Commentary Magazine


Topic: Brooklyn Bridge

Obama, Koch and the Brooklyn Bridge

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch likes nothing better than being the center of attention, and he certainly achieved that last year when his highly publicized role in a special congressional election led to a Republican victory in New York’s 9th congressional district. Koch endorsed Republican Bob Turner, helping him to win the seat that was vacated after Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace. The former mayor sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Obama administration’s attacks on Israel. This was a factor in Turner’s defeat of David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew who professed to be as unhappy about the president’s hostility to the Jewish state as the GOP. Though Weprin’s support for gay marriage may have hurt him as much as being associated with President Obama, there’s no denying Koch played a key role in deciding the outcome in what may have been the most heavily Jewish district in the country (gerrymandering has caused the 9th to be divided up this year).

But ever since that triumph, the administration has been paying court to Koch, and he has characteristically responded to their flattery by switching sides on the issue. Since September, he has been one of the loudest advocates of the president’s re-election and recently claimed that it was he, Ed Koch, who caused the administration to change its policies toward Israel. But Koch is giving himself a bit too much credit. The charm offensive aimed at convincing Jewish voters the president is Israel’s best friend to ever sit in the White House actually preceded the NY-9 special election. If it has intensified since last September, more credit must be given to the calendar than to Koch. But ego aside, if the former mayor really thinks the president has “changed” for good when it comes to picking fights for Israel, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn he might be interested in buying.

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Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch likes nothing better than being the center of attention, and he certainly achieved that last year when his highly publicized role in a special congressional election led to a Republican victory in New York’s 9th congressional district. Koch endorsed Republican Bob Turner, helping him to win the seat that was vacated after Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace. The former mayor sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Obama administration’s attacks on Israel. This was a factor in Turner’s defeat of David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew who professed to be as unhappy about the president’s hostility to the Jewish state as the GOP. Though Weprin’s support for gay marriage may have hurt him as much as being associated with President Obama, there’s no denying Koch played a key role in deciding the outcome in what may have been the most heavily Jewish district in the country (gerrymandering has caused the 9th to be divided up this year).

But ever since that triumph, the administration has been paying court to Koch, and he has characteristically responded to their flattery by switching sides on the issue. Since September, he has been one of the loudest advocates of the president’s re-election and recently claimed that it was he, Ed Koch, who caused the administration to change its policies toward Israel. But Koch is giving himself a bit too much credit. The charm offensive aimed at convincing Jewish voters the president is Israel’s best friend to ever sit in the White House actually preceded the NY-9 special election. If it has intensified since last September, more credit must be given to the calendar than to Koch. But ego aside, if the former mayor really thinks the president has “changed” for good when it comes to picking fights for Israel, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn he might be interested in buying.

The transparent nature of the president’s election year conversion on Israel is such that it hasn’t convinced many wavering voters. Polls show Obama losing nearly a quarter of the 78 percent of the Jewish vote he won in 2008. Though he retains the backing of a majority of Jews, it is because they are loyal Democrats who like his liberal policies and don’t prioritize Israel.

Though the administration is, no doubt, happy to get Koch’s applause, his claim that the president has altered his policies due to some degree to his advocacy actually contradicts the Democrats’ campaign appeal to pro-Israel Jews. The party line is to ignore the president’s stands on Jerusalem, the 1967 lines and settlements that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and to act as if the administration created the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance rather than merely not destroying it. Though buying into that requires a voter to ignore much of what happened between Israel and the United States from January 2009 to the summer of 2011, it’s probably a more convincing appeal than Koch’s claims, as even the most hard-core partisans understand that election-year conversions are not to be trusted.

Koch is a sincere and stalwart friend of Israel who has stood up on the issue to powerful Democrats such as Jimmy Carter. But most voters understand that once re-elected the president will have the “flexibility” he needs to go back to a policy of pressure on Israel and may also back off on the tough talk about the Iranian nuclear threat. Though the U.S.-Israel alliance is strong enough to survive even four more years of a re-elected Barack Obama, anyone who thinks the administration’s policies in the next four years toward Israel will resemble the rhetoric the president and his surrogates have been using while he is in a desperate fight for his political life may also interested in buying that bridge.

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Dialogue with the Wrong American Muslim Partners

The New York Times is reporting that the Obama administration has come a long way from the president’s campaign practices that had him keeping his distance from Muslims. According to the paper’s Andrea Elliott, “his administration has reached out to this politically isolated constituency in a sustained and widening effort that has left even skeptics surprised.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a man who once considered the notion that he might be a Muslim to be a “smear” now having members of his administration meet with representatives of a minority group. However, when this same administration has banned the use of language that might give anyone the notion that America is fighting Islamist extremists, it places stories such as Elliott’s in a different light. The problem here is not talking with Muslims or Arab-Americans or even attempts to rectify any potential injustices that might have occurred in the course of pursuing the war on Islamic terror. Rather it is the fact that the groups that are the subject of this attention are themselves questionable.

One example of the president’s outreach cited by the Times is the fact that senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, a group that has consistently served to rationalize anti-Western and anti-Israel terrorism and that was an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, whose leaders were convicted in 2008 of funneling American funds to Hamas terrorists. When the administration grants its official seal of approval to radical groups such as the ISNA, it helps these people drown out the voices of genuine moderates who are far more representative of most American Muslims. As investigative journalist Steve Emerson told the Times: “I think dialogue is good, but it has to be with genuine moderates. These are the wrong groups to legitimize.”

Moreover, if the influence of such people on the administration is to reinforce its desire to literally walk away from the war on terror and to pretend that radical Islam is not the driving force behind America’s foes through the banning of such terms as “jihad” and “Islamic terrorism” in comments by officials, then it must be acknowledged that the problem here goes deeper than public relations.

Yet the blame for whitewashing radical institutions and players isn’t all the fault of the White House. Another driving force behind this trend is the New York Times itself. It should be noted that Andrea Elliott, the author of today’s piece, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her 2007 series about the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and the lives of immigrant Muslims. Yet nowhere in the three-part 11,000-word story did she mention that one of the Islamic Society’s congregants went on a shooting spree in 1994 at the Brooklyn Bridge, where he murdered a 16-year-old Jew named Ari Halberstam after hearing an anti-Semitic sermon at this mosque. Later it turned out that Elliott was completely unaware (or at least claimed to be unaware) of the most famous incident involving the institution on which her story centered.

The point is, for those who want to ignore the truth about the danger from homegrown Islamist radicals, the tendency is to deny any link between Islam and terror, even if this means pretending that radicals who support violence are really peaceful moderates. This is a bad recipe for journalism as well as for public policy.

The New York Times is reporting that the Obama administration has come a long way from the president’s campaign practices that had him keeping his distance from Muslims. According to the paper’s Andrea Elliott, “his administration has reached out to this politically isolated constituency in a sustained and widening effort that has left even skeptics surprised.”

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a man who once considered the notion that he might be a Muslim to be a “smear” now having members of his administration meet with representatives of a minority group. However, when this same administration has banned the use of language that might give anyone the notion that America is fighting Islamist extremists, it places stories such as Elliott’s in a different light. The problem here is not talking with Muslims or Arab-Americans or even attempts to rectify any potential injustices that might have occurred in the course of pursuing the war on Islamic terror. Rather it is the fact that the groups that are the subject of this attention are themselves questionable.

One example of the president’s outreach cited by the Times is the fact that senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett spoke at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, a group that has consistently served to rationalize anti-Western and anti-Israel terrorism and that was an unindicted co-conspirator in the federal prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation, whose leaders were convicted in 2008 of funneling American funds to Hamas terrorists. When the administration grants its official seal of approval to radical groups such as the ISNA, it helps these people drown out the voices of genuine moderates who are far more representative of most American Muslims. As investigative journalist Steve Emerson told the Times: “I think dialogue is good, but it has to be with genuine moderates. These are the wrong groups to legitimize.”

Moreover, if the influence of such people on the administration is to reinforce its desire to literally walk away from the war on terror and to pretend that radical Islam is not the driving force behind America’s foes through the banning of such terms as “jihad” and “Islamic terrorism” in comments by officials, then it must be acknowledged that the problem here goes deeper than public relations.

Yet the blame for whitewashing radical institutions and players isn’t all the fault of the White House. Another driving force behind this trend is the New York Times itself. It should be noted that Andrea Elliott, the author of today’s piece, won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for her 2007 series about the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and the lives of immigrant Muslims. Yet nowhere in the three-part 11,000-word story did she mention that one of the Islamic Society’s congregants went on a shooting spree in 1994 at the Brooklyn Bridge, where he murdered a 16-year-old Jew named Ari Halberstam after hearing an anti-Semitic sermon at this mosque. Later it turned out that Elliott was completely unaware (or at least claimed to be unaware) of the most famous incident involving the institution on which her story centered.

The point is, for those who want to ignore the truth about the danger from homegrown Islamist radicals, the tendency is to deny any link between Islam and terror, even if this means pretending that radicals who support violence are really peaceful moderates. This is a bad recipe for journalism as well as for public policy.

Read Less