Comment: The death of a liberal Israel lover
Ed Koch was never content. He lived and died as a real Jew, always pursuing the never-ending quest for justice.
Former New York mayor Ed Koch. Photo: Jeff Zelevansky / Reuters
The passing of Ed Koch marks the beginning of the end of an important era in
American Jewish life. Koch represented a time when support for Israel was a
quintessentially liberal cause.
When Israel was established in 1948, it
had the enthusiastic backing of the hard Left – the Soviet Union, the Communist
Party, labor unions, radical university professors, progressive entertainers and
others whose knees automatically jerked in a leftward direction. Israel’s
enemies tended to come from the hard right: oil interests, old state department
types, traditional anti-Semites and those whose knees automatically jerked in a
This has all been changing over the past several
decades, beginning with the Six Day War in 1967, when the Soviet Union and the
Communist Party turned against Israel. This aboutface had a trickle down effect
on the hard Left that has more recently impacted the Center-Left as well. It has
produced a generational shift. For many among today’s younger Jews, Israel has
become a right-wing cause, and the movement to boycott, divest and sanction
Israel has become a left-wing cause.
Some pundits, such as Peter Beinart,
believe this shift has come about largely as a result of changes in Israeli
policy, particularly with regard to the continued occupation of the West Bank and the measures Israel
has taken with regard to the Gaza Strip. I think it has more to do with changes
in the politics of the Left, beginning with the European Left and migrating to
our American Left.
If Israel were to end the occupation, make peace with
the Palestinians and agree to the establishment of a viable, non-militarized
Palestinian state – as it offered to do in 2001 and 2007 – little would change,
because much of the Left is opposed to the very existence of a Jewish Zionist
state even on the 1948 lines.
What does Ed Koch’s death have to do with
this? Everything! Koch made the traditional liberal case for Israel. He made it
with his words, with his deeds and with his persona. He was an unashamed and
unapologetic cheerleader for Israel as a liberal cause. He loved the Jewish
state, despite its imperfections, just as he loved America despite its
imperfections, and just as he loved liberalism despite its
His generation, which experienced real anti-Semitism in
educational and employment opportunities, understood that if Israel were not the
Jewish state – the Jew among nations – it would not be subjected to the crass
double standard it has had imposed on it by the international community,
academia and the media.
There is a generation gap, as Beinart correctly
reports, but the reason for it is much more emotional than it is rational. Young
Jews are simply ashamed to support Israel, particularly in front of their lefty
Howard Jacobson, the author of The Finkler Question, got it
exactly right when he created a not-so-fictional group called “Ashamed
Ed Koch was never ashamed of his support for Israel or his
in-your-face Jewishness. Nor was he reliable as a Democrat or Republican. His
party line was always principle. He sometimes supported Democrats, sometimes
Republicans. Sometimes he supported US President Barack Obama, sometimes he
didn’t. No one could take him or his vote for granted, because he always voted
his values and his beliefs: in a strong America, a strong Israel and strong
There will never be another Ed Koch. He was an original, but
he represented a significant, if shrinking, segment of American Jewry who
refused to compromise their liberal values, their support for Israel or their
I count myself among his “talmidim” – his students. We are
an endangered species in a world where acceptance among peers is valued above
commitment to principle.
Ed Koch will never “rest in peace.”
was not his way. He was always nervously squirming, while making others squirm
as well. Comfort was not his goal. He understood that to be a proud and
assertive Jew meant never being able to leave a sigh of relief and say “it’s
over, we are at peace, we can now put down our guard and relax.”
that the struggle for Jewish self-determination never stays won.
Shakespeare’s Jewish character, Shylock, is asked at the end of The Merchant of
Venice whether he accepts Christianity, he responds “I am content,” thus proving
he is no longer a Jew.
Ed was never content. He lived and died as a real
Jew, always pursuing the never-ending quest for justice. •