It was 1968, a year of turmoil and assassinations, when civil rights and military might were issues fought out in the streets and on campuses, at lunch counters and in boardrooms.
The politics of New York City was undergoing great change. Ever since the mid-19th century, “the machine” controlled it all, from who sat on a judge’s bench to who collected the neighborhood garbage.
That began to change with the defeat several years earlier of Carmine G. DeSapio, the longtime boss of Democratic politics in Manhattan. He had been the Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village, but his power reached far beyond, from City Hall to the governor’s mansion, and at times into the White House itself. He was powerful enough to make it to the cover of Time magazine in 1955.
Powerful men make powerful enemies, and DeSapio made one in particular: former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She blamed him for ruining her son’s political career and dedicated herself to bringing him down.
In 1961, a group of dedicated reformers, in part egged on by Roosevelt, managed to unseat DeSapio. He tried comebacks in 1963 and 1965, both times losing the district leader’s race to Edward Irving Koch, whose own seat of power was a first-floor loft that housed the Village Independent Democrats. The VID was the hub of reform politics in the city, and Koch was one of its most powerful engines.
1968 also was the year after Israel had won the June 1967 Six-Day War and had taken the west bank, Gaza, and parts of the Golan Heights. At the time, Israel’s only concern was to modify its borders sufficiently to fend off the next attack. It was anxious to return the overwhelming majority of the land it had seized in routing the attacking armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In a sense, it was holding the land hostage. Make peace, it said to the Arab states, and you can have it all back, with some adjustments for “safe and secure boundaries,” as United Nations General Assembly Resolution 242 termed it.
Israel, however, was doing other things in Gaza and the west bank. The Arab states had forced the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to live in the most disgusting conditions in what was laughably called “refugee camps.” There was no running water, no electricity, no decent housing, no decent anything. Israel, therefore, began to build new camps beside the old ones. It opened new schools for the local population’s children – and for those of the refugees.
The land may have been held hostage to negotiations – negotiations the Arab states rejected in their infamous “Three No’s” declaration in Khartoum (“no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”) – but Israel saw the administered territories as one huge humanitarian aid project.
That is not how some saw it in the United States, however. Especially on the far left of the Democratic Party in New York and around the nation, there was a movement to label Israel a colonizing aggressor and an occupier, undeserving of aid or support.
Koch was running for a seat in Congress, seeking to represent the so-called Silk Stocking District (officially known as the 17th Congressional District) that had been Mayor John V. Lindsay’s Upper East Side fiefdom until he was elected mayor in 1966.
There was also a campaign to the side and below the 17th, in the 19th C.D., which was represented by a fiercely pro-Israel Leonard Farbstein. The 19th was known as the “fishook district,” because that is what it resembled. It ran from the Upper West Side down to 23rd street, over a couple of blocks and down to 14th street to the East River, taking in all of lower Manhattan.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a Minnesotan, was seeking the Democratic nomination for president, challenging fellow Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey.
One evening at the VID, there was a candidate’s forum. Allard K. Lowenstein was there, representing McCarthy. Bella S. Abzug was there, large floppy hat atop her head, testing the waters for a possible future run against Farbstein. Other notables were there, as well, all dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam.
Some, however, also were dedicated to ending United States support for Israel (a campaign they and their allies would take with them to the floor of the Democratic convention later that year in Chicago). It was not only that they saw Israel as a colonizer and a racist state, but they saw taking on Israel as a way to defeat Farbstein, whom they labeled “Mr. Israel.”
Lowenstein and Abzug were silent as these New Democratic Coalition minions began their anti-Israel tirade. Neither agreed with it or them, but neither wanted to upset potential supporters. (Abzug, for her part, was fiercely pro-Israel; she saw no parallel to Vietnam; as she once told Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, when he challenged her, Israel’s cause was a just one.)
Koch was not silent, however. The district leader and congressional candidate in the WASPish tony district (he was running against Whitney North Seymour, a man who fit perfectly into the district’s exclusive society, but who nevertheless lost the race), raised his powerful frame, and cut the NDC crowd down to size. Israel was not the issue, he said; the three no’s was the issue. Turn the three no’s into three yesses, and see how quickly Israel would move toward peace. Israel, he said, was a state surrounded by enemies who would destroy it.
He was a proud Jew, he said, and he was proud of the Jewish state. And he would not allow it to be libeled for any reason by anyone.
His passion silenced the room.
Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be for a blessing.