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De Blasio the Craven

During my time in New York City journalism, I had at least a passing acquaintance with two mayors. Ed Koch mostly—he wrote (and I lightly edited) a weekly column for the Post after he left City Hall, and we’d discuss the column frequently. I may have had four or five meals with him: once the […]

During my time in New York City journalism, I had at least a passing acquaintance with two mayors. Ed Koch mostly—he wrote (and I lightly edited) a weekly column for the Post after he left City Hall, and we’d discuss the column frequently. I may have had four or five meals with him: once the two of us, other times in small groups. I’m not trying to suggest any real closeness, but Ed was a man I knew and liked. Rudy Giuliani was less likable, but he was friendly with the Post editorial page in the 90’s as both a candidate and mayor, and I was in small meetings or dinners with him at least a half dozen times.

Both were strongly pro-Israel: Ed as a Jew saw the emergence of Israel as a necessary and just response to the Holocaust. With Rudy it’s more difficult to say, except being pro-Israel was part and parcel of the neoconservative political views he held as mayor (with great success) and as a presidential candidate (with less success). Is it possible that Giuliani’s pro-Israel views were forged as a kind of compensation, a defense response to the whispered (and quite unfounded) imputations of anti-Semitism which swirled about him as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted Wall Street malfeasance in the 1980’s? Yes, quite possibly. I don’t think many kids emerge from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School saturated with intense Zionist commitment. Let us say Giuliani was completely sincere in his belief that it was better to be a very pro-Israel mayor of New York than a US attorney without pronounced views on Israel one way or another.

Be that as it may, Koch’s and Giuliani’s affection for Israel was public and obvious and in New York City politics, altogether unexceptional. And yet for the life of me, I cannot imagine for a second either man saying in public what New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared in a secret speech at AIPAC last week. In that speech de Blasio declared:

There is a philosophical grounding to my belief in Israel and it is my belief, it is our obligation, to defend Israel, but it is also something that is elemental to being an American because there is no greater ally on earth, and that’s something we can say proudly.

With one or two important exceptions, discussed below, reaction to this wild speech has focused exclusively on the secrecy. The event was not posted to de Blasio’s schedule, the press was not informed. The reporter from a small news outlet who managed to get inside to record it was later escorted from the room. De Blasio campaigned in part on bringing greater openness and transparency to City Hall, and here, barely two weeks into his mayoralty, he is discovered giving a secret speech to a high donor crowd. The landslide winning new progressive may still be in the honeymoon of his administration, but a stench of hypocrisy has begun to rise.

By far the most commonplace reaction to the speech was to argue that its secrecy was “self-defeating” (Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s term). Yoffie states that mayors are expected to be outspoken allies of Israel (true) and de Blasio had been expressing pro-Israel sentiments for years (also true.) Yoffie worried that the secrecy of the speech—allegedly requested by AIPAC—came across as silly, giving what was absolutely a “routine” event a “conspiratorial” air. For his part, de Blasio gave what the Times called a “measured mea culpa“, promising a greater effort in the future to inform the public about his whereabouts.

While it’s true the secrecy raised eyebrows, de Blasio’s claim that it was at AIPAC’s insistence is not especially persuasive. AIPAC revels in eliciting public displays of support from American politicians: its annual event in Washington is a media-saturated “see and be seen” parade for established and aspiring office-holders. Why would AIPAC not wish to advertise the support of the hottest new property in progressive politics, a joyfully multicultural Italian-American elected by a landslide, at a very moment when AIPAC was worrying that its political brand was beginning to seem insufficiently bipartisan, too right wing, too narrowly Republican? I could be convinced, but not simply by de Blasio’s word for it. We have to, it seems to me, entertain the notion that the secrecy of the speech was at de Blasio’s behest and not AIPAC’s.

As I mentioned before, I can’t imagine Koch or Giuliani (and certainly not Mayor Bloomberg) stating that the “obligation” to defend Israel is “elemental to being an American,” or that America had no greater ally, or that backing Israel is part of the New York mayor’s job description. As Andrew Sullivan noted in a brilliant dissection of de Blasio’s remarks, the “ally” claim is preposterous—in that one cannot find an instance, ever, in which Israelis shed blood alongside American troops. In any diplomatic or strategic endeavor in the Muslim world, Israel is completely useless as an ally, so broadly despised are its policies towards the Palestinians. This is pretty well understood by anyone who knows anything about foreign policy. Of course Israel might, one day, make peace with the Palestinians and gradually be welcomed into the region; this has long been the hope of liberal Zionists and the basis of policies of virtually all American presidents, including of course Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Israel thus far has chosen not to.

Nonetheless, there are many ways in which a politician can express empathy, support, and admiration for Israel—which has numerous and even stunning accomplishments to its name—without descending into rank dishonesty. For a “progressive” to be so fawning, at the very moment when Israel is working actively to thwart American diplomacy towards Iran, and while Israeli ministers publicly mock John Kerry for his efforts to forge a peace settlement with the Palestinians seems, to say the least, bizarre.

Does de Blasio actually believe any of what he said? Who knows. The one reporter who has done some digging into the matter, Alex Kane of Mondoweiss, quotes David Wilson, an associate of de Blasio from his left-wing Nicaragua Solidarity Network days :

He’s a smart guy and he’s well-informed. And I can’t believe that he believes the things he says about the Middle East. It’s perfectly obvious that he’s saying the things New York City politicians say. I don’t know what he actually thinks, but he can’t think that.

I would doubt he thinks that too. But about one thing Wilson is wrong: it may be necessary to emote warmly about Israel to succeed in New York politics, but it not necessary to convey blind support of the country as part of your job at New York mayor. Only the craven do that.

In October of last year, a prominent and popular Israeli rabbi, Chacham Ovadi Yosef died at age 93. He was famous and beloved in Israel for no doubt many reasons, but he was also an out and out racist and advocate of genocidal policies towards the Palestinians. About gentiles in general, he he did not fail to express his views with candor: “Goyim were born only to serve. Without that, they would have no place in the world.”

You might think that a progressive mayoral candidate in New York need  have nothing to say about a  racist rabbi from a foreign country, but you would be wrong. De Blasio chimed in with a fulsome tweet claiming that Yosef’s “wisdom, charity, and sensitivity were legendary.” Perhaps there are blocs of voters in New York where such an endorsement might be valuable in swaying a couple of thousand votes. There are also, I would presume, at least as many who would be disgusted by the pandering. Making his own calculation, de Blasio chose to pander. In any event, this was not, and never was going to be, an election decided by a few thousand votes.

I can’t claim disappointment or disillusion, because I wouldn’t have voted for de Blasio if I still lived in New York. His law and order views strike me as naively liberal, and I can’t shake the notion that something about the way he dumped his father’s surname is somewhat dishonorable. I wonder if there are steps on a kind of ascending cravenness scale, between changing your name to something that sounds better for a New York City politician, to praising an Israeli racist in an election run-up, to giving a fawning secret speech before AIPAC and then (I would surmise) misrepresenting the reason for the secrecy.

Mayor of New York is one of the great elected offices in the country. I would put Koch, Giuliani and Bloomberg high on my list of best American politicians of the past generation (however much Giuliani’s post 9/11 foreign policy views were misguided) and would count David Dinkins as an extremely decent, wrongfully underestimated mayor who served the city more than capably in an extremely difficult time. It’s an office where a good man can really shine. All of the past four mayors had, in spades, political courage and integrity—a readiness to take positions and stand behind them. Their words actually had beliefs behind them. The evidence thus far is that Bill de Blasio is cut from very different cloth.