The First Borough versus the 6th Borough

Not so long ago, New York politicos used to refer to the State of Israel as the 6th Borough. Changing demographics, among other factors, have rendered this truism a little less true with age. But, while changing times have greatly shaken Israeli politics, in Brooklyn, our 1st Borough, we often take years to adjust to any new realities.

This week’s elections in Israel served to illustrate this dichotomy.

Despite, or perhaps because of, an experiment in Palestinian democracy, which has brought to power an armed theocratic movement of terrorist thugs dedicated to Israel’s destruction, Israeli voters, wearier than ever of politics as usual, have brought to power a government which will surely, on its own terms, implement a pragmatic unilateral withdrawal from the overwhelming majority of the West Bank, and then wall itself away from its hostile neighbor.  In doing so, it will consign to the dustbin of history both the left’s naïve fantasies of peaceful coexistence and the right’s naïve fantasies of Greater Israel. 

Despite the quite understandable temptation to respond to the Palestinian elections by punitively calling a halt to the withdrawals, the Israelis understood that doing so would be like responding to a ruptured appendix  by saying you oppose its removal because that would be rewarding its bad conduct.

The hardcore anti-withdrawal parties managed to achieve only 32 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. And, the largest party in the anti-withdrawal bloc itself favors transferring many Israeli-Arab villages to the Palestinian Authority, a position not without its arguably racists element, but one which in itself presumes an eventual withdrawal.

But while the residents of the 6th Borough behaved like grown ups methodically sorting through their bad options, the Jewish residents of the 1st borough behave like Christian Scientists, convinced that prayers to a higher power will yield a better result than the appendix’s removal.

In the 1st Borough armchair philosophers pontificate over hot pastrami at "Essex on Coney", preaching with certainty and certitude about why it is a moral imperative to send Israeli children to die in places like Ramallah. In Israel, the parents of those children have decided that Ramallah and its like are cancerous tumors that need to be removed.

Last July, it was reported that a group of Israeli Rabbis met to put a cabalistic curse on Ariel Sharon, which, when implemented, was supposed to result in his death before he could complete the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (one can almost hear these Rabbinical Imperial Wizards crying out “too little, too late”). A similar curse was put on Yitzhak Rabin's head in 1996.

In America, the leader in charge of facilitating the 1996 curse's implementation was Rabbi Abraham Hecht, of Ocean Parkway, in the 1st Borough. At a large anti-Rabin gathering, Hecht, considered by many to be a sage, called Rabin's murder “necessary and permissible”. His words made headlines around the world.

Shortly after the issuance of this fatwa, Hecht told New York Magazine that he would mourn Rabin's death as much as that of a chicken slaughtered for its meat. Shortly after that, Rabin was murdered. There is an strong argument to be made that, under New York law, Hecht was guilty of nothing less than criminal solicitation of murder; itself a felony.

The Israeli government banned Hecht from Israel until Benjamin Netanyahu took office. The ostensible reason for the reprieve was an apology by Hecht.

The sincerity of the apology? Hecht is the President of Igud (the Rabbinical Alliance of America); this year, Gershon Tannenbaum, Igud's Director, and Hecht's right hand, wrote in the Jewish Press that Hecht "was actually banned from Israel for supporting a complete Israel".

Apparently, as Hecht sees it, Hecht was the victim, not Rabin.

Hecht's other activities at Igud are so worthy of note that Hatewatch, a division of the prestigious Southern Poverty Law Center, and America's leading tracker of hate mongers (including anti-Semites) branded Igud a hate group.

Hecht once told a Congressional Committee that Igud would boycott the Holocaust Memorial if it included homosexuals. He also led a crusade against "Monty Python's Life of Brian". He is such an embarrassment that even far rightwing radio personality Dr. Laura blushingly removed a Hecht letter of praise from her website.

In the 6th Borough, even members of the hardcore anti-withdrawal parties undertake heroic efforts to at least appear to be distancing themselves from their terrorist lunatic fringe; by contrast, in the 1st Borough, politicians have convinced themselves that the lunatic fringe is the mainstream. As such, ostensibly liberal politicians, including Jews both secular and Orthodox, and Christians of all colors, trip over themselves to embrace Abraham Hecht, Brooklyn’s own personal Angel of Death, and bask in his luminous glow.

Last year, Brooklyn Borough Hall was the site of an Igud conference largely dedicated to planning a (successful) effort to stop Jerusalem's gay pride parade from occurring. The event began with Borough President Marty Markowitz and Hecht exchanging fulsome words of praise. Hecht talked about his long cooperative relationship with Markowitz, dating back to when Markowitz represented much of Ocean Parkway in the State Senate. He made special mention of  Markowitz’s assistance during his yearly trips to lobby in Albany (Marty: after the assassination, was there at least a decent interval before you again offered “Rabbi Necessary and Permissible” the assistance of your good offices?). 

For his part, Markowitz enticed his audience with a talk about how (I kid you not) the Ratner arena would be a perfect venue for large Hasidic weddings. After the speeches, Markowitz posed for pictures in Hecht’s loving embrace. He then left, although his “Jewish liaison” apparently stayed on, receiving praise at the conference’s end for his indispensable assistance in putting the event together.

When this sorry spectacle was exposed by Erik Engquist (I won’t say who gave him the story), Markowitz denied he had anything to do with Hecht, despite ample evidence to the contrary. He also tried to claim that Borough Hall was open to all comers for events.

I implore Charles Barron to expose this transparent falsehood for the sorry excuse that it is by asking Markowitz’s cooperation in hosting a Nation of Islam sponsored event featuring Minister Lewis Farrakhan. If is allowed to occur (it won’t), I will personally shake Barron’s hand when I arrive to join the anti-Farrakhan protest.

And, even if the bowtie and bean pie soiree is allowed to go forward, who among us believes that Borough Hall will ever play host to a conference sponsored by “Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn”?  And, even if it’s all true, and Borough Hall is really open to one and all, does every conclave of reactionary extremist bigots need to get a fulsome speech of welcome and praise from Marty himself?

The response to the Hecht story was disappointing.

The outcry which occurred was confined solely to the LGBT community, which was almost immediately, and pretty explicitly, paid off when Markowitz suddenly dropped his previous opposition, and came out in favor of gay marriage. Tellingly, when reached for comment, Igud's Gershon Tannenbaum said that, while his group opposed gay marriage (actually, unlike, say, Dov Hikind, who’d just as soon change the subject, Igud  is so obsessed with gays that one almost begins to harbor suspicions), they still loved Marty Markowitz.

Mainstream Jewish organizations were conspicuous by their silence; perhaps because Markowitz’s office had nothing they were interested in trading for; perhaps out of fear that they’d alienate someone Orthodox they’d need to deal with later.

And, what of the pro-peace left?

The “pro-peace” left was nowhere to be found. Could it be they were reluctant to condemn the killing of an Israeli by a Jewish terrorist, lest someone mistakenly believe that they opposed the killing of any Israeli by terrorists of other religious inclinations? Just asking.

After the Engquist story, one would assume that Brooklyn politicians, even if incapable of moral outrage, would prudentially conclude that it was better to stay away from Hecht. One would assume wrong. Just a few short months after the Engquist article, State Senator John Sampson, a candidate for DA, spoke at Igud's Torah conference. I don’t believe Markowitz can plead ignorance of the Rabin incident (the gay stuff was less well known); when Hecht dies, the headline over his Times obit will say “Called for Rabin’s Assassination”.

But, nine years did pass. Sampson had no such excuse. Everyone in Brooklyn politics read the Engquist story. If they had any decency at all, they knew the man was a monster with blood on his filthy hands.

Given the recent and credible death threats made against Ehud Olmert, who can no longer attend games of his beloved Betar soccer team (an obsession that makes Rudolph Giuliani’s Yankee fetish look mild) for fear of assassination, not by Arabs, but by Jews,  isn't it time  for all people of decency to put a quarantine around this mamzer?

The political world must let extremists know that certain actions will render someone a pariah forever. Markowitz and Sampson must be held accountable as well. And, unless they explain their actions, apologize for them, and condemn Hecht and urge others to isolate him, they deserve pariah status as well.

If Ehud Olmert dies from  an assassin’s bullets, it will be partially because we have treated those with blood on their hands as figures of respect and sent that message out to the world. Those in the governing elite of the 6th Borough have learned to behave like grownups; it is time that those of us in the 1st Borough held our political leaders to the same high standards.

It really is about life and death.

Not to mention the homophobia thing (or why us John Cleese fans should not take offense)

UPDATE (12/13/06)

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum's still doesn’t know when to shut up. His  "My Machberes" column on page 93 of the 12/15/07 issue of “The Jewish Press” features a review of "My Spiritual Journey, An Autobiography" by Rabbi Abraham Hecht.

My favorite passage of the review reads as follows "Rabbi Hecht became a friend to every chief Rabbi, Israeli Prime Minister, and to more United States Presidents than any person alive"

Is it possible to come up with a punchline more ludicrous than this sentence?

My Tries include:

1) "Shalom Chaver"


2) “With friends like these…”