The Israel Debate: American Jew vs. American Jew

Ed Koch's support of Republican Bob Turner fans the flames

There he was on TV again, with his shiny bald pate, his taut red skin, and his antic smile recalling an unreal blend of Popeye the Sailorman and a Gerber baby. It was Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, undeviating gadfly, raising Republican Bob Turner’s hand in triumph after the latter won New York’s 9th congressional district by eight percentage points.

This was the seat Anthony Weiner gave up … for what? Some overheated nookie with a randy Twitter-using constituent in the back of a Town Car on a dimly lit street near the creaking masts of New York Harbor? What a putz.

Koch’s role in Turner’s campaign sets the stage for what National Public Radio is calling an “Ed Koch Factor” in 2012. And he certainly is gearing up. Sunday he published a lengthy editorial in the New York Daily News in an effort to clarify the reason he got behind Turner: to send President Obama a message on the subject of Israel. He writes:

When Gov. Cuomo announced there would be a special election in the 9th district, I publicly urged that this contest be used as a vehicle for sending the President a message: We want you to change your policy on Israel and once again see Israel as our ally with a special relationship to the United States.

After I made that statement, I received a call from the Republican candidate, Bob Turner, who asked for my endorsement. …

Turner is a compassionate conservative. We agree on some important issues and disagree on others. When I announced that I would endorse Turner, I received a call from David Weprin, the Democratic candidate who was understandably very agitated. He said, “How can you do this? I can send the same message.”

I said, “David, you can’t send the same message. If you are elected, Obama is going to say, ‘ho hum, another Democrat,’ and it will have no impact. When Turner, a Republican, is elected in this district, which has the largest Jewish constituency in the country, he will sit up and take notice.”

Classic Koch. He’s nothing if not frank. Because if he’s cravenly manipulated a political campaign to make a point, of course he’ll fess up to it. What’s to be ashamed of?

Some American Jews—the single-issue Israel voters—will admire Koch. The rest of us will resent the fact that his actions may have contributed to our losing a Democratic seat when we can least afford to do so. It’s political treif—or, to translate, just not kosher.

In yesterday’s Ha’aretz, in response to Bob Turner’s win, Yossi Sarid wrote a passionate editorial directed toward American Jews:

This appeal is being directed to those friends who can still think for themselves and demonstrate responsibility when it comes to us. Don’t submerge yourselves in the flood of nationalist-religious history that is currently washing over us. Don’t confuse governments that come and go with the state, which must always remain.

You, Jews who are both warm and hot under the collar, are working against Israel’s interests as well as against the interests of America, your homeland, which is now seen in its full isolation and hypocrisy: All of the people in our region are accorded the democratic right to rise up against tyranny, everyone except the Palestinians, who have suffered not from a home-grown tyrant, but from a foreign occupier, and the end of the occupation is not in sight after 44 years. …

Even the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is one of the most important think tanks in the United States, recently called for a reexamination of Washington’s thrall to Jerusalem’s every whim.

Sarid points out that the Israel we defend today is nothing like the Israel established in 1948. That doesn’t necessarily matter to American Jews, many of whom think of Israel as a mythic place governed more by biblical narrative conventions than legislative bodies like the Knesset. This fantasy nation—blue and white flags snapping in the ocean breezes—awaits our arrival. Thank goodness for writers like Sarid who can remind American Jews to get beyond the romanticization.

“Israel’s Jewish population is more nationalistic, religiously conservative, and hawkish on foreign policy and security affairs than that of even a generation ago, and it would be unrecognizable to Israel’s founders,” a report by the center says.

So the secret is out. Everyone now knows Israel is not what it once was. It is therefore not interests or values but political survival at all costs that Obama and Netanyahu have in common. But it remains to be seen which is more off-the-wall, our parliament or their Congress.

When the price in blood has to be paid, and it will come soon, it is only we who will pay, as always. So we are telling it straight. Don’t be more patriotic than we are. Don’t do us any favors. It’s our blood we’re talking about.

Sarid’s words are an eloquent reminder that there are people who have a greater stake in Israel than even Ed Koch, Bob Turner, Barack Obama and all of Florida put together: the Israelis. I hope Koch, now that he’s officially a Factor, listens to what they have to say.