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 rightward direction.
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 about-face 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 settlement 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 settlements, 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 imperfections. 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 Peter 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 friends. Howard Jacobson, the author of the Finkler Question got it exactly right when he created a not so fictional group called “Ashamed Jews.”
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 President 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 liberalism.
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 Jewish pride. 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”. That 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.” He knew that the struggle for Jewish self-determination never stays won.
When 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.
This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.