Selective Outrage

The Koch Papers: My Fight against Anti-Semitism By Edward I. Koch with Rafael Medoff. Palgrave MacMillan 256 pages; $24.95

Ed Koch is known internationally as the outspoken mayor of New York between 1978 and 1989. Before that, he was a US congressman for almost a decade. Since his public career ended, Koch has reinvented himself as a columnist, radio commentator and all-round political pundit in New York City. This book selects some of his speeches and articles which characterize his struggle against anti-Semitism throughout a long life of personal commitment to the public good.

Koch’s hero was Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s mayor in the 1930s and a fierce opponent of Nazism. Koch himself was in the Allied armies that entered Germany in 1945. This background forged a tough, uncompromising, sometimes reductionist approach to anti-Semites and racists. For Koch, “Never Again” is no throwaway slogan.

Koch is at his best when dealing with anti-Jewish incidents on his own doorstep. He recalls the savage killing of Yankel Rosenbaum, a visitor from Australia, in Crown Heights in 1990 by a gang of young blacks in response to the death of a black boy in a car accident a few hours earlier.

Dozens of Jews were injured and hundreds suffered property damage during the rioting. How did our religious, civic and political leaders, and many in the media react? In most cases, there was no public reaction or, when there was a response, the accidental death by automobile was equated with the intentional bias murder.

No doubt, many leading New Yorkers did not wish to pour oil on troubled waters for fear of making a bad situation worse. Koch, on the other hand, spoke about a pogrom. Even so, three days of rioting took place before the NYPD was called in. Yet the apologetics and explanations clearly irked Koch, who rejected any qualified rationale for the troubles. He castigated his black successor, David Dinkins, for not apologizing to the Lubavitcher community despite Dinkins’s record of opposing demagogues such as Louis Farrakhan. Koch points out that his own background was, in part, that of a civil rights activist. As a lawyer, he went to Mississippi in the 1960s to participate in the registering of black voters.

Yet this theme of selective outrage is one he assaults again and again in his writings. In an early piece in 1972, he attacks the Black Convention for “a scurrilous anti-Israel motion calling for the dismantling of that state,” yet there is silence on the killings of blacks and animists in southern Sudan. This selectivity continues today as a repetitive feature of those who claim to be progressives.

While Israeli government policy is criticized in the European left-wing press, sometimes with justification, there is often a pervading silence regarding dissidents in China, Mugabe’s mayhem in Zimbabwe and the murderous activities of the Burma junta.

The idea that the developing world should be excused human rights abuses and indeed anti-Jewish commentary emerges from a blanket anti-colonialist mind-set.

Too often people react to the reactionaries who condemn and not to the issue at hand. Koch admits that his own style is the very opposite, “to be blunt, to confront the adversary, to tell it like it is.”

Koch is on less secure ground when he wanders out of his home territory. In particular on picking up snippets of news reports from Europe of anti-Jewish statements, he tends to simplify and generalize them for easy consumption. This extends to his support and love for Israel.

He often suggests that criticism of Israeli policy is justified, but does not indulge in this himself in any speeches or articles anywhere is this book. Does he believe that such criticism ultimately encourages anti-Semitism? Does it fragment Jewish unity? Is there a point where criticism becomes a tool in the hands of adversaries? Does a term such as “occupation” only become kosher when an Israeli prime minister utters it?

Koch’s views on Israel seem to relate solely to the manner in which such a comment might assist an opponent. Yet loyal, often younger, critics argue that constructive criticism is a sign of one’s commitment to the state and an intense involvement in its odyssey through history.

In an article in March 1992, Koch aligned himself with Yitzhak Shamir and argued that Jews have a right to settle in the West Bank, not for theological or ideological reasons, but because Israel needed the strategic depth which retaining the territory offered. He then went on to attack liberals such as Rita Hauser, the recipient of the Shimon Peres award of the American Friends of Peace Now, for meeting Yasser Arafat. While this article is included, significantly, there are no articles in this book illustrating Koch’s views on Yitzhak Rabin’s handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn a year later.

There are clearly no shades of gray for Koch, no gradations, no intermediate positions. But then this is not surprising for a man whose generation lived through the Holocaust and the rise of Israel. His sense of commitment would have positioned him alongside right-wing activists such as Ben Hecht and Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) in the New York of the 1940s who dramatically attempted to educate Americans about the ongoing extermination of European Jewry. Such a stand would have included an understanding for the actions of the Irgun and sympathy for the political outlook of Menachem Begin. In contrast, a majority of American Jews preferred the diplomacy of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion.

Old soldiers, of course, never fade away. They become passionate defenders of the Jews. Their appointed task is to remind the world of what they witnessed as young men and women. Koch is an indomitable example of his generation’s determination to speak out until the last breath.

Jerusalem Post 14 March 2008

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