In March of 1994, barely three months into Rudolph Giuliani’s term as New York’s 107th mayor, a gunman opened fire on a van full of chasidic students crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Four yeshiva boys who had been visiting the Lubavitcher rebbe were wounded, one fatally.
Within hours the mayor was live on television, offering a reward and promising to use every available law enforcement resource to capture the terrorist. He held two more news conferences in the ensuing 24 hours, the latter to announce the arrest of gunman Rashid Baz.
It was a time marked by hate and grief, but it was also the beginning of a love affair between the new mayor and a large segment of the city’s Jewry.
“The Jewish community at the time felt very vulnerable,” recalled Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council. “As the mayor is now globally recognized for restoring calm and confidence among New Yorkers, he did the same in 1994, three months into his administration, for Jewish New Yorkers.”
Although Giuliani did precisely what a mayor should do under the circumstances, his hands-on management of the crisis was deeply soothing to Jewish leaders and citizens still smarting from the rioting less than three years earlier in Crown Heights; by the failure of police to arrest more than one member of the mob that killed Yankel Rosenbaum; and by that suspect’s acquittal of murder charges.
As Giuliani leaves office on a high note, his stewardship of the Sept. 11 crisis and its aftermath have all but eliminated criticism of the mayor’s tenure. But most Jews in particular would have likely graded the mayor’s two terms with an A-plus even if the hijacked planes had never struck the Twin Towers.
Few would point out that apart from the significant achievements of reducing crime and welfare, cutting down city bureaucracy, and overhauling agencies such as the Administration for Children’s Services Giuliani failed to make much headway in some of his own stated goals. Those include privatizing the city hospitals, reforming the public school system and eliminating the Board of Education and building new sports stadiums in Manhattan. He also sought a series of mostly self-serving charter reforms that went nowhere.
Giuliani’s support among Jews has dipped at times, notably in the stormy days following the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, in 1999. But he has always rebounded. The Republican won more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in his first two elections (one unsuccessful) and almost three-quarters of the vote in 1997, running against a Jewish Democrat. That election took place within months of the most notorious incident of police brutality in city history, the brutalizing of Abner Louima in Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct.
Many leading Jewish figures who flocked to the mayor’s figurative side after the bridge shooting have stayed there, even as Giuliani lost some of his luster in ensuing years as he battled and fired subordinates, waged seemingly petty squabbles with other elected officials, fought civil liberties activists in court, sought to dictate the content of art museums, and stood staunchly behind the police during questionable uses of force (including the death of an Orthodox man, Gideon Busch, in Borough Park in 1999.)
The former director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Rabbi Joseph Spielman, who has had his differences with the mayor and his staff, says that on balance, Giuliani kept his campaign promise to treat the entire city with one standard.
“After the pogrom in 1991, [Mayor] Dinkins went to the [Lubavitcher] rebbe and promised to bring harmony to the ‘two communities,’ ” said Spielman. “The rebbe said there is only one community, the citizens of New York. Giuliani has since showed that there is only one community.”
In fact, however, some might accuse the mayor of loving Jews too much. Distribution of the city’s limited supply of day care vouchers tilted heavily toward Orthodox neighborhoods during his tenure, and the Brooklyn DA has investigated whether a buildings inspector was transferred after hassling a chasidic contractor, whose building collapse later killed a worker.
Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani’s close aide and former chief of staff, had a myriad of governmental and political responsibilities, but chief among them was keeping the mayor’s Jewish supporters happy.
With good results: Tossing Yasir Arafat out of Lincoln Center, riding a bomb-plagued bus line in Jerusalem and taking a stand on almost every conceivable Jewish issue has had much more resonance to Jews here than whether he blockaded City Hall against protestors or refused to meet with the city and state’s top black officials.
With the exception of Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an early Giuliani ally who became a staunch critic after an early falling out, it’s rare to find the Jewish leader who will publicly criticize the mayor.
“We have stood by the mayor because the mayor has stood by us,” says Miller of the JCRC. “Whether it was some local issue, national matter or something related to Israel, Rudy was four-square with the Jewish community.” But Miller insists his umbrella organization has not backed away from taking stands when necessary. “Where there have been differences, we have communicated them through channels, to members of his administration.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, says the mayor “in sum total has done an exceptional job.” But he adds that “there were moments when one wished he would have acted differently.” Foxman suggests it might have been better if the mayor “had not managed his personal affairs in front of the whole city. It was nobody’s business but his own.” He was referring to the mayor’s now obscured, but once high-profile split with his wife, Donna Hanover, and his flaunting of an extramarital relationship with Judith Nathan.
Following the Diallo shooting, the mayor named Foxman to a commission to study police-community relations, only to dismiss the committee’s recommendations.
“In the end some of those recommendations were implemented anyway, and that’s what counts at the end of the day,” says Foxman.
Giuliani and Council Speaker Peter Vallone have protected city funding to Jewish social service agencies that feared losing their contracts under David Dinkins.
But one Jewish agency leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the mayor could have done much more to help the needy. “People in the Jewish community have very mixed emotions about him,” said the leader. “His first term marked the most significant achievement in 30 years, going back to [John Lindsay], which is the reduction of crime. Because of this he will always get the benefit of a doubt.
“However, he has done very little in the way of creating affordable housing. There was a tremendous gap, during the best of times, in the opportunity to create housing.”
The leader also said that while reducing the welfare rolls was important, the administration showed no interest in following up on those who no longer receive assistance. “A lot of those people got lost, and will be turning up homeless.”
After winning his second term, Giuliani promised to reach out to those who hadn’t benefited from his policies. But in the eyes of many, he never fulfilled that promise, paving the way for Fernando Ferrer’s “other New York” campaign, which propelled Ferrer to frontrunner status in the Democratic primary.
Nevertheless, Giuliani gained in Jewish popularity, becoming the most sought-after speaker at pro-Israel dinners in and out of the city. He gained support and plenty of cash from wealthy Jews during his aborted race for Senate and might have beaten Hillary Rodham Clinton among Jews had he stayed in the race.
Sept. 11 has assured Giuliani a positive legacy, one that even his critics are reluctant to taint. A frequent Giuliani gadfly, Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says Giuliani will be remembered as “one of the better mayors with incredible visibility. He rose to the occasion and exhibited exemplary leadership.”
But Siegel, who fought 27 civil liberties cases against Giuliani, including three in federal court, added: “There is still some anger over the previous seven and three-quarter years [before Sept. 11].”
Siegel said the three worst chapters of the mayor’s legacy will be his battle to defund the Brooklyn museum because of an objectionable exhibit; his efforts to keep protests off the steps of City Hall and his releasing of the criminal record of Patrick Dorismond after police killed him in a struggle on the heels of the Diallo case.
“If he had shown the empathy he showed post-Sept. 11, pre-Sept. 11, he could have avoided some very bad things,” said Siegel.