Ed Koch, the late mayor of New York who died last week at the age of 88, was renowned for his individuality, his sharp tongue and above everything else, for his efforts on behalf of New York. Koch was born in the Bronx in 1924 to parents who had emigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire and is primarily famous for his success in saving New York from bankruptcy. At the same time, Koch fought against organized crime in The city and brought about a radical change in the sense of security of the citizens of the city who were able to travel freely at day and at night.
Koch would frequently emphasize his Jewishness and love for the State of Israel. In his direct manner of speech he would often confront the American presidents who he thought were abandoning their ally Israel, as well avowed opponents of the Jewish state and those who would denigrate it. What is somewhat less known is his support for the struggle of Soviet Jews and their right to emigrate. Koch employed the full extent of his often toxic tongue to bring pressure to bear on the Soviet authorities to open the gates and to permit free emigration for the country’s Jewish citizens. He addressed the Soviet leadership in excoriating language and his speeches as a member of the House of Representatives played a significant role in the stubborn American attitude as exemplified in the Jackson – Vannik Amendment which halted the export of wheat to the USSR in order to demand civil rights, a measure which was very clear – to ensure freedom of worship and culture for the Jews behind the Iron Curtain. In his many speeches in support of the right to emigrate, Koch did not spare his tongue from anyone, whether leaders of the USSR or presidents of the United States, whom he often accused of lack of action.
Koch also laid the foundations for the successful absorption of Russian immigrants in New York. The Israel government and the Israeli national institutions did not always appreciate the opening of New York to those Jews who had acqired a visa to Israel but chose instead to come to the United States. But Koch recognised the suffering of the new immigrants and believed that the right of choice of those who had managed to acquire an exit permit from the USSR was a supreme value that was sacred at any price. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants arrived during his term as mayor to the United States in general and to New York in particular. There are those who maintain that that more than half a million Russian-speaking Jews live today in New York. They are extremely well integrated into American society and slowly but surely are becoming a part of the American communal institutions. There is no doubt that in the coming years a process of “Russification” will affect the Jewish organizations in North America.
During a recent Limmud FSU conference in Princeton, the organizers did well to dedicate a special session to the memory of Ed Koch and his contribution to to the absorption of so many Russian Jews in the United States. As one who will be participating in the forthcoming Limmud FSU festival, also to be held in Princeton, I am convinced that the hundreds of young Russian speaking Jews from New Jersey and surrounding areas, will appreciate the actions of the son of Russian immigrants who reached prominence in his newly adopted country and yet never forgot that he was Jewish.