Ed Koch, the three-term mayor of New York (1978-‘89), will be honored by Beit Morasha, the Jerusalem-based educational center, on Jan. 25 for “public service, leadership and commitment to the State of Israel and the Jewish people” at a special event and dinner at Guastavino’s in New York City.
Beit Morasha will inaugurate the Edward I. Koch Center for Public Policy and Jewish Ethics at Beit Morasha’s Robert M. Beren College, which supports research and advanced seminar programs on the connection between public policy and Jewish values.
In an interview the other day at his Midtown law office, Koch, 87, proved to be as forthright and feisty as ever, particularly in his self-appointed role as defender of Israel.
Q: Did you have a prior connection to Beit Morasha?
A: Paul Wimpfheimer [vice president of the institution] was a member of my congressional staff, as were his uncle and sister. And when he and others from Beit Morasha approached me about this honor, I accepted. I’ve spoken to many Jewish organizations but as best I can recall, I’ve never been honored by one before.
You have been expressing great concern about Israel these days. Please explain why.
Israel has never been in greater peril. It needs its friends, Christian and Jewish, for support in the face of rising anti-Semitism around the world. And I thank God for the support of Evangelical Christian groups. They are far more supportive than [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman, whose recent columns about Israel have been savage. And I have only contempt for J Street [the self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby].
I worry that [according to some polling], only 48 percent of Democrats support Israel, compared to 85 percent of Republicans. And most upsetting is that young Jews don’t know their own history.
Can you explain your complicated relationship with President Barack Obama regarding his Mideast views?
I’ve been on and off the bus with the president. I think he should have gone to Israel, and not just Cairo [where he gave his Mideast policy speech]. And when he first introduced that halting settlement construction should be a condition for the peace talks, it convinced me he is throwing Israel under the bus, and I said so.
Is that why you decided to back the Republican candidate Bob Turner over the Democrat David Weprin in the special election for Anthony Weiner’s congressional seat last year?
I felt it was a great opportunity to send a message to the White House [in opposition to Obama’s treatment of Israel], and Turner says I was a key factor in his victory. He won by 8 percent, which is an incredible blowout in that [heavily Democratic] district. The New York Times denounced me for it. At the time I was 86 and had been out of office 21 years, so I especially enjoyed [the role I played in the election].
Do you feel you are still influential on the political scene?
I don’t gauge my influence; I let others do that. But I have a mailing list [of monthly columns and correspondence] of 10,000, and lots of people, Jews and non-Jews, ask for my support.
How did you come to make up with Obama?
I was invited to meet with him [after the Turner victory] when he was in New York for his United Nations speech opposing Palestinian statehood. It was a magnificent speech. In our meeting the president said he didn’t know why Jews are upset with him, that he has always been supportive of Israel. He spoke for 20 minutes about his commitment. Then he said “your turn,” and I spoke for 10 minutes. I described the narrative of the Jewish people living in Israel for 3,000 years, not being put there after the Holocaust [as the Palestinians claim]. And I said that the president, in his speech [last May] about the 1967 borders, should have insisted that Hamas first give up its charter [calling for the destruction of Israel and the Jews].
The president said, “didn’t I say that?” And I said, “no.” I had to stand up [for Israel]. Then he said, “Ed, your voice is heard outside of New York; let’s stay in touch.”
I believe he is sincere, and what he said was real. I decided I wasn’t going to make him entreat me any further, so I decided I’ll get on the bus again [and support him].
What’s your take on the Republican presidential candidates?
I like [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich, and I like them all [on Israel] except for Ron Paul, who is David Duke without an armband.
You’ve crossed party lines in supporting different candidates. How do you make that determination?
I’m a proud Democrat, but I cross party lines if the Democrat is not the best candidate. All things being equal, I vote for the Democrat because the Democratic policies are better. Israel is one of my top priorities, but it’s not the only one.
Any final thoughts you’d like to emphasize?
Yes, the most important issue is for Jews to solidify our bond with Catholics. We are one-third of 1 percent of the world population, and there are 1.2 billion Catholics. The mainstream Protestants have been anti-Jewish since Martin Luther, but the Catholics have reached out to us, [referring to Jews as] their older brother.