Ed Koch and the Jewish underground
One aspect of the late mayor's life that has eluded commentators is his little-known role in educating American Jews about the role of Menachem Begin and the Irgun Zva’i Leumi.
Bloomberg and former mayors at Ed Koch's funeral Photo: REUTERS
Much has been said and written about Ed Koch since his recent passing, but one
aspect of his life that has eluded the commentators is his little-known role in
educating American Jews about the role of Menachem Begin and the Irgun Zva’i
Leumi in bringing about the creation of Israel.
When Begin first visited
the United States in the autumn of 1948, as the recently emerged leader of the
Jewish fighting underground and the Israeli opposition, he was a stranger in a
strange land. Most mainstream American Jewish leaders were ideologically more
comfortable with David Ben- Gurion and the Labor Zionists, and they followed
Ben-Gurion’s lead in treating Begin as a pariah. None attended the Manhattan
dinner in his honor.
Some even pressured dignitaries, such as
undersecretary of the interior Oscar Chapman, to withdraw from the sponsoring
committee. Hannah Arendt joined a group of prominent US Jews, including Albert
Einstein and Hadassah’s Irma Lindheim, in publicly denouncing Begin as a
During the 1950s and 1960s, the textbooks used in American
public schools and Jewish day schools seldom mentioned the story of the Irgun’s
armed revolt against the British. An entire generation of American Jews grew up
believing that the State of Israel was created by the United Nations. Thus, when
Begin was first elected prime minister in 1977, he was unknown to much of the US
What little was known was negative; many of those who
knew anything about him “knew” that he was a “terrorist.”
with Fagin,” Time magazine famously wrote.
Ed Koch helped start the
process of bringing Begin and the Irgun in from the cold by announcing, during
his tenure as mayor in May 1978, that he was making the prime minister an
honorary citizen of New York City. Koch’s act was a powerful statement, by one
of the most prominent Jews in America, that Begin and the fighters he led
deserved to be reckoned among the founders of the Jewish state.
later, Koch gave this process another boost by proclaiming a “Jabotinsky Day” in
the Big Apple. He hailed Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionism and
spiritual father of the Irgun, as a “legendary statesman, soldier, poet and
architect of the State of Israel.” The messages of greeting to that year’s
Jabotinsky Centennial Dinner read like a who’s who of the American Jewish
establishment, including the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major
American Jewish Organizations, Bna’i B’rith and Hadassah. The times had changed,
and Koch had helped change them.
It was not that Mayor Koch was a
cheerleader for the Irgun per se. He also named a Manhattan street after Ben-
Gurion. For Koch, what was important was not any specific leader or group, but
the fundamental notion that Jews ought to be proud of having fought for their
independence. It is easy to detect some of that same fighting spirit in the bold
style of political battle that characterized Koch’s own long and colorful career
in the public arena.
Koch was not the only one to appreciate the leaders
of the Jewish underground.
One recalls, for example, that at about the
same time, the newly founded Los Angeles wing of Yeshiva University named its
School of Jewish Studies after Begin. These were important signs of the
maturation of the American Jewish community. The new generation of US Jews cared
little for the old Labor-Revisionist quarrels and took pride in the achievements
of the Zionist fighters, whatever their political orientation.
the public face of a new Jewish attitude. Thirty years behind their
coreligionists in Israel, these American Jews increasingly perceived the world
as an often hostile arena, in which Jews would achieve little unless they fought
for it. Sometimes that meant fighting in court, sometimes it meant fighting the
elements in malaria- infested swamps, and sometimes it meant taking up arms. A
growing number of American Jews realized that the actions of the Jewish
underground had been justified. They recognized Begin was right when he wrote in
The Revolt: “Tyranny is armed. Otherwise it would be liquidated overnight.
Fighters for Freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed
Still, this part of Ed Koch’s work remains incomplete. The
process of educating American Jews about the Hagana-Irgun-Stern Group fight to
establish Israel has a long way to go. Too many textbooks still give the
fighters short shrift. To cite one of many examples, an otherwise fine book
titled Israel: The Founding of A Modern Nation, which appears on the
Anti-Defamation League’s list of books about Israel recommended for “young
readers,” notes only that there was a “Jewish resistance movement” that “brought
homeless refugees into Palestine in open defiance of the British.” The Irgun and
Hagana are mentioned just once, in connection with Arab violence in the 1930s.
The British withdrawal from Mandatory Palestine is depicted as the result of the
UN partition vote, not as the culmination of a Jewish war for national
If American Jews want to infuse their children with Zionist
pride, they will need to teach them that Israel was created not because somebody
handed it to us, but because our forefathers fought for it. Ed Koch deserves
credit for helping us remember that.
Dr. Daniel Gordis, senior vice
president and Koret distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center, is the author of
Menachem Begin: Prime Minister of the Jews, forthcoming in NextBook’s Jewish
Encounters series. ■ Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 14 books about Jewish
history, Zionism and the Holocaust, including Historical Dictionary of Zionism
(with Chaim I. Waxman).