Remembering Ed Koch, as a mayor and Jewish activist


Ed Koch died Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, the day a documentary about his life premiered in New York City.

As JTA’s Uriel Heilman and Ron Kampeas note in their obituary of the former mayor, Koch wasn’t shy about being Jewish or sticking up for Israel and other Jewish causes — and that’s how he wanted to be remembered :

Koch’s tombstone is engraved with his name, his years as mayor, the Shema prayer, and the final words of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002, the same date Koch died: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."

Koch’s advocacy on Jewish issues started before his three terms as mayor, from 1977 to 1989. Below are excerpts of JTA’s coverage of Koch’s early political career:

  •  1969 As a member of the House of Representative, Koch is part of a delegation that meets with Golda Meir in New York.
  • 1971 In March, Koch introduces a bill to allot 30,000 visas for Soviet Jews. In October, after lobbying and participating in rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Koch withdraws his bill after Mitchell removes the quota.
  • 1972 Koch asks President Nixon to protest the U.N. Security Council over the treatment of Syrian Jews. In October — one month after the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich and amid frozen diplomatic relations over the Six-Day War and a Jewish American held there for espionage — the United States informs Syria that it will make visas available to Jews with relatives in the United States. Koch continues to rally for the cause.
  • 1974 In November, Koch protests against the U.S. decision to grant visas to PLO representative. In an unrelated development the following month, Koch alleges underworld ties at a nursing and old age home owned by New York Rabbi Bernard Bergman. The accused served eight months of a one-year prison sentence before his death in 1984.
  • 1975 Koch advocates for kosher food in a federal prison where JDL leader Meir Kahane is due to serve time. Later that year, Koch raps the International Lawn Tennis Federation for scheduling the U.S. Open on Rosh Hashanah.
  • 1977 Koch threatens impeachment proceedings against Federal Trade Commissioner Paul Rand Dixon for calling consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent, a “dirty Arab” and a son-of-a-bitch” at a business meeting. "Assume for a moment." Koch said, "that he (Dixon) had referred to some other individual as a ‘dirty Christian’ or ‘dirty Jew.’ Is there any question but that there would have been an uproar in this Chamber?" Dixon apologizes. Two weeks later, Koch complains to federally funded Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to the Soviet Union, for buying scripts from an alleged Nazi war criminal, Vilis Hazners. In 1980, Hosners was among those profiled in an ABC news documentary about war criminals living in America.

And then he was mayor:

It quickly became clear that while Koch’s career as an office-holder might be over, he had plenty of years ahead as a Jewish activist. Back to Heilman and Kampeas:

One of the proudest moments of Ed Koch’s life came during a trip to Israel in 1990, in the midst of the first Palestinian intifada.

Koch had recently left City Hall after 12 years as mayor of New York City and was touring Jerusalem when a Palestinian threw a rock at his group, striking Koch in the head. The ex-mayor was bleeding a bit but wasn’t really hurt, and he mopped up the wound with his handkerchief.

The incident would become one of Koch’s favorite stories, the moment, he would say, when “I shed a little blood for the people of Israel.”

Click here to read the JTA’s original account of the stone-throwing incident. For more on Koch’s post-politics activism, search the JTA Archive.

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