“A liberal,” Robert Frost once quipped, “is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
Ed Koch is not that kind of liberal.
The legendary former New York City mayor — who puckishly describes himself as “a liberal with sanity” — has never been shy about standing up for his fellow Jews. That much is clear from “The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism” (Palgrave Macmillan), a new volume he compiled with Holocaust scholar, activist and frequent Koch collaborator Raphael Medoff. The book collects Koch’s speeches, correspondence and writings on antisemitism and Jewish concerns from his years as mayor — a post he held from 1977 to 1989 — and his past two decades as an outspoken private citizen.
The hallmark of Koch’s approach to this issue, as his book demonstrates, is a determination to confront bigotry — with steadfastness and an insistent sense of urgency. It’s an approach that’s equally in evidence whether he’s fighting to free Soviet Jewry or responding to an offensive cartoon about the Holocaust in a university’s student newspaper. And he hasn’t been afraid of rocking the boat. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Koch repeatedly found himself in sometimes high-profile wars of words with prominent African-Americans over antisemitism in the black community. But he also aimed his barbs rightward, famously alleging in a 1992 New York Post column that then-secretary of state James Baker had used a profanity in referring to Jews (his source for this explosive allegation, he reveals in “The Koch Papers,” was then-housing secretary Jack Kemp).
More recently, Koch has taken a hard line in confronting the surge of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment that has occurred since the outbreak of the second intifada. In 2001, responding to a derogatory remark about Israel reportedly made at a dinner party by a French diplomat, Koch called for a boycott of France. That proposal drew Koch into an epistolary debate with filmmaker Woody Allen on antisemitism in France and the utility of boycotts. (Koch is, as his book conclusively shows, an enthusiastic writer of letters.)
Koch’s aggressive approach to antisemitism is matched by — and not unrelated to — an overall hawkishness in confronting threats from abroad. Indeed, he vocally broke with fellow Democrats to back President Bush’s reelection, hailing his conduct of the Iraq War and the fight against Islamic extremism. Later, President Bush sent Koch to lead the American delegation to a 2004 conference on antisemitism convened by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Now 83, Koch is showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to his activism on issues of Jewish concern, he co-hosts a radio show, pens commentaries on political affairs, appears regularly as a television pundit and even writes movie reviews.
Speaking with the Forward via telephone, Koch looked back at his decades-long struggle against the scourge of antisemitism.
How did you come to be so committed to this issue — to fighting antisemitism?
Well, I’ve only been subjected to one antisemitic situation in my whole life, and that was when I was in basic training in World War II. I was 19 years of age, and about 25% of the young men in the platoon were Jewish from New York City, and many of them were refugees from Germany, and the rest of the platoon was from all over the country. There was one guy who was antisemitic, and he would make fun of the Jewish young men who couldn’t get over the obstacle course. I could get over it; I’m not even that great an athlete, but I practiced so I could get over the course.
But the Jews excelled in the afternoon, when they had some learning in map-reading and other things of that kind, lectures. They’d get up and ask questions, and nobody else got up. I could hear this guy say loudly, “Who will be the next yid, the next kike, to get up?” And I said to myself, “I can’t take this.” And I knew that if I went over, he’d beat the hell out of me. I was not in great shape; he was in great shape. So I decided to practice and exercise and build myself up.
Basic training was 17 weeks; in the 15th week, he was doing this, and I went over to him and I grabbed him by the collar, and I said, “When we get back to the battalion, we’re going to have this out.” And he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why are you doing this?” He didn’t put me in the same category as these other kids. And I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. So all I could say was, “You know, you know!” And then he realized what it was, and so did everybody else. And when we got back to the battalion, they gave us leather gloves to fight, and we fought three rounds, and he beat the hell out of me. But I got up whenever I was knocked down, and I fought as well as I could, which wasn’t so terrific. And from that point on — just two weeks left — there was not one antisemitic remark. And it taught me the lesson that you must stand up, you must stand up no matter what, no matter whether you will be beaten or not, you’ve gotta stand up. And I would say that’s basically the beginning.
Is that what you owe your passion to? In your book you have a lot on the lessons of the Holocaust.
My family — my dad’s brothers and sisters, some of them, same with my mother[’s family] — died in the Holocaust. And I think every Jewish kid, certainly at the time of World War II, when we found out what happened subsequently, can never forget that. I never forgot it.
To me, one of the most moving moments in my life each year is when I go to the memorial for the Warsaw [Ghetto] Uprising that Ben Meed created so many years ago. I went early on, and I go every year, and I noticed about a hundred elderly women — very short, very matronly at this point most of them — part of the ceremony, walking down the aisle on both sides of Temple Emanuel or wherever they had it at the time, and holding the candles representing the six-million Jews who had been murdered. And I began to cry to myself, just weeping, and thinking, “How could these women survive? How could they take it? How could they live through that experience?”
Earlier, you stressed the importance of standing up. And in your book, you include excerpts from a 2004 speech in which you say your approach is “to be blunt, to confront the adversary, to ‘tell it like it is.’”
Also, throughout your book, you note that there have been times when some people from the Jewish community sort of wished you weren’t so outspoken on these issues.
Oh, that’s very true..
Why do you think that is?
Well, Jews, particularly those from Europe, have always believed that you don’t want to put your head above the grass because the czar will cut it off. So they historically have shunned — it’s not true anymore — running for office on the basis of: a Jew running for office is elected and he does something bad, all other Jews will be punished for it. And that’s the European psychosis. But I’ve always fought that. And I said to the Jewish groups in ’77 that I campaigned with: “You deserve nothing more than anybody else, but you deserve as much as anybody else. You don’t have to worry that because I’m a Jew and I’m elected, that I’m going to run away from being identified as a Jew and that you will suffer. I will never favor you, but I will see to it that you’re always treated as equals.” That’s what I said.
When you were the mayor, was it difficult to balance your role as the chief executive of the city with your passion for speaking out on issues like antisemitism and Israel?
No, because I made it a point of defending others who were under attack. For example, there’s a large Muslim-Arab community on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and during some events, they were publicly threatened by jerks who were going to assault them. I ran — as mayor, by car, of course — down to the Muslim area and met with the Muslims, and I said to them, “Listen, we can never talk about the Mideast, because we’re never going to convince one another. But put that aside. I want you to know that in me you have a friend who will protect you. You never have to worry. If there is ever a need, I will send every cop in the city down here to defend you.” So I did well with the Arabs as well.
The Catholics know that I have always spoken out against the anti-Catholic situations that occur and remarks throughout the years. So, for that reason, I always think of Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?” And to me, that’s a very meaningful statement.
At the same time, it is also arguably true that your persistence in pointing out specifically African-American antisemitism, and back in the ’80s your doggedness in standing up against Louis Farrakhan and also criticizing Jesse Jackson did cost you a certain degree of support in the black community.
They did. But on the other hand, I went to Mississippi in 1964, as a lawyer, defending young black men and women who were engaged in the voter-registration campaign of that year, and I was threatened by a white mob. It’s one of the highlights of my life, so to speak, in terms of what I did that I’m most proud of. There are lots of blacks who know that story, and who know what I have done in support of equality and civil rights. So while it is true that there were moments when the demagogues made it difficult for me in the black community, I overcame. And I would say to you that outside of those moments, and up until today — including today, I should say — the black community is for me one of the most supportive of me, recognizing me in the streets and being very, very nice. Really, it’s a wonderful relationship.
Can I give you one little anecdote for example? I’ve had a mixed relationship with Al Sharpton. We’re good friends currently. I had him arrested in 1978. And every time he introduces me, he always says, “This man had me arrested, and he made me famous, and he never stopped talking to me, and we’re friends.” And that’s all true. And he invited me to his 45th birthday at a church at about 116th street, and I went. I didn’t have any security, was all by myself. I went up there, and I walked into the sanctuary where the event was, and there was applause, and then Al Sharpton invites me to speak. And I look at this crowd, it must have been 2,500 people in the church — it was enormous — and there in the front rows were some of the people who had given me lots of problems when I was mayor, and I couldn’t help myself, and so as I looked at this crowd, I say, “Do you miss me?” And they roared. They absolutely roared. The Village Voice had a huge article on this, front page, because they were the only paper to have a reporter there. And I’m very proud of that, very proud of that.
With you and Al Sharpton, what’s changed? Have you changed? Has he changed?
We both have changed. You get older. We have come to know one another. I do not believe he’s antisemitic. I believe, and I’ve said it many times in his presence, that there was a moment in his time — a rather long moment — when he was very demagogic and said things that demagogues say. But in my judgment — and believe me I know antisemites when I meet them — he is not an antisemite. So we are friends, and he has changed over the years, far more statesmanlike, and he is someone the black community responds to because he’s willing to go to jail for them, and he has.
Let’s zoom out a little bit and look at a more global context. With the outbreak of the intifada and 9/11, there has been a surge in antisemitism around the world. Some in the Jewish community have taken to saying that the threats now facing Jews are analogous to those we faced back in the 1930s —
They’re right. They’re absolutely right. Antisemitism is rising in Europe and has reached proportions in Great Britain where it’s not yet violence against Jews, but in the academies and the colleges, it’s terrible. And Tony Blair appointed a commission of parliamentarians — none of whom were Jews — who reported back that they saw antisemitism escalating like they had never seen before. That’s one. In France, up until Sarkozy, who is, I think, changing things, but before him, under Chirac, antisemitism was violent, the violence coming from French Muslims who assaulted — and still do — French Jewish children and adults on their way to the synagogue. And it’s true in other countries.
And in other countries, and in France and England, it takes the guise of being anti-Israel. And people say to me, “Can’t you be anti-Israel and not be antisemitic?” I say, “Sure.” I’m critical of actions and policies of the Israeli government, but the difference is this: that when you criticize the Israeli for doing things which you don’t criticize other countries for doing, that’s antisemitism. I say to people, “You criticize Israel for going into Gaza to punish them when they are lobbing artillery shells and rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon, as [Israelis] have every right to do under the rules of self-defense that apply to every other country. But nobody has criticized — nor should they — Turkey for doing the same thing, going into Iraq to kill the Turkish Kurds who are part of a terrorist organization.” And that’s the best illustration. What the Turks are doing is exactly what the Israelis are doing vis-à-vis the Palestinian terrorists.
I feel like Jews today, as opposed to the 1930s, are in a somewhat different position: On the one hand, you note that Jews around the world are extraordinarily vulnerable. On the other hand, we’re also sufficiently powerful and influential that our response to this vulnerability is to “stand up,” as you put it.
Firstly, I want to make the point that the antisemitism that’s rising is not occurring in the United States. Of course, there’s antisemitism [here], but I think of it as nothing comparable to what it once was when you had Father Coughlin in pre-World War II and so forth. We’re living, in the United States, in a golden age. I believe that heart and soul. And you can point out when you have a Jew, Joe Lieberman, running for vice president not long ago, more popular at the time than Gore, whose ticket he was on. And you have a black, Obama, running today, and a woman, Hillary, running. We’re living in the golden age.
But it is absolutely true that Jewish communities, particularly in the United States, are in a far more powerful position in terms of status, and ability to be heard and defend ourselves and our brothers and sisters in other countries — and we’re doing it. In pre-World War II, there were powerful Jews, but they were all cowed. The feeling at that time was: “Don’t rock the boat. Don’t get noticed. Don’t embarrass the Jewish community. We’re vulnerable. Keep quiet.” And that was a great mistake, as everybody recognizes.
You’ve just come out with this book looking back at your career as it pertains to combating antisemitism. Looking forward, do you have any new initiatives beyond continuing to speak out on this issue?
I’m not a professional hunter here. I’m a practicing lawyer, and I’m in a law firm, and I have a radio show and a television show, and I write books. And for me the most enjoyment comes from my radio program, which is a call-in show, and these issues come up. And it keeps you lively because you have to be conversant with what’s happening in the world, and able to debate with people who call in, some who like you and some who don’t, and many who disagree with the positions that I might be taking. So I will, until the day of my death, defend people — and that includes Jews — from unfair attacks from bigotry. That’s my purpose in life at this point. I’m 83, I mean I’m not going to create many new challenges.
So you can’t rule out that there might be a “Koch Papers, Volume II”?
Oh, there will be. I love writing books. I think that’s my 16th book. And there will be more.
Interview conducted and condensed by Daniel Treiman.