Remembering the Good, Bad and Jewishness of Koch

In the early hours of February 1, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch passed away at the age of 88 from heart failure. He served not just as mayor but as the most prominent American Jewish icon at the time. The Jewish Week and the Jewish Daily Forward recap the highs and lows of a mayor whose appeal, while bi-partisan, did not reach everyone.

In a piece for The Jewish Week, Thane Rosenbaum called the former mayor, in his view, the best exemplification of “the Jewish soul of New York City.” He added, “Not only was he Jewish; he acted Jewish.” His footing into the mayoral position came as Jews themselves began stepping into the mainstream.

Jews were fast becoming card-carrying members of the American mainstream.  The children of immigrants were no longer confined to the ghettos of the outer boroughs. Ivy League schools, white-shoe law firms, Wall Street investment banks, and exclusive country clubs were suddenly open to Jews, their quotas magically lifted like some antiquated, bigoted fog.

Koch didn’t just become mayor during a period of emergence for Jews, Koch injected Jewishness into American society.

For many Americans, Koch embodied the crusading, can-do spirit of the modern American Jew — opinionated, pushy, comical — a Jewish caricature, to be sure, but a force to be reckoned with. The arrival of Ed Koch as the public face of New York and America’s Jewish everyman introduced an entirely new Jewish sensibility into the national consciousness, laying the pathway for other political and cultural refinements of the Jewish-American experience that had yet to evolve. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential candidacy, and the ubiquity of Jews and their religious symbols in popular culture, such as “Will & Grace,” Matisyahu, Madonna’s embrace of the Kabbalah, and even President Obama’s White House Passover seders, were all natural outgrowths of Koch’s three terms in office.

Mayor Ed Koch looks up to see who is interrupting him from reading The Jewish Daily Forward. (Photo by Karen Leon via The Jewish Daily Forward)

However, Mayor Koch did not appeal to everyone, as recounted by Jonathan Soffer for the Jewish Daily Forward.

Koch appealed to white voters by showing a strident refusal to compromise with representatives of poor black communities, and particularly the political leadership of Harlem. His decision to close Sydenham Hospital in 1980, while sound on management grounds was (as the mayor admitted years later) politically tone deaf, and earned him condemnation even from moderate African American leaders such as Rep. Charles Rangel, who compared Koch to the infamous segregationist sheriff Eugene “Bull” Connor.

At the end of his second term Koch announced a ten-year multi-billion housing program, using local sources of money, to rebuild neighborhoods that had been damaged by fire and abandonment. The program, continued since by subsequent administrations, has been a major success. As a result, New York’s most devastated neighborhoods were largely rebuilt by 2001.

Koch faced a difficult third term and beyond during the late 80s, but at the same time, akin to the housing program, he set a precedence for key initiatives.

His third term (1986-89) was tough by any standard. Though his own integrity was never in question, he faced a brace of scandals, increased homelessness, thousands of city residents dying of AIDS, the crack epidemic, and a 1987 crash on Wall Street. Nonetheless, Koch continued to govern during this period with major initiatives on gay rights, City Charter reform, implementation of his housing plan, and civilian review of the police.

Koch’s brash personality got him into huge political trouble when he declared on television during the 1988 presidential race that Jews “would have to be crazy” to vote for progressive presidential candidate Jesse Jackson because Jackson might jeopardize American support for Israel. But it was the murder, just two weeks before the 1989 mayoral primary, of Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen year old who had gone to the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, that led to Koch’s defeat by David Dinkins in 1989.

Outside of the Jewish community papers, Irish Central had an article on Koch, in which Niall O’Dowd wrote that the late mayor hit a nerve with some Irish Americans.

Sure, he wore his big Irish sweater every St. Patrick’s Day and loved being photographed at the parade but at the height of the Northern Ireland “Troubles” he contributed very little to the American role.

Indeed, his most famous faux pas as far as Irish Americans were concerned occurred in 1988 after he went on a five-day visit over there with his frequent bosom buddy John Cardinal O’Connor.

Here is how his trip was reported on AP:

“Mayor Edward Koch says Irish-Americans who ”beat up the British” for their role in Northern Ireland are taking the easy way out” ran the headline.

The story ran “The mayor, back at City Hall on Tuesday, defended remarks he made in Dublin earlier in the day at the end of his five-day pilgrimage for peace in Ireland with Cardinal John O’Connor.”

In Dublin, Koch had praised the ”good attitude” of the British, saying ”I do not believe that they deserve the castigation that any of us, myself included, have heaped upon them. I do not believe that the British are occupying forces.”

Well that went down well in The Bronx and Flatbush and Koch never quite regained his equilibrium with the Irish as a result.

2 Comments

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  2. Sean Donnelly says:

    I know Koch did a lot of great stuff for the city, but honestly, who was he to offer his opinion on the British forces during the height of the Troubles when he knew nothing personal about the situation? They were the ones causing most of the unrest/fear in the country, and I am no supporter of paramilitaries.

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