs of Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey. These Jews remained reliably liberal, and they were more likely to identify themselves religiously as Conservative or Reform Jews, or as unaffiliated. Internal Lindsay campaign memos referred to these Jews as the non-Ethnics. But not all Jews were part of this trend. Working-class Jews either remained in the old immigrant neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn, or they moved to new working-class neighborhoods. They often continued to work in the occupations of their parents (e.g., textile workers, shopkeepers, and schoolteachers), and they were more likely to identify themselves as Orthodox Jews. The result was that by the mid-1960s, class differentiation and spatial movement meant that Jewish New Yorkers had increasingly less in common with each other than the city’s Jews in earlier eras.
It was among the working-class Jews that Lindsay had the biggest problem. As Deputy Mayor Robert Sweet explained in a campaign memo in July 1969: “Many Jews in the three boroughs [Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx] have come to feel that City Hall is neglecting their problems by undue concentration on Manhattan and the interests of the poor, ([which they] equate with blacks and Puerto Ricans). In the areas of education, taxation, welfare policies and crime, the feeling is prevalent that the Mayor pays relatively little attention to the middle and lower middle class—largely small homeowners and tenants who can’t afford to move to the suburbs but whose way of life is threatened by the real or imagined demands and conditions imposed by the minorities.” Another campaign memo on the Jewish vote suggested that while Conservative Jews were “more sophisticated politically” and “less anti-Lindsay,” and Reform Jews were “more pro-Lindsay than others in the Jewish Community,” the Orthodox were “the most anti-Lindsay of the Jewish Community.” Fortunately, the campaign believed that these voters were “not beyond reach.” Thus, Lindsay spent much of the fall campaign speaking in synagogues in the outer boroughs. His campaign organized a series of committees to focus on Jews, and it developed a special advertising campaign targeted to more observant working-class Jewish voters.
In this context, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s visit to New York in September of 1969, coming just one month before the election, represented an incredible opportunity for Lindsay to reconnect with Jewish New Yorkers, especially in the Orthodox community. Lindsay used his hosting and escorting duties to try to create a public perception that he was the pro-Israel candidate. While the Jewish community was fractured on a series of issues, including Lindsay’s record, his campaign advisors believed that support for Israel was an important common denominator—perhaps the only remaining common denominator for Jewish voters. They believed that Meir, as the personified symbol of the Israeli state, carried extraordinary power with her to New York as a spontaneous and temporary power broker.
Meir was in the United States for a series of talks with the Nixon administration in Washington, mostly about Israeli security needs and potential negotiations with Arab states. She then traveled to New York on September 29 before heading to Los Angeles and Milwaukee. From the moment Meir arrived in New York City, Lindsay spent as much time as he could at her side. Accompanied by his wife, Mary, the Mayor met Meir’s plane at Kennedy Airport, spending a few minutes in the small Convair plane with the prime minister before leading her to a short welcoming ceremony in front of 5,000 schoolchildren; together, Meir and Lindsay then drove to City Hall. There, the Mayor hosted a reception for city officials before Meir proceeded to a rally in City Hall Park where she was greeted by an estimated crowd of 15,000 well-wishers. During his speech, Lindsay gave Meir a ceremonial gold key to the city and told her: “The nation of Israel has conquered a desert and made it rich and fertile. It has conquered barren desolation and built cities where nothing stood. It has conquered those who would destroy it.” After these grand sentiments, he made an awkward transition, saying, “Today, a single woman has conquered the hearts of the City of New York.” Lindsay more meaningfully suggested, “If Israel’s freedom is ever lost, we are all a lesser people. If your fight for a Jewish homeland is ever lost, then this city—a homeland for so many diverse creeds—is that much less secure.” Lindsay concluded, “Madame Prime Minister, New York City is yours. Shalom Aleichem.”
Meir then traveled uptown to the United Nations for talks with Secretary-General U Thant, followed by a meeting with New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller. That night, a group of Jewish organizations hosted a dinner for Meir at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel with 2,700 guests. The next day, after a morning television interview on NBC’s “Today” show, she met with a group of newspaper editors and then with Secretary of State William P. Rogers. At lunch, she joined representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the Waldorf-Astoria. She then traveled to Madison Square Garden for a youth rally in the Felt Forum sponsored by several Zionist organizations.
The highlight of the trip was the city’s official reception at the Brooklyn Museum. One of the leading rabbis in the city, Emanuel Rackman of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, had suggested to the Mayor’s Office that because Meir’s visit coincided with the holiday of Sukkot, the city should plan something special to accommodate observant Jews who would attend. During Sukkot, which commemorates the biblical exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ period of wandering in the desert before they reached the Holy Land, religious Jews construct a temporary shelter (a sukkah) outside their homes in which they take meals and sometimes sleep. Thus, the Lindsay administration, on Rackman’s suggestion, decided to build a massive sukkah for the dinner. This would be no easy task because the structure, which would cost $6,000—all provided by private donations—would need to be enormous and built in accordance with religious laws. The campaign corralled an Orthodox city construction supervisor to manage the raising of the sukkah and also enlisted members of rival Hassidic sects, the Lubavitchers and the Satmars, to provide the manpower. Attorney Sid Davidoff, an aide to Lindsay, recalled that they also “strong-armed” a couple of importers from the Hunts Point Cooperative Market to get ferns deemed necessary for the sukkah roofing and enlisted Yeshiva students from around the city to make decorations.
Invitations to the reception came to be seen as a status symbol among Jewish organizations, which submitted more than 8,000 requests for tickets. Dozens of New York City politicians anxious to attend also clamored for one of the roughly 1,300 tickets. Davidoff suggested: “[If] there was a Jew in town who was a significant Jew, either as a contributor or as a rabbinical man, or whatever it may be, that missed that function, it was either because he was dying or dead.” The dais alone included places for 124 community leaders, from ”A,” Max Abrams, the campaign chairman of Greater New York for State of Israel Bonds, to ”Z,” Paul Zuckerman, a national chairman for the United Jewish Appeal.
There was little criticism about the fact that this dinner would be, by far, the most expensive in the city’s history. Because there was no kitchen at the Brooklyn Museum, and because everything had to be kosher, the city had to contract to bring all the food to the site. The grand dinner of stuffed artichokes, boned Rock Cornish hens, candied oranges filled with currant jelly, peas, mushrooms, fruit macedoine, petit fours, and coffee set the city back $36,000. Tickets cost $25, more than twice the usual price of $10 for similar city events. Most of the guests actually ate inside the museum, but about 240 guests ate in the sukkah. The New York All City High School Chorus opened the event by singing “Shalom Alechem,” a traditional Jewish welcoming song. Lindsay and Meir then spent time with guests in both venues and after the reception line, dinner, and speeches, they participated in Israeli dancing.
As important as the grandeur of the event and its extraordinary character was Meir’s willingness to embrace Lindsay’s campaign in her remarks. Reports make it clear that she came as close to endorsing Lindsay’s candidacy as she possibly could without actually uttering the words, “I am backing Lindsay.” In a later interview, Davidoff optimistically suggested that Meir and her advisers decided to help Lindsay to advance their own interests. He stated:
I just think that they [the Israelis] … wanted Lindsay as mayor, and in him they had a non-Jew who was a national figure who was committed to the Israeli cause, [and] who had around him Jewish advisors, [and] who … never wavered from the day he was in Congress to the time he was mayor. … I kind of believe that they had made a decision and, without interfering in internal politics in this country and in New York, they gave us the best thing they could give us, once they made a decision that he was valuable to them.
Richard Aurelio, Lindsay’s campaign manager, suggested a different logic. He said that before the reception, he and the mayor had met with Meir and discussed the dynamics of the election. Aurelio and Lindsay explained to Meir that it was a contest about more than New York; it was “a fight for liberal and humane government… for racial harmony and equality.” They concluded that the “soul of New York’s Jews was involved.” This appeal, according to Aurelio, was what had moved Meir to speak.
There certainly was no escaping the fact that the dinner was a campaign event. Victor Borge, the comedian, quipped in his remarks, “Mrs. Meir and Mr. Lindsay, you both have something in common. You are both running for election and you’re both dependent on the Jewish vote, particularly you, Mr. Mayor.” Marchi and Procaccino did attend the dinner and the City Hall reception the day before, and while the Lindsay campaign was careful to be respectful and to pretend to be above politics, it ensured that the two remained on the periphery. Procaccino especially felt angry that he had been kept away from the limelight. He was upset that at the City Hall rally he had initially been blocked from joining the procession by a Lindsay aide, and he was frustrated that he had not been given time to deliver his prepared remarks. However, the event was not only political; it was diplomatic. Lindsay staffers referred to it as a “state dinner,” and the presence of a foreign leader encouraged the mayor’s staff to make the evening as grand as possible. Davidoff claims he told Lindsay that because it was a state dinner, “You just don’t throw a ham sandwich down. You really have to plan this thing.”
While there is no way to prove a causal relationship between the Meir visit and support for Lindsay, in October his polling numbers did improve. A poll released by NBC at the beginning of the month had Lindsay at 35 percent, Procaccino at 33 percent and Marchi at 12 percent, with 20 percent undecided. The undecideds, the New York Times suggested, based on information provided by pollsters in the Lindsay campaign, were mostly Jewish. A Daily News poll released at the end of October had Lindsay at 44 percent and Procaccino at 33 percent. On election day, Lindsay wound up with 41 percent; Procaccino had 34 percent; and Marchi received 22 percent. Lindsay received something on the order of 45 percent to 50 percent of the Jewish vote, Procaccino earned about 45 percent of the Jewish vote and Marchi won the remainder. These numbers, obviously estimates, were not extraordinary, but given the Ocean Hill-Brownsville situation, his Civilian Complaint Review Board plans, and other problems New York Jews had with Lindsay’s record, they were as good as could be expected, and enough to give him a solid victory. Other factors helped Lindsay to win, but his campaign had understood that it needed Jewish votes to win and, as symbolically represented by the sukkah during Meir’s visit, it went after those votes by using support for Israel as an indicator of Lindsay’s backing of Jewish interests.
As a result of the 1969 election, Lindsay seemed to have developed a greater appreciation for how, in New York, success was dependent on the ethnic voters and politicians needed to engage ethnic voters on ethnic grounds. In his second term, Lindsay increasingly focused on international issues, many of which were connected to Jewish voters.
Almost immediately upon taking office for a second term, Lindsay followed up with a natural corollary to the Meir fete: He snubbed French President Georges Pompidou. Traveling to the United States in late February of 1970 to visit with President Richard Nixon and U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, Pompidou faced the anger of Jewish organizations nationwide for his government’s decision to sell 100 Mirage jets to the revolutionary government of Libya, headed by Mu’ammar Al-Qadhafi. In contrast to its Faisal mistake, Lindsay’s staff announced more than a month before Pompidou’s arrival that the mayor would not be hosting a reception for the French president. They leaked to the New York Times that the snub was a deliberate signal designed to “strongly indicate the feelings of Mayor Lindsay and his administration” about the French sale. The lack of a reception clearly contrasted with the city’s welcome for Meir, but also with the ticker-tape parade Mayor Wagner had organized for Charles de Gaulle in April 1960.
As Pompidou faced angry crowds organized by pro-Israel groups throughout his eight-day visit to the United States, Nixon reportedly became increasingly livid about what he considered to be a national embarrassment and an extraordinary discourtesy shown to an American ally. On February 26, 1970, Nixon aide H. R. Haldeman recorded in his diary that the President “really raged again today against the United States Jews because of their behavior toward Pompidou.” He was, Haldeman wrote, as “mad as he’s been since” the beginning of his presidency. Author Richard Reeves in President Nixon: Alone in the White House, quotes Nixon as saying, “This is unconscionable… The fucking Jews think they can run the world…” Nixon told his staff that Jews were henceforth to be barred from coming to see him about the Middle East. His national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, a Jew, who was in the room at the time, apparently would be an exception.
To punish American Jews, Nixon instructed his aides to postpone the shipment and delivery of 25 U.S. Phantom jets and 80 Skyhawk jets to Israel, aircraft that he had agreed to provide to Golda Meir just a few months earlier on her visit to the United States. Nixon fumed that the Israelis “can go talk to Lindsay and [New York Governor Nelson] Rockefeller about whether they can provide arms for Israel.” The fact that Nixon decided to stop the shipment is exceptionally remarkable—in part because in a telephone conversation with Nixon a few weeks earlier, Kissinger had counseled Nixon that the French sale of the Mirages had made delivery of the jets for Israel far more necessary. Kissinger had suggested that the United States should speed up the shipment and provide more military aid as a counterbalance to the French sale. Ultimately, Nixon agreed to sell the U.S. jets and other weaponry to Israel only to compensate for battlefield losses of equipment.
To make up for the fact that Lindsay would not attend a dinner for Pompidou hosted by the French-American Cultural Society in Manhattan, Nixon decided to go himself and to issue an apology on behalf of the United States to Pompidou for the behavior of the protesters and the New York City mayor. Nixon’s frustration with Lindsay led him to conclude that, like the Israelis, the people of New York City deserved punishment too. Nixon ordered that his aides should “cut all federal projects … which provide aid for New York City…[and] discontinue or delay programs with discretionary funding which directly aid the City government, concentrating on three departments vital to the City’s needs—HEW [Health Education and Welfare], HUD [Housing and Urban Development], and Transportation.” It is unclear exactly how this particular order had an impact on funding to the city, although budgets for these programs did decrease in the coming years. Nixon, of course, understood that New York City desperately needed federal support. On his way to the Pompidou dinner, his motorcade had to travel through what Haldeman called “a crummy area of lower Manhattan,” which led Nixon into “quite a harangue… about the miserable city of New York,” and its deep problems.
Lindsay opted to get out of town, traveling to Washington while Nixon was in New York. Even if the mayor had predicted the level of Nixon’s spitefulness, it would have been quite difficult to attend the dinner and retain any credibility. As Robert Semple reported in the New York Times, “Having lost the allegiance of many [of the city’s Jews] during the bitter Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute over school decentralization in the fall of 1968, the Mayor spent nearly every day of his re-election campaign courting Jewish voters in one way or another.” Semple added, “Whether he made any hard commitments or delivered any soft reassurances on the Mideast question during the campaign is unclear. But what is certain beyond doubt is that he is reluctant to offend Jewish voters now during Mr. Pompidou’s visit, the first real test of his loyalty to the people who helped put him in office.” What is interesting is that Nixon understood that Lindsay’s snub of Pompidou indicated that Washington’s will had only limited power in New York. Nixon could fume, threaten and ultimately punish, but he could not control Lindsay’s foreign policy behavior. That said, Nixon still held the trump cards; Lindsay could act only symbolically, Nixon could stop arms deals.
During the rest of his term, Lindsay did not snub anyone else, but he did continue to focus on international issues of concern to Jewish voters. In December of 1972, he traveled to Israel and met with a series of Israeli leaders, including Meir, visited a Jerusalem park named in his honor, and traveled to the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem. Lindsay also linked himself to the Soviet Jewry movement as it developed in the early 1970s. In planning for a trip to the Soviet Union in May 1973 that ultimately did not happen, Lindsay announced that he would bring along the president of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith as an adviser, and in an official release he promised voters that he would “take up the issue of Soviet Jewry with Soviet officials and private citizens.” Here too, Lindsay’s involvement was symbolic and not particularly substantive, but as the Meir and Pompidou stories demonstrate, symbolic issues could be vital to Jewish voters.
In his second term, Lindsay’s focus on international issues dealing with Jews sometimes had a more tenuous connection. The most notable case of this involved the war in Vietnam. During the summer of 1969, Lindsay’s advisers conducted opinion surveys, finding that New York Jews, notably working-class Jews, overwhelmingly opposed the Vietnam War. Thus, in the mayor’s numerous visits to synagogues and other venues throughout the campaign season, he focused on the conflict, making the point that its costs, both in money and lives, hurt American cities. At a rally in June, Lindsay suggested that the destruction wrought by war hit not only Hanoi but New York City, too. In this speech and in dozens later on the same theme, he claimed that this was because the city sent $9 billion to Washington to pay for the war. The loss of that money meant poorer schools, police services, hospitals and public housing. In short, he told his audiences, it was the cause of the city’s fiscal and physical deterioration.
The highpoint of Lindsay’s anti-war campaign strategy came just weeks before the election during the nationally coordinated Moratorium Against the Vietnam War Day on Oct. 15, 1969. Lindsay spoke at services at St. James Episcopal Church and then at rallies at New York University, Columbia University, Fordham University, City Hall Plaza, and Brooklyn Borough Hall, as well as at a union hall in the garment district. Among the most controversial aspects of Lindsay’s efforts to support the moratorium was an order that flags on all municipal buildings fly at half-staff to honor those killed in the war. Personnel at police precincts and fire stations generally refused to follow the order (both groups were hotbeds of anti-Lindsay sentiment), and in one case, a Queens councilman actually went onto the roof at City Hall to raise the flag to full mast. At Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, as the Mets prepared for the fourth game of the World Series, Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn initially ordered that flags were to fly at half-staff, but then he reversed himself. Kuhn changed his mind, in part, because the band from the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, scheduled to play the national anthem, had sent word that they would not participate unless the flags were at full mast.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, during his 1984 presidential campaign, infamously alienated Jewish voters by using the epithet “Hymietown” to refer to New York. Milton Coleman, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story, reported that Jackson’s larger point was about the obsession of New York Jews with Israel. Coleman wrote that in a private conversation, “Jackson … talked about the preoccupation of some with Israel. He said something to the effect of the following: ‘That’s all Hymie wants to talk about, is Israel; every time you go to Hymietown, that is all they want to talk about.’ ” While Jackson’s choice of words was crude and nasty, he was recognizing an essential truth. In New York City, Jews played a powerful role in guiding political discussions and they deeply cared about Israel. But even more important, the presence of so many politically engaged Jews forced city leaders, Jewish and not, to see their interests differently from those of national leaders. Vigorous and dogged support for Israel, and hostility to policies that might aid its adversaries, thus became the core of the city’s independent foreign policy.
For many Jewish voters in New York City in the 1969 election, selecting Lindsay was an easy choice. Although his first term had been disappointing, he represented the only liberal, sophisticated and intellectual choice in the election. For these Jews, who were generally better educated, wealthier, less observant, and more apt to be living in Manhattan, Lindsay’s support for Israel on progressive grounds, as well as his opposition to the Vietnam War, gave them confidence that he spoke for their global concerns. For Jews in the outer boroughs, especially the more religious ones living in working-class communities, it was a tougher decision. Lindsay represented an out-of-touch, tin-ear liberalism that seemed incapable of handling crime and that was at least partially responsible for the rise in the city’s black-Jewish tensions. The exact same things most liberal Jewish voters loved about Lindsay, these other Jewish voters hated about him. While a majority of them decided to back Procaccino, the polling data suggests that some pulled their voting levers for Lindsay anyway. His campaign staff believed that these Jews were responsible for his victory. They believed that these voters figured, if Lindsay danced in a sukkah with the Israeli prime minister, how bad could he be?
Following Lindsay’s term, Jewish electoral power in New York City continued to evolve. Notably, New Yorkers finally elected a Jewish candidate, Lindsay’s foe in the 1965 race, Abe Beame, as mayor in 1973, and then proceeded to elect another Jew, Edward Koch, to the position in 1977 and to reelect him in 1981 and 1985. Both made support for the Jewish state central to their municipal foreign policies. Yet, at the same time, New York City was becoming a more complex place. The continued fragmentation of the Jewish community, suburbanization, the influx of new immigrants, and gentrification of many neighborhoods all served to diffuse Jewish electoral power in the city. Beame and Koch did continue the kinds of policies Lindsay had implemented, but they had become an expected way for New York City leaders to run their municipal foreign policy.
This article is adapted from a 2013 article in American Jewish History, “The Snubs and the ‘Sukkah’: John Lindsay and Jewish Voters in New York City,” and is printed with permission.
Jeffrey F. Taffet is a professor of history at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. He is the author of The United States and Latin America: A History with Documents with Dustin Walcher, Foreign Aid as Foreign Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Latin America, and a series of essays about US-Latin American relations and related issues.