Much has been said and written about Ed Koch since his recent passing, but one aspect of his life that has eluded the commentators is his little-known role in educating American Jews about the role of Menachem Begin and the Irgun Zva’i Leumi in bringing about the creation of Israel.
When Begin first visited the United States in the autumn of 1948, as the recently emerged leader of the Jewish fighting underground and the Israeli opposition, he was a stranger in a strange land. Most mainstream American Jewish leaders were ideologically more comfortable with David Ben- Gurion and the Labor Zionists, and they followed Ben-Gurion’s lead in treating Begin as a pariah. None attended the Manhattan dinner in his honor.
Some even pressured dignitaries, such as undersecretary of the interior Oscar Chapman, to withdraw from the sponsoring committee. Hannah Arendt joined a group of prominent US Jews, including Albert Einstein and Hadassah’s Irma Lindheim, in publicly denouncing Begin as a “fascist.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, the textbooks used in American public schools and Jewish day schools seldom mentioned the story of the Irgun’s armed revolt against the British. An entire generation of American Jews grew up believing that the State of Israel was created by the United Nations. Thus, when Begin was first elected prime minister in 1977, he was unknown to much of the US Jewish community.
What little was known was negative; many of those who knew anything about him “knew” that he was a “terrorist.”
Begin “rhymes with Fagin,” Time magazine famously wrote.
Ed Koch helped start the process of bringing Begin and the Irgun in from the cold by announcing, during his tenure as mayor in May 1978, that he was making the prime minister an honorary citizen of New York City. Koch’s act was a powerful statement, by one of the most prominent Jews in America, that Begin and the fighters he led deserved to be reckoned among the founders of the Jewish state.
Two years later, Koch gave this process another boost by proclaiming a “Jabotinsky Day” in the Big Apple. He hailed Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionism and spiritual father of the Irgun, as a “legendary statesman, soldier, poet and architect of the State of Israel.” The messages of greeting to that year’s Jabotinsky Centennial Dinner read like a who’s who of the American Jewish establishment, including the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Bna’i B’rith and Hadassah. The times had changed, and Koch had helped change them.
It was not that Mayor Koch was a cheerleader for the Irgun per se. He also named a Manhattan street after Ben- Gurion. For Koch, what was important was not any specific leader or group, but the fundamental notion that Jews ought to be proud of having fought for their independence. It is easy to detect some of that same fighting spirit in the bold style of political battle that characterized Koch’s own long and colorful career in the public arena.
Koch was not the only one to appreciate the leaders of the Jewish underground.
One recalls, for example, that at about the same time, the newly founded Los Angeles wing of Yeshiva University named its School of Jewish Studies after Begin. These were important signs of the maturation of the American Jewish community. The new generation of US Jews cared little for the old Labor-Revisionist quarrels and took pride in the achievements of the Zionist fighters, whatever their political orientation.
Koch was the public face of a new Jewish attitude. Thirty years behind their coreligionists in Israel, these American Jews increasingly perceived the world as an often hostile arena, in which Jews would achieve little unless they fought for it. Sometimes that meant fighting in court, sometimes it meant fighting the elements in malaria- infested swamps, and sometimes it meant taking up arms. A growing number of American Jews realized that the actions of the Jewish underground had been justified. They recognized Begin was right when he wrote in The Revolt: “Tyranny is armed. Otherwise it would be liquidated overnight. Fighters for Freedom must arm; otherwise they would be crushed overnight.”
Still, this part of Ed Koch’s work remains incomplete. The process of educating American Jews about the Hagana-Irgun-Stern Group fight to establish Israel has a long way to go. Too many textbooks still give the fighters short shrift. To cite one of many examples, an otherwise fine book titled Israel: The Founding of A Modern Nation, which appears on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of books about Israel recommended for “young readers,” notes only that there was a “Jewish resistance movement” that “brought homeless refugees into Palestine in open defiance of the British.” The Irgun and Hagana are mentioned just once, in connection with Arab violence in the 1930s. The British withdrawal from Mandatory Palestine is depicted as the result of the UN partition vote, not as the culmination of a Jewish war for national freedom.
If American Jews want to infuse their children with Zionist pride, they will need to teach them that Israel was created not because somebody handed it to us, but because our forefathers fought for it. Ed Koch deserves credit for helping us remember that.
Co-authored by Daniel Gordis and Raphael Medoff. From the Jerusalem Post, February 7, 2013.