One of the proudest moments of Ed Koch’s life came during a trip to Israel in 1990, in the midst of the first Palestinian intifada.
Koch had recently left City Hall after 12 years as mayor of New York City and was touring Jerusalem when a Palestinian threw a rock at his group, striking Koch in the head. The ex-mayor was bleeding a bit but wasn’t really hurt, and he mopped up the wound with his handkerchief.
The incident would become one of Koch’s favorite stories, the moment, he would say, when “I shed a little blood for the people of Israel.”
It was reflective of the pugnacity of the man who served three terms as mayor of New York, spent nine years in Congress, earned two battle stars as an infantryman in Europe during World War II, wrote seventeen books, and spent the last two decades of his life as a lawyer, talk show host, professor and even restaurant critic – working almost to his last day.
Thousands gathered at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan on Monday to pay tribute to Koch, who died of congestive heart failure early Friday morning at New York-Presbyterian Columbia Hospital.
On the stage for Koch’s memorial service, an honor guard manned by representatives of all of the city’s uniformed services surrounded the simple pine coffin. Rabbi David Posner began his words with a parable from the biblical figure Job: “All I did was just and honest, for righteousness was my clothing.” Koch’s three nephews, speaking as a triumvirate, recalled their loving uncle, the teacher of intellectual and political challenge, praising his familial warmth.
Former president Bill Clinton took to the podium carrying a file of letters Koch had sent him during his presidency.
“Not just New York owes him a lot…. until the end of life, he was concerned with the disaffiliated,” Clinton said.
The consul general of Israel in New York, Ido Aharoni, brought “heartfelt condolences” on behalf of “the entire people of Israel, on behalf of a nation that felt Edward Koch was one of us.”
He conveyed gratitude for Koch’s “longstanding support and unconditional love,” calling Koch a “clear voice for Israel [who] let us down never.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg told mourners that “No mayor, I think, has ever embodied the spirit of New York City like he did. Tough and loud, brash and irreverent, full of humor and chutzpah, he was our city’s quintessential mayor.”
In an interview with The Jewish Press, Abe Biderman, a special adviser to the mayor and commissioner of both the departments of Finance and Housing during the Koch mayoralty, recalled the former mayor as a “master at decision making” while deliberating on public issues while always maintaining his “Mr. Common Man” approach in his public persona.
Biderman, an investment banker and Orthodox Jewish community activist, spoke glowingly of Koch’s “great pride in his Jewish heritage, as signified by his self-written inscription on his tombstone. He [Koch] never hid his Jewishness.”
Biderman expressed his “joy for the thirty-year interaction” he had with Koch.
The inscription on the memorial stone at Koch’s burial plot, which he bought in 2008, reads: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Those were the last words of Jewish Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl before he was killed by Al Qaeda in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002 – eleven years, to the day, before Koch’s death. Also on the stone are the words of the Shema prayer.
Edward Irving Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924 to Jewish immigrants from Poland. The family moved to Newark, N.J., when Koch was 9, after his father’s fur shop closed during the Depression, but returned to New York in 1941 when business picked up again. After high school, Koch enrolled at City College and worked as a shoe salesman, but his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the army in 1943.
He served in the infantry and after the war spent time in Bavaria helping replace Nazis who occupied public posts with non-Nazis. He was discharged in 1946 and went to law school at New York University.
Koch got his start in politics as a Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village, then worked his way up to City Council, and in 1968 beat incumbent Whitney North Seymour Jr., a Republican, in a race for Congress. Though he served for nine years in Washington, Koch remained a creature of New York, saying he got the “bends” whenever he stayed away from the city for too long.
In 1977, Koch ran for mayor, upsetting Abraham Beame – the city’s first Jewish mayor – who oversaw a fiscal crisis that brought New York to the edge of bankruptcy. Upon taking office, Koch immediately set to cutting the municipal budget, trimming the city’s workforce, reaching a settlement with unions and securing federal aid that had been denied to Beame. In his second term, he turned the $400 million deficit he had inherited into a $500 million surplus.
He easily won reelection to a second and then a third term, but then things went sour. His administration was beset by a series of corruption scandals, rising drug-related violence and burgeoning racial tensions. Koch became the target of black ire for closing a hospital in Harlem – a move he later conceded had been a mistake – and for saying that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary, given Jackson’s support for Palestinians and his 1984 reference to New York as “Hymietown.”
Koch lost his bid for election to a fourth term in 1989 when David Dinkins bested him in the Democratic primary.
In his later years Koch seemed to swing like a pendulum between Democrats and Republicans, and his political imprimatur was eagerly sought by both sides.
He endorsed Giuliani, a Republican, in his successful mayoral bid in 1993 against Dinkins. He often shared – and sometimes took over – the stage at endorsements for other Republicans, including New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Al D’Amato and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Koch stumped hard for George W. Bush’s presidential reelection in 2004, and was not afraid to tell baffled Jewish Democrats why: Bush had Israel’s back, Koch said.
Four years later, Republicans hoped to win a repeat endorsement for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Koch, alarmed at what he saw as Republican plans to degrade the social safety net he had championed as a congressman in the 1970s, instead threw in with Barack Obama.
Almost as soon as Obama became president, however, Koch took to criticizing him for his perceived coolness to Israel.
In 2011, Koch supported Republican (and eventual winner) Bob Turner over Democrat David Weprin for Anthony Weiner’s former seat in New York’s Ninth Congressional District. He said at the time that he endorsed Turner “to send a message to President Obama” regarding Obama’s actions such as calling for Israel to agree to pre-Six-Day War borders with the Palestinians. But soon after the election Koch warmed again to Obama when the president gave a speech at the United Nations notable for its full-throated backing of Israel.
Koch went on to endorse Obama in the 2012 election despite his previous criticism of the president’s Middle East policies. “Whatever rift existed before – and there was – that’s gone,” he told The New York Times.
But Koch’s tune changed again in late 2012, when he was fiercely critical of Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary.
Koch, who never married, held twin passions he guarded ferociously: the Jewish people and New York City.
After the stone-throwing incident in 1990, Koch took the stone and blood-stained handkerchief to a frame shop, but the shop lost the stone and substituted a fake – which Koch immediately spotted. He was placated only by a letter from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who praised him as “the first eminent American to be stoned in the Old City.”
Instead of the stone, Koch framed Shamir’s letter along with a photo of his wound.
– JTA, JNS, Jewish Press staff
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