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Ed Koch, American Jew

By Larry Gordon

A lot was said in these pages last week and in a great number of other publications about former New York City mayor Ed Koch. For my part, I always liked Koch and most of his politics and positions on Israel, except for his view on the seemingly endless imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard.

Koch spoke his mind with little restraint on a great variety of matters. What put me off was hearing him say on a New York radio program that in his opinion Pollard should have been hanged for his crime of espionage against the U.S. for Israel. I was shocked and chagrined that Koch, who usually adopted very pro-Israel stances, would say what he did with such conviction.

I believed at the time that Mr. Koch took that position because as a man who was so obsessed with both his Jewishness as well as his acceptance by the mainstream American culture, the Pollard ordeal seemed to unsettle whatever imaginary balance existed in that equation. Pollard and the charges against him pointed to a dual loyalty as an American citizen (and government employee) and a Jew, which upset that silent equilibrium that so many Jews in this country have struggled with since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

Mayor Koch could have been a poster boy for that conflict, or struggle, or whatever that psychological malady is. I could never appropriately grasp how intelligent and educated people like Mr. Koch and others were able to display such insensitivity and even hostility toward Pollard’s plight. So he was convicted of spying for Israel on the United States. He has paid a very deep and dear price by spending his last 28 years in a federal prison, but Koch and others just wanted Pollard to go away. As Jews, the mere existence of the Pollard situation made them uncomfortable and always conscious of their vulnerability and the challenge involved in wholly supporting the rightness of Israel paired with being a true-blue American citizen.

No one else out there in the great rainbow of ethnicity that is America seems to be dealing with the same kind of problem. Peruvian or Brazilian Americans and others who hail from or feel an allegiance to a home country where they or their parents were born do not have this silent suspicion suspended over their heads as Jews either do or feel they do. And that’s what I think troubled Ed Koch more than anything else.

So now President Obama is finally planning a trip to Israel in mid-March, and the talk has once again been stirred. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful overture if prior to his departure to the Jewish state the president would issue whatever orders it takes to finally free Mr. Pollard from prison?

Will that happen? Can it happen? Sure, anything can take place, but reading the political tea leaves that type of occurrence seems extremely unlikely. And that is probably because the Jews around Mr. Obama feel very much the same way as the late Ed Koch did, as they endeavor daily to balance their love for Israel with their love for America.

Sure, it’s unfair and even judicially unbalanced for a man to sit in prison for nearly three decades for the offense of spying on one country for another that happen to be the closest of allies. And so, many are emotionally declaring that yes, it is time to indeed release him. But then the thought process reverses itself and the conversation turns to, “Do you know what he did, the position he put us in and how he embarrassed us?” And that’s where it all comes to a halt.

But make no mistake, notwithstanding his wrongheadedness on Pollard, Koch was a good and proud Jew. He lived that way and he died that way. As you know, he made plans for his funeral and burial. His headstone was done a few years ago, and as you saw here and in other publications or online, the epitaph on the stone includes the Shema prayer in Hebrew. Amongst other things, the Shema Yisrael is one of the hallmarks and perhaps best-known sentences of Torah or Jewish liturgy. The sentiment expressed in the brief prayer was traditionally the last words uttered by millions as they were forced to die under the sick and brutal hand of the Nazis in the Holocaust.

Ed Koch was very aware of this and these were the words—“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is One”—that he chose to follow him into eternity. The headstone also has engraved on it the final words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was executed by Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. Those words were, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Koch was apparently moved by the circumstances of Pearl’s tragic death eleven years ago. Koch passed away on the same day that Pearl was executed—February 1.

I have seen Ed Koch speak at a number of dinners and receptions over the years. But the last time I saw him, two years ago, was the night that Bob Turner defeated David Weprin for an open congressional seat for a district that ran through parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Koch threw his support behind the Republican novice, Turner. The move stunned the Democratic establishment and that is precisely what the former mayor wanted to do. Koch was upset at the time at Barack Obama because of the way the president was playing around with U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel.

The mayor supported Obama and indeed traveled to Florida to campaign for the president in 2008. Koch felt and said, however, that he wanted to send a message to the president by supporting a Republican in a congressional district that had long belonged to the Democrats. Weprin at the outset was considered to be the inevitable winner.

It was a close race and I was in Turner election headquarters in Howard Beach, Queens, after the polls closed and results started to seep in. Up on the stage were Congressman Peter King, Mayor Koch, soon-to-be Congressman Turner, and a string of Republican notables from around New York. There was an electric charge in the room. The race was close, but the people up on stage seemed to know something the masses out there in the audience did not. And that was that Turner had beaten Weprin handily and that Ed Koch may have made the difference.

I remember watching Koch, already 86 years old, looking vital, confident, and excited, accepting congratulations from his colleagues on the stage. Ed Koch hanging out with Republicans? Preposterous! But wait a minute; this was about American support for Israel, not a matter that Mr. Koch took lightly.

It was a great night and an important victory. The Turner seat was redistricted out of existence, Mr. Turner retired, and Ed Koch eventually made his peace with Barack Obama and once again supported him wholeheartedly in this past November election. That was Koch—a flash-in-the-pan Republican but a die-hard Democrat.

And then there is the fact that Koch chose to be buried uptown in Trinity cemetery—a proud Jewish man in a Christian cemetery. So what does that say? It says that even though Ed Koch stood up proudly for Israel, he was still a very confused Jew. The Jewish Week reported last week that one of his former commissioners, Abe Biderman, tried to talk him out of being buried in Trinity, but Koch had consulted rabbis who told him that it was an acceptable location as long as there was a gate constructed around his gravesite, and there is.

In a way, Ed Koch was the consummate secular Jew. He used the limelight to assist Jews and boost U.S. support for Israel. His politics caused him to err on occasion, but that did not detract too much from the greatness he so proudly achieved.

• • •

The Importance

Of Electing Pesach Osina

We have a unique opportunity in Far Rockaway, Bayswater, and other parts of Queens to do something very special and important next week. On Tuesday, February 19, there will be a special election to fill the New York City Council seat vacated by James Sanders, who was elected to the State Senate. The district residents are only 11% Jewish, but if the community marshals its forces and comes out to vote, then Far Rockaway will have true as well as vital representation in the City Council.

“It’s true that we are only 11% of the population,” said a community resident, “but up to this point we have only received about 1% of the services available to an area like ours.”

Three months after Sandy, 65% of the homes in Far Rockaway still contain Sandy-generated mold. Thousands of homes in the neighborhood were without power for weeks. This past Sunday in the aftermath of the snowstorm, power once again went out in parts of Far Rockaway. Once again—this time thankfully for only a few hours—residents were forced to scurry around looking for answers.

And that’s one of the very important reasons to come out and vote on Tuesday for Osina. He has worked closely with Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, and he understands how to interface with the maze of government. That in addition to the fact that he is young, intelligent, and hardworking as well as tenacious when it comes to assisting those in need. Pesach Osina is the kind of man you want on your side when you need assistance.

The powers that be in New York City know that Far Rockaway is a vital cog in what makes the city work. This seashore community bore a great part of the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, but when it came to acquiring the fair share of disaster recovery funding, it had to reach out to others in various communities for assistance. With the election of Mr. Osina, Far Rockaway will have its own homegrown, influential elected official committed to dealing with this area’s issues. It is way past time that this possibility becomes a reality. That is why it is both urgent and vital that on Tuesday, February 19, you take a few moments and go out to vote and make Pesach Osina a member of the New York City Council. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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Posted by on February 14, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.