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Jewish Journal

Ed Koch’s war against anti-Semitism

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 15, 2008 | 5:35 pm

The Forward Q&A returned this Tax Day, adding more good company to the interview they did with me last summer, the headline for which—“Funny, Brad Greenberg Doesn’t Look Christian”—still makes me chuckle. The latest subject is Ed Koch, the former New York mayor and anti-Semite skullcracker. He’s got a new book out, which sits on my desk, called “The Koch Papers: My Fight Against Anti-Semitism.”

How did you come to be so committed to this issue — to fighting antisemitism?

Well, I’ve only been subjected to one antisemitic situation in my whole life, and that was when I was in basic training in World War II. I was 19 years of age, and about 25% of the young men in the platoon were Jewish from New York City, and many of them were refugees from Germany, and the rest of the platoon was from all over the country. There was one guy who was antisemitic, and he would make fun of the Jewish young men who couldn’t get over the obstacle course. I could get over it; I’m not even that great an athlete, but I practiced so I could get over the course.

But the Jews excelled in the afternoon, when they had some learning in map-reading and other things of that kind, lectures. They’d get up and ask questions, and nobody else got up. I could hear this guy say loudly, “Who will be the next yid, the next kike, to get up?” And I said to myself, “I can’t take this.” And I knew that if I went over, he’d beat the hell out of me. I was not in great shape; he was in great shape. So I decided to practice and exercise and build myself up.

Basic training was 17 weeks; in the 15th week, he was doing this, and I went over to him and I grabbed him by the collar, and I said, “When we get back to the battalion, we’re going to have this out.” And he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why are you doing this?” He didn’t put me in the same category as these other kids. And I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. So all I could say was, “You know, you know!” And then he realized what it was, and so did everybody else. And when we got back to the battalion, they gave us leather gloves to fight, and we fought three rounds, and he beat the hell out of me. But I got up whenever I was knocked down, and I fought as well as I could, which wasn’t so terrific. And from that point on — just two weeks left — there was not one antisemitic remark. And it taught me the lesson that you must stand up, you must stand up no matter what, no matter whether you will be beaten or not, you’ve gotta stand up. And I would say that’s basically the beginning.

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With the outbreak of the intifada and 9/11, there has been a surge in antisemitism around the world. Some in the Jewish community have taken to saying that the threats now facing Jews are analogous to those we faced back in the 1930s —

They’re right. They’re absolutely right. Antisemitism is rising in Europe and has reached proportions in Great Britain where it’s not yet violence against Jews, but in the academies and the colleges, it’s terrible. And Tony Blair appointed a commission of parliamentarians — none of whom were Jews — who reported back that they saw antisemitism escalating like they had never seen before. That’s one. In France, up until Sarkozy, who is, I think, changing things, but before him, under Chirac, antisemitism was violent, the violence coming from French Muslims who assaulted — and still do — French Jewish children and adults on their way to the synagogue. And it’s true in other countries.

And in other countries, and in France and England, it takes the guise of being anti-Israel. And people say to me, “Can’t you be anti-Israel and not be antisemitic?” I say, “Sure.” I’m critical of actions and policies of the Israeli government, but the difference is this: that when you criticize the Israeli for doing things which you don’t criticize other countries for doing, that’s antisemitism. I say to people, “You criticize Israel for going into Gaza to punish them when they are lobbing artillery shells and rockets at Sderot and Ashkelon, as [Israelis] have every right to do under the rules of self-defense that apply to every other country. But nobody has criticized — nor should they — Turkey for doing the same thing, going into Iraq to kill the Turkish Kurds who are part of a terrorist organization.” And that’s the best illustration. What the Turks are doing is exactly what the Israelis are doing vis-à-vis the Palestinian terrorists.

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