Like most master’s degree students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I expected my 32-page thesis to gather dust peacefully on the library’s shelves. Instead, it unleashed a political storm of scurrilous charges of antisemitism against one of the most prominent players in New York City politics — and my main source. Herewith, the short story of how one journalism student fell victim to her own profession’s worst instincts.
One cold day last winter, Bronx County Democratic Chairman Jose Rivera and I settled down for a marathon interview in his shabby Bronx office. That interview was fundamental to my master’s thesis, “Sleeping Giants No Longer, Puerto Rican Politicians in the Bronx Have Come Into Their Own,” which examined the rise of Puerto Rican politicians and Rivera’s role in building a new political organization in the Bronx. As we were discussing the political battle over a proposed water filtration plant, Rivera opined that Jewish politicians from Riverdale were angling to keep the plant out of their neighborhood for a distinct reason.
“We figure it’s blood taking care of blood,” Rivera told me. New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver “is not going to dump it in a beautiful area, and [Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz] happens to be from the same ethnic group.”
The paper was published with little to no fanfare. A few months later, I sent a copy to Bernard Stein, the editor and co-publisher of the Riverdale Press, and my former boss when I worked for the paper. Stein was incensed by the comments, and he wrote a stirring editorial denouncing what he saw as Rivera’s antisemitic remarks. With that, the battle began.
The Riverdale politicians — Dinowitz, Congressman Eliot Engel and Councilman Oliver Koppell, who are Jewish and not part of Rivera’s Bronx delegation — pounced on the editorial and attacked Rivera for his comments. Smelling blood in the water, the city’s tabloid press joined the vanguard. Rivera apologized immediately, but the attacks continued — with the quotes from my thesis at the center of a media storm.
Still ravenous despite the apology, the press continued to drive the antisemitism charges. Political A-listers began weighing in and the fever reached into the mayoral race. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the apology but denounced Rivera’s comments. “There is no room for antisemitic remarks or any kind of anti-anybody remarks,” he said. “This is a city that gets along with people — where everybody is — gets along in a way that we didn’t before. It’s a city of tolerance, we respect each others’ rights and that kind of language has no place here.” Even Rivera’s longtime friend, Democratic mayoral hopeful Fernando Ferrer, jumped on the bandwagon and denounced Rivera. Despite the apology, the story continued to gather steam and reopen old wounds between the Jewish and Puerto Rican communities in the Bronx.
Rivera is no goose-stepping antisemite, and, thankfully, a few powerful Jewish politicians — including Silver and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi — had the courage to say so in the tabloids. Hevesi even recited Rivera’s impressive pro-Jewish resume to the press, noting that the Bronx leader visited Israel and Auschwitz and even participated in the March of the Living.
More importantly, though — at least in my mind — is that Rivera is a truly progressive politician. He has long championed women’s rights and, as county leader, worked to mend fences between Jewish and Puerto Rican politicians. In the last round of elections, Rivera supported Assemblyman Jeffrey Klein, another member of Silver and Dinowitz’s ethnic contingent, in his successful bid for the state Senate. If Rivera really believed in an overarching Jewish conspiracy, why would he have helped hand them even more power?
His words in describing the Jewish politicians were indeed offensive; even more offensive was Rivera’s theory that Silver and Dinowitz were in cahoots because they have the same ethnic background. When Rivera criticized Silver and Dinowitz, he wasn’t singling them out because they were Jews; he was singling them out because they shared an ethnicity and had power. If the politicians standing in his way had been named O’Reilly and Sullivan, his conspiracy theory would have been the same.
In fact, they could have also been named Lopez or even Rivera, since he himself has built an entire political structure based on the precept that blood takes care of blood.
And that was the point of my larger, longer thesis — the point missed by New York’s scandal-thirsty tabloid media. The research paper put Rivera, and his comments, into a context that is essential for understanding them: new political power in the Bronx, a racially charged borough with sharp ethnic fault lines.
The issue is not antisemitism and Rivera is no antisemite. But none of that sells papers.