Why Ed Koch’s response to AIDS was very political and not very Jewish
A decorous, unjudgmental New York Times article appeared May 7 about the sexuality of the late American Jewish politician Ed Koch.
Based on interviews with Koch friends and sympathizers, the article described how the onetime New York mayor publicly denied his own homosexuality, while admitting it to intimates, a fact that is long familiar to theatergoers who saw Larry Kramer’s 1985 play “The Normal Heart” or Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1991).
Kramer and Kushner, both gay Jewish writers, excoriated Koch in their works for having been slow to react to the outbreak of AIDS when he served as mayor in the 1980s. One theory is that Koch did not wish to appear to favor the sexual minority he belonged to, since AIDS at the time was incorrectly identified as mainly affecting gay men and intravenous drug users.
Jack Drescher, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, wrote to the Times in response to the article to express his “anger about the closeted mayor who refused to advocate forcefully enough” for his fellow citizens, “with tragic results for many New Yorkers.”
The Times article inspired more ire in the form of a petition signed by a number of gay Jewish journalists and colleagues, including Lawrence Mass, co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis; journalist Donna Minkowitz; activist Allen Roskoff; publisher Mark Segal; and historian Sarah Schulman.
All objected to the wistfully sympathetic tone of the article, which relied on accounts by Koch’s friend, the journalist Charles Kaiser, of Ukrainian Jewish origin, and implied that the Times’ belated reportage about Koch’s sexuality was any revelation.
In fact, the subject was all too familiar to alert observers of the political scene since the 1970s. As the petitioners note, Koch “made a repugnant political decision to avoid creating new public benefits and new costs for the city budget. He wanted to avoid being associated with an infectious disease that was killing gay men and IV drug users.”
The article was supposedly published in response to an ongoing attempt to remove Koch’s name from the Queensboro Bridge, officially renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in 2011. It may also be worth inquiring whether a Jewish politician, regardless of their sexuality, might reasonably be expected to empathize with suffering humans, especially those in persecuted minority groups.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his 1963 speech on Religion and Race, delivered in Chicago, reminded listeners that the “prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. The prophet is a person who suffers the harms done to others.”
This attitude conformed with the command in Leviticus 19:34 to “love the stranger as yourself.” Amid repeated exhortations to protect the socially vulnerable in the Torah, strangers are referred to dozens of times, since those unlike us were also created in God’s image, the Book of Genesis tells us.
And the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 40A) states that Rabbi Akiva’s compassion toward the sick was such that he stated: “Anyone who does not visit the sick, it is as if he has spilled blood.”
So even had Koch not been gay, Jewish tradition would argue that compassion was required of him. Yet on the contrary, his response for several years after the AIDS crisis was brought to his attention was obliviousness and inaction.
In 1981, New York’s gay community called on Koch to do something about AIDS, but only 21 months later the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was granted an inconclusive meeting with the mayor, who waited until 1988 to take any real action against the pandemic, which by then had already killed several thousand New Yorkers.
The filmmaker David France argued in 2013 that Koch’s greatest failure was that he “seemed to lack even the faintest stirrings of empathy when the AIDS crisis came. As has been chronicled repeatedly, Koch stood silent through years of headlines, obituaries, and deaths.”
It is as though Koch, France went on to say, “couldn’t empathize with the dying or the rest of us who stood helplessly at their bedsides.”
Koch, who had started his career in politics as a progressive, sponsoring gay rights legislation, turned into a different kind of politician when he aspired to occupy Gracie Mansion. On the campaign trail, he denounced New Yorkers who exploited social welfare programs, calling them “poverty pimps,” an insult seen as having racial connotations.
His confrontational, pugilistic rapport with constituents soon created problems with African Americans, as Bryant Rollins, editor of the Amsterdam News, declared in 1979: “Koch has operated with arrogance and disdain toward the Black community in New York City. He doesn’t take criticism well.”
Koch characteristically replied, “If you hit me, I hit back.” His espousal of bellicosity as a response to protest inspired him to write a 2012 editorial approving Vladimir Putin’s suppression of dissenters who had staged a rally in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.
Koch deemed the protest “religious hatred” and likened it to a 1989 demonstration at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral by the AIDS activist group ACT UP against the Catholic Church’s banning condom use and sex education as pandemic prevention measures.
Koch did not suddenly become a Putin supporter; he gradually transformed into someone capable of approving a murderous dictator. As the civil rights advocate Richard Socarides noted in 2013, Koch’s long-disputed sexuality was a smoke screen for more fundamental leadership problems on life and death matters. Socarides concluded that, had Koch possessed the “courage to overcome the era in which he lived and its prejudices, he could have done enormous good in this [sociopolitical] arena, even later in his life, when there were no more elections to win.”
That never happened, reportedly because he refused to give his longtime adversary Larry Kramer the satisfaction of admitting that he had been lying for all those years about his sexual identity.
Instead, Koch privately ogled gay art films like “Come Undone” (2000), directed by Sébastien Lifshitz and starring Jérémie Elkaïm, of Moroccan Jewish origin, likened to “soft-core pornography” by the Jewish journalist Maer Roshan, a friend of Koch.
While Koch indulged himself, gay Jewish politicians able to win elections in America remained scarce, lacking role models after the retirement of Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts in 2013.
In 2020, Alex Morse, now town manager of Provincetown, Massachusetts, lost the primary for Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District to the incumbent. And the septuagenarian Barry Wendell will be Democratic candidate for Congress this autumn in West Virginia. Wendell told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in February that “as a Jew, of course I believe in miracles that happen every day. But it probably would take a miracle” to defeat the Republican candidate.
Wendell claims that his spouse, Rabbi Joe Hample of Congregation Tree of Life, a Reform synagogue in Morgantown, West Virginia, encouraged him to compete. As Hample explained: “Isn’t it a Jewish value to stand up and be counted? At the beginning the Book of Numbers, we stand up and we are counted. I think that’s huge.”
Ed Koch’s refusal to acknowledge the sufferings of others at a time of crisis may be, as David France and other critics suggest, the “single most significant aspect of his public life,” but it is surely the most un-Jewish aspect of his career.