Koch Calls for Pundit's Ouster from Shoah Council

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
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Former New York City Mayor Edward Koch has called for Dennis Prager to resign or be removed from United States Holocaust Memorial Council, in response to the pundit’s recent insistence that a Muslim congressman should not be sworn in using a Quran.

“There is no question that Dennis Prager is a bigot who ought to be repudiated even by his closest supporters,” Koch said this morning in an interview with the Forward. “His statements are a disgrace … and I will be down there calling for the council to condemn him, and, if we have the power, to remove him.”

Prager, a conservative radio talkshow host and syndicated columnist, authored a November 28 online column that lambasted Minnesota Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, who is Muslim, for planning to use a Quran at his private swearing-in ceremony.

“Insofar as a member of Congress is taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned,” Prager wrote, “America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don’t serve in Congress.”

Koch, like Prager, serves on the 55-member memorial council, which oversees the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He said he plans to take up the issue at a December 18 meeting of the advisory panel in Washington, if Prager does not resign. A second committee member, who did not want to be named publicly, also said she was disturbed by Prager’s comments, and would likely support action support calling for his withdrawal.

In an e-mail to the Forward, Prager responded: “Two years ago the American Jewish Press Association awarded me its Prize for Excellence in Commentary. Did they miss something that Ed Koch caught? Or does he smear people he differs with as part of his style of argumentation?”

Prager added: “He wants my appointment to United States Holocaust memorial commission rescinded. Should the American Jewish press Association rescind its prize? Should Chabad stop using me as the host of their telethon? Should the University of Judaism stop allowing me to teach the Torah there? Should bookstores and synagogues stop selling ‘The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,’ the most widely used introduction to Judaism of the last 30 years?”

Koch, who served as a U.S. representative from 1969 to 1977, said he recalled using a Hebrew Bible at his initial, private swearing-in ceremony. A number of commentators, including Koch, have criticized Prager for factual inaccuracies in his column, including the assertions that Jewish legislators have traditionally used the Christian Bible to take their oaths of office and that use of the Christian Bible is a traditional part of the official swearing-in ceremony. (In fact, lawmakers often choose to use religious texts at optional private events held with family and friends.)

The Holocaust memorial council includes a number of prominent Jews, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Jack Rosen, the president of the American Jewish Congress. A number of members of Congress also serve on the panel, including Reps. Eric Cantor, Tom Lantos and Henry Waxman, as well as Senators Norm Coleman, Russell Feingold and Frank Lautenberg. The panel is chaired by Fred Zeidman, a prominent Republican from Houston. He is politically close to President Bush, who appointed Prager to the panel.

In response to an inquiry from the Forward, Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said Prager’s comments were “inappropriate, incorrect and reflect a lack of the qualities of tolerance and civility, and respect for other people’s religion.” The lawmaker, who is entering his seventeenth term of office, said he had never used a Bible at his own swearing-in ceremonies.

Waxman called on Prager to apologize. The lawmaker said he had not decided what action he would take if Prager refuses to issue an apology.

In his interview with the Forward, Koch pointed out that the first observant Jew elected to the British Parliament, Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, vigorously fought against a required Christian oath of office, and succeeded in having the law changed in 1858.

“The encyclopedia says he used the Hebrew term for God when he took his oath — I guess that’s Yahweh or Adonai,” Koch said, chuckling. “In any event, that’s democracy, and Prager is a shmuck, if I may put it literally.”

Prager declined to respond to the insult, except to “note” Koch’s ” low level of discourse.”

In a follow-up column posted December 5 on the Townhall.com Web, Prager said that he would be satisfied if Ellison brought both the Quran and the Bible to his private ceremony.

“We Jews are fools if we think that reducing the centrality of that book in America’s life will be good for us,” Prager wrote in his e-mail to the Forward. “We Jews have been so respected, even venerated, in America primarily because of that Book which has made this society a Judeo-Christian society. I shudder to think of America’s and American Jews’ future if we become a secular society like Western Europe. No Jews have it as good there as we do here.”

Prager added: “I am fully prepared to be considered a ‘schmuck’ in Ed Koch’s eyes; it is far better than being considered a fool in history’s eyes.”

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