It’s a mark of just how dumb our community can be that when Andrew Cuomo announced last week that he intends to fight antisemitism with a new organization called “Progressives for Israel,” he was roundly mocked and even condemned by left-wing Jewish organizations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself in the story, so let’s take a step back.
Three years ago, on January 27, 2020 I met Andrew Cuomo at the Auschwitz death camp for the 75th anniversary of its liberation. There, where was I was the guest of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Mariewecki, I encountered most of European royalty, conducting conversations about Israel. That included Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, a country perceived to be hostile to Israel, and the king and queen of Belgium. But I was shocked that no senior American officials could be bothered to travel to Auschwitz for such a milestone occasion.
Except one. Andrew Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York.
Cuomo and I befriended each other there and I told him I would never forget his act of homage to the sacred memory of the six million.
Fast forward two months and New York was now in the grips of the covid-19 pandemic. Cuomo emerged as a national hero with his nationally televised daily briefings, giving New Yorkers hope while the city and state were devastated by the deadly virus. But he also incurred significant pushback, including from people like me, who felt he went too far in trying to severely limit the numbers of those allowed to worship in churches and synagogues. Indeed, he would later lose a Supreme Court decision in a case brought against him by Agudath Israel and the Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn.
I was vocal in my opposition, arguing that prayer was an antidote to hopeless and a vaccine against despair. We of course needed the physical vaccines, and indeed I publicly battled all the right-wing loonies who defamed them. But we needed to be vaccinated with faith and prayer as well.
I distinctly remember that after doing countless TV interviews by Zoom during covid, I was suddenly asked to come into an actual, physical studio, at the height of the pandemic, to argue against Cuomo’s lockdowns. Really? An in-studio appearance? But any hope of life returning to normal was quickly dashed by the studio assistants essentially dressed in hazmat gear as they placed the microphone on my lapel and the earpiece in my ear, treating me like I was covered in deadly microbes. Regardless, I did the interview in the studio and argued that the governor had argued that banking and bike shops and alcohol shops and even acupuncture were essential. So why not prayer?
But while I pushed back hard against Cuomo’s restrictions on synagogue and prayer – especially as I was in a year of Kaddish for my father and had resolved not to miss a single Kaddish prayer – I never questioned that Cuomo was battling for people’s lives. I always accepted that he sincerely believed, as did many of the experts advising him, that the restrictions were the best way to protect his fellow citizens.
And then there was this.
I will never forget how impressed I was when Cuomo, arguing that the lives of the elderly, who were particularly vulnerable to the virus, were as valuable as the young, said, “The life of my mother is not expendable.” In our disgustingly ageist society, where even Don Lemon of CNN recently said that women in their fifties are past their prime, there was something deeply virtuous about the statement. It inspired me.
But while Cuomo guided New York through the pandemic heroically, he would later be felled by MeToo allegations and forced to resign his office.
About a year later, he contacted me and asked me to do his podcast about the rise of antisemitism in New York. As providence would have it, I happened to be in Berlin, where I was the keynote speaker at the Congress for Young German Jewry. I did the interview from the very top of the Reichstag from which the Nazi evil had spread throughout Europe. German police were telling me that I would was not permitted to broadcast from within the Reichstag, so I walked out onto the freezing outdoor balcony at the very top of the edifice and continued the podcast.
Cuomo was fantastic. Rarely had I heard an American political leader stand so staunchly with the Jewish people. And truth be told, he had done so in his years as governor, visiting Israel an unprecedented three times and signing into law a New York State boycott of any business or entity that boycotted Israel. Andrew had followed in the footsteps of his illustrious father Mario, who was likewise a famed a tremendous friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
Indeed, I personally remember how when the Lubavitcher rebbe died in July 1994, I rushed back from Oxford, England, on a Sunday and somehow miraculously made it back in time for the rebbe’s funeral in Brooklyn. I remember seeing the haunting image of the rebbe’s body at the foot of his office, draped in a tallis and surrounded by tall yellow candles, and Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, wearing a small-brimmed blue hat and standing, head bowed, for a long time, paying his respect to the rebbe. It was an image I shall never forget.
About two months ago, my mother, just having celebrated her 80th birthday, got sick and was hospitalized. The doctors quickly pushed us to give up hope, as her cancer had metastasized. Really? One minute she was dancing at her 80th and a few weeks later the doctors are telling us to throw in the towel. I remembered the words of Andrew Cuomo and I pushed back against the advice of the doctors. “My mother’s life is not expendable.” I called Governor Cuomo and told him how his words had inspired me to fight for my mother’s life.
We lost my mother, but she went down fighting. Her life was of infinite value. And when I organized a shloshim commemoration for her at Carnegie Hall last week, I invited Governor Cuomo to addressed the crowd and he produced a masterful video condemning antisemitism and launching “Progressives for Israel.” Of my beloved mother and his own illustrious father, he said these astonishing words: “Tonight my father, the late great Mario Cuomo, is sitting with the late great Eleanor Esther Elka Paul. I will tell you what he is saying. He is saying it is time for the Shabbos goy. The Shabbos goy can do work that benefits both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. The Shabbos goy can turn on the lights on the Sabbath because it benefits everyone.
“I will stand and turn on the lights. I am starting an organization called Progressives for Israel and I am going to call out the question for Democrats: Do you stand with Israel or do you stand against Israel? Because silence is not an option. Never again is not a prayer, but rather a call to arms.”
What an amazing metaphor. What an incomparable statement of support. What an amazing commitment, to rise as a non-Jewish friend of the Jewish people and defend Jewry and Israel as “the Shabbos goy.”
And what was the reaction of Jewish organizations? The New York Jewish Agenda, which promotes itself as a progressive group and has protested the Israeli government, tweeted, “The chutzpah. One of the last things the Jewish people, progressives, or Israeli democracy needs is a disgraced, not-actually-progressive, former Governor inserting himself into this critical moment for Israel in a dangerously misguided attempt to stay relevant.” Here you have a Jewish organization that almost no one has heard of saying that “the last thing we need” is a world-famous three-time non-Jewish governor of New York fighting for the Jewish people. No doubt, the Jewish Agenda has done such an amazing job at fighting antisemitism themselves that they don’t need anyone else’s help.
Then there was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which ran a banner headline, “Disgraced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces new pro-Israel group.” Really? Disgraced? If Bill Clinton had launched a pro-Israel group, would they have written, “Disgraced former President,” since Clinton was impeached over Monica Lewinsky? We’ll never know, because Clinton launched no national effort to combat antisemitism while Cuomo has.
Here we are, American Jewry, being pummeled from every side, having to listen to people like Kanye West tell us how much they have Hitler, just days after enjoying dinner with former President Trump, who himself has Jewish grandchildren. And instead of thanking our allies – especially those like Andrew Cuomo who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the Jewish people – we slam them and humiliate them, showing zero gratitude.
Let’s be clear. Cuomo made serious mistakes as governor. We must live in a society where men treat with women with professionalism, respect, and esteem at all times, and where they fail there will be consequences. Cuomo paid a huge price, ignominiously resigning his office after landslide victories.
But America believes in repentance and redemption.
Andrew Cuomo is one of the greatest friends the Jewish community has ever had in high office. And if he wants to rise to the challenge of fighting the antisemites and Jew-haters in a time of unprecedented attack, our response should be one of encouragement and gratitude, not denigration and attack.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter