Is Ed Koch’s passing another sign of lobby’s generational fade?

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Koch headstone
Koch headstone

As you all know now, Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York and a dedicated Zionist, died three days ago at 88. American obituaries have been a little less than forthcoming about the Zionism. NPR’s Joel Rose didn’t mention Israel. The New York Times only mentions Israel twice. But a sense of being an embattled Jew was at the core of Koch’s political engagement: Koch’s endorsement of Obama in last fall’s presidential election hinged on Obama’s support for Israel; and as several obits have pointed out, his headstone, prepared in advance, has the words of Daniel Pearl, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Scott Roth wrote archly,

it’s unusual for the words beheaded, Muslim, and terrorist to appear on a gravestone. But maybe this is the start of a trend.

It is important to remember that Koch got into Congress in 1968 by opposing the Vietnam war, but had no problem with any war that Israel ever launched– typical of his generation of apologists. Haaretz expresses the importance that Koch had for Israel in the U.S., with a remembrance by Israeli diplomat Ido Aharoni:

Ed Koch: One of the most important and influential American Zionists of our time…

Hit by a rock on the head in Jerusalem during the first intifada, Ed Koch, the icon of New York, never wavered in his support for Israel.

NPR quotes Jonathan Soffer, Koch’s biographer, but you have to go to the Forward to read Soffer telling you how important Jewishness and Israel were to the former mayor. He says that during WW2 Koch had a fight in the army with a bully that ended the

numerous anti-Jewish remarks he and fellow Jews had endured during basic training. It was the beginning of a lifetime combating anti-Semitism…

During five terms in Congress, Koch compiled a strongly liberal voting record but a centrist style, assiduously courting the friendship of conservatives. Popular among his colleagues, he obtained a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, giving him national stature in the Jewish community as a key supporter of Israel. He travelled many times to the Middle East, met every Israeli prime minister, and became a dedicated Zionist. 

I’ll never forget the way Koch deflected dual loyalty charges. He said that the minute that Israel invades the U.S., he’d be on the front lines. Cute and deceptive. Listen to Chuck Hagel the other day: Zionism ravished our discourse a long time ago.

Koch’s core commitment was everything in his political engagement in recent years. Beloved by Jeffrey Goldberg, Koch stood up for the settlements and the Republican Party, during the special election in Brooklyn’s congressional district that was all about Israel two years back. NYT:

On Monday, former Mayor Edward I. Koch, a Democrat, endorsed the Republican candidate in the race, Bob Turner, a retired cable television executive, at a press conference at which he stood next to an Israeli flag. Mr. Koch has acknowledged that Mr. Weprin is a strong supporter of Israel, but argued that the election of Mr. Turner would serve as a rebuke to Mr. Obama for saying that Israel’s pre-1967 border should be the basis for a peace agreement.

I would argue that Koch’s departure is epochal: the Israel lobby is panicked that Lieberman, Ackerman, Frank, and Berman have all left Congress this year, and AIPAC’s Jonathan Missner in a fundraising letter warns that the House and Senate saw nearly 20 percent turnover in the last election and “Many of the new members are brand new to foreign policy. Most are from districts with relatively small Jewish constituencies.”

Thanks to Abdeen Jabara.

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