Moment editor Nadine Epstein sat down with Ed Koch at his office, just after the mayor arrived from his morning workout at the gym. Here are excerpts from the wide-ranging conversation between Epstein and Koch, who was sharp as a whistle, and oh, by the way, has decided that when his time does come, he will not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
MM: Does religion have a place in American government?
EK: I think so. Those who cite the First Amendment and convey that there has to be a total separation between government and religion are ridiculous. Our founding documents refer to God. The mistake is that they believe that any religious involvement is a violation of the Constitution and that the First Amendment says the government shall not favor a particular religion. But that doesn’t mean the government can’t treat religious groups as they do other groups. I agree with that position. Recently, for example, a federal judge said that the City of New York’s school system has to allow religious groups to rent facilities like any other group and that they could even use the facility for religious services. I don’t find anything wrong with that.
MM: Should Jews feel threatened when politicians such as Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minnesota) talk about the United States as a Christian nation?
EK: They shouldn’t feel threatened. The United States has a majority of Christians. So what? George Washington wrote a terrific letter to the synagogue in Rhode Island about how important it is to protect minorities. I don’t find anything offensive about the fact that someone might say that the U.S. has a majority of Christians. It’s a fact! Why is it that you don’t get offended when they say “Judeo-Christian” values? Considering Jews are only two percent of the American population, do they now have to say “Judeo-Islamic-Christian” values? It’s ridiculous. I don’t think Jews understand and appreciate how important Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have been, and I don’t think we respond adequately to accept the hand of friendship, particularly from the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve tried to do that my whole professional life: To enhance the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church in New York and getting it to be more supportive of Israel and of Jewish concerns. I think I’ve been successful.
MM: How important should Israel be to American Jewish voters in this election?
EK: It should be important to all voters! There are more Christians in the United States than there are Jews. The greatest enemies that Jews have are other Jews, in my judgment. One that comes to mind is Tom Friedman. He wrote a column urging an intifada, which he said should be peaceful or nonviolent, and said, “But it’s okay to throw stones.” I said to myself, “What kind of jerk is this?” and he hasn’t apologized. Why did I say that? In 1991, I was invited by Israel’s tourism minister to visit Israel. It was the time of the first intifada and tourism was low, and it was thought that I could bring more tourists from America. Teddy Kollek and I, accompanied by about 25 reporters and photographers, took a walk through the old Jewish quarter to get to the Wall. Suddenly I feel an enormous pain in my skull. I thought the building I was standing against was collapsing. No, it was stone throwing by the Arabs. The stone hit me on the head, and it was captured by the photographers. You can see the stone bouncing off my head. I realized that this is not good for tourism, so I wanted to make light of it. I said, “Teddy, this stone was not meant for me, it’s meant for you!” Then he said, “If you had a head of hair like I do, you wouldn’t have even felt it!” So we both made light of it. After that, we went to the Wall, and then I went to the hospital. Thank God my skull was not fractured, but they did put nine stitches in my head. Prime Minister Shamir later sent me a letter, saying that I was the first preeminent American struck by a stone in the intifada. I thought of that when Tom Friedman said it was all right for the Arabs to throw stones. I’ll never forgive him for that, and he hasn’t apologized for it.
MM: What is your position on Israel?
EK: I believe in a two-state solution. The fact is that the Arabs, represented by the Palestinian Authority, decline to negotiate. At least four Prime Ministers—Olmert, Barak, Sharon and Netanyahu—have expressed their support of a two-state solution. They have also said that the maximum figure needed to accommodate bringing the Jewish settlements into the State of Israel on the West Bank would be about seven percent, for which they would be prepared to provide land of equal value in exchange. I think that’s fair and reasonable! There’s a letter by Ronald Reagan, which I saw. He said, “Why should Jews be excluded from the West Bank?” Do the Israelis exclude Arabs from living in Israel? They don’t! There is something like 20 percent of the Israeli population and more than a million Arabs living there. At the negotiating table, they will decide the status of Jews who want to continue to live in, what they would refer to as Samaria or Judea Land, which would be part of the Palestinian state? Can they live there as citizens, Palestinians? Can they live there as resident aliens? But the Palestinian Authority doesn’t want to negotiate this. I once said that one of the things the Israelis should have done, was that every time there was a Jewish death as a result of terrorism, to build a settlement on that spot, and the center of a new settlement, saying to the Arabs, “so long as you keep this up, we’ll continue to expand our settlements.” But that was a long time ago and we’ve come a long way since then, and yet not far enough. I’m not a religious Jew. I’m a secular Jew. I believe in God, I believe in the here after, I believe in reward and punishment, and I expect to be rewarded. Let me explain to you why Israel is so important to Jews. I’m never going to live there; this is my country, right here. But I know that every night there is a Jewish community somewhere in danger, somewhere in the world that needs sanctuary. And Israel will take every one of them in, no matter how old, no matter how sick, no matter how young. Had Israel been in existence in the 30s when Hitler offered to let the German Jewish population leave Germany if there was a country that would take them, it would have taken every one of them. That is why Israel is so important to me, because it will take Jews around the world who are in need of sanctuary, and protect Jews when the world won’t protect them.
MM: What do you think of President Obama?
EK: I had a falling out with President Obama when he announced that Israel has to go back to the ‘67 lines when it starts its negotiations with Palestinians. I said so, and decided that Obama was taking the Jews for granted, as far as their vote. Next to the blacks that give, maybe, 99 percent of their vote, Jews gave him 78 percent of their vote, and I wanted to send a message. There was a special election for Congress because Anthony Weiner had resigned in the district with the largest Jewish population of anywhere in the Unites States. I said if I can get that district—which had voted Democratic for 90 years—to vote for a Republican, that would send a message. If I could find a Republican who would be willing to send an equal message to his or her own national leadership demanding that they give up this effort to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid by removing entitlements, I would support that person. Two people called me. One was the candidate for the Democrats, David Weprin. He said, “I could be that candidate!” but I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, where’s the message?” He was furious. The Republican candidate was Bob Turner, a Roman Catholic, German by descent. When Turner called and said, “I could be your candidate.” I said, “Come on up.” We talked, he’s always been supportive of Israel, but I said, “That’s my message, your message is to the national leadership on the issues of Social Security, et cetera.” He said, “Fine.” I said, “You gotta write it out, your commitment on that.” We won by an eight-point margin, which is incredible. After that, I met with the President, and he launched into a defense of his position, saying, “I don’t understand why the Jews don’t support me or are disappointed in me. I’m very supportive of Jewish concerns in Israel” I responded, “Mr. President, when you said Israel has to go back to the ‘67 lines, even though I disagree with you because that’s not defensible, I wouldn’t have been angry and I wouldn’t have assailed your comment if you had, at the same time, said that Israel doesn’t have to negotiate with Hamas until it gives up its terrorist charter that every Jew who came after 1917 to Palestine must be expelled, give up violence, all the things that you would insist upon in a normal situation. But you didn’t.” He said, “I didn’t? I thought I did!” and he tried to convey that he was very supportive. I took that into consideration and decided maybe a day or two later, that I was back on the Obama bus. I will be going to Florida to speak to Jewish communities and urge that they support the President. I believe that he does support Israel and Jewish concerns. The domestic program of the president and the Democratic Party is so heads and shoulders on the issues that are meaningful to me: Social security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare.
MM: Who is better for Israel, Obama or Romney?
EK: Both. Romney is good on Israel and so is the President. That’s not the only issue that faces an American voter. On the domestic front, Republicans are awful. So there’s not question that it’s in the interest of those who are concerned about our course of action over the next few years domestically and internationally and in support of Israel, that Obama is heads and shoulders above Romney in the aggregate. But Romney on Israel is very good.
As I was leaving, the conversation turned to cemeteries, and Koch explained his views:
I want to be buried in Manhattan and found a plot at 155th and Amsterdam. It’s a non-denominational cemetery—owned by Trinity Church—and most important, it’s o a subway stop. An Orthodox rabbi can’t officiate, so I called the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, David Posner, and he will officiate. According to Jewish law, it is important to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, but there are instructions about how to be buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. You must put up a sign on the gate nearest your plot that says “Gateway to the Jews.” So I asked the church if I could have a sign–and a fence–around my plot. And they said I could do it. On my stone, which is up already, is the Sh’ma and Daniel Pearl’s last words: My mother is a Jew, my father is a Jew, I am a Jew. This should be a prayer said every day.
For more, click here to read Koch’s response to the Moment Magazine symposium: Is democracy a Jewish idea.
Mayor Ed Koch photo from Shutterstock.