Remembering New York Mayor Ed Koch: A Liberal Who Stood Up for Israel

The feisty former mayor was a proud Jew who spoke his mind. For him, anti-Zionism was equal to anti-Semitism.

Abraham Foxman
Abraham Foxman
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Abraham Foxman
Abraham Foxman

Ed Koch was the personification of New York and of the Jewish community of New York. He was proud of being a New Yorker and he was proud of being a Jew. And he expressed his likes and dislikes without any hesitation and with a legendary feistiness. You always knew where Ed Koch stood.

More than that, Ed Koch symbolized the maturation of American Jews in the second half of the 20th century. No longer the insecurity and uncertainty of the pre-World War II era: Jews were now full-fledged, equal citizens and they could stand up for what they believed. This was particularly true with regard to Israel.

At the root of Koch’s outspoken support for the Jewish state, in good times and bad, was his profound identity as a Jew. On his tombstone, he asked not only that the Sh’ma Yisrael be engraved but the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded while in Pakistan investigating Al Qaeda back in 2002: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”

There are two elements of Ed Koch’s support of Israel that stand out in my mind, one completely consistent with everything we have witnessed about him for decades, the other an important diversion from a trend in America that is somewhat troubling.

First, Koch did not worry about who might agree or disagree with him in his statements on Israel. He went with his gut and his principles. When President Obama called for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, with land swaps, Koch said: “I like President Obama...I helped get him elected. But he threw Israel under the bus.”

Several months later, however, Koch said he was impressed with Obama’s handling of the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations, where the president expressed support for Israel and called for more negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Speaking of a brief conversation with the president, Koch reported that he “congratulated him on his speech to the United Nations in which he acknowledged Israel’s presence in a difficult neighborhood.”

He never hesitated to label anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. In these kinds of things, nuance was for others. He spoke bluntly. In his eyes, those who were attacking Israel were motivated by anti-Semitism.

The more interesting and even more important element of Koch’s support for Israel, however, relates to his wider political views. Historically, liberals used to be significantly more supportive of Israel than conservatives. That began to change in the 1970s and today, according to a wide range of polls, people who are conservative are significantly more pro-Israel than liberals.

Koch, broadly speaking, remained a liberal on domestic issues. Just look at his views on two very hot and current matters. On gay rights, he took on the Roman Catholic Church, an important institution in New York that he maintained good relations with as mayor, by championing gay rights before it was popular. And on gun control, he argued in a radio interview just a few weeks ago against gun ownership by civilians: “I don't believe that in our society that we should have guns.”

He, unlike others, however, never saw a contradiction between his liberalism and his support for Israel. On the contrary, he was perplexed that people who had liberal views did not recognize that Israel remained a great liberal democracy, the only one in the Middle East, a great friend of America and facing anti-democratic and even anti-Semitic enemies. He used his radio broadcasts and his newspaper articles to paint the Middle East in stark terms, a struggle between Israelis who stood for all the values that America stood for, and those dark forces who wanted no good both for America and Israel.

He wanted to convey to liberals the need to stand with Israel. To make his point, in 2011, after he crossed swords with the president on Israel, he supported a Republican Bob Turner in a special congressional election in Queens. The message was clear: liberals should support Israel. When they didn’t, they couldn’t count on Ed Koch.

For me, this theme, that liberals can and should support Israel, was Ed Koch’s singular contribution to U.S.-Israel relations. There is much to learn from him going forward. One of the great challenges we have is to ensure that democratic and liberal support for Israel be strengthened and rise again to the level of Republican and conservative.

When it came to Jewish issues, Ed Koch got it. Jews were now full-fledged equal citizens in America. For him, there was no uncertainty or insecurity. Say what’s on your mind, stand with America and stand with Israel.

He was a friend, a teacher, a brother in arms. We will all miss him, especially the Jewish people. And I will miss him.

Abraham H. Foxman is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author of the forthcoming book “Viral Hate” (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013).

New York City Mayor Ed Koch, center, gesturing as he marches in a Labor Day parade down New York's Fifth Avenue in this Sept. 7, 1981 file photo.Credit: AP
Democratic Mayoral candidates Mario Cuomo, left, and Edward Koch talk to reporters in New York, 1977.
Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (center right) with Former Israeli Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Shamir (center left), Yossi Ahimeir (right), and Harry Hurwitz (left).
Ed Koch with Presidemt Ronald Reagan, 1980
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Democratic Mayoral candidates Mario Cuomo, left, and Edward Koch talk to reporters in New York, 1977.Credit: AP
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Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch (center right) with Former Israeli Prime Minsiter Yitzhak Shamir (center left), Yossi Ahimeir (right), and Harry Hurwitz (left).Credit: GPO
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Ed Koch with Presidemt Ronald Reagan, 1980Credit: AP
Remembring Ed Koch

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