Ed Koch and the Afterlife of FDR

Edward I. Koch, mayor of New York City, sports...
not a recent photo.

Christopher Cocca

Ed Koch has a very interesting piece up on RealClearPolitics.  I’m not going to get into the Israel-Palestine debate in this post, but I did want to point out Koch’s religious eclecticism on matters of the hereafter.  I’m not in the business of opining on the eternal fate of people, but I do sympathize with the religious and legislative impulse behind Koch’s placement of FDR in the not-quite-sweet by and by.  Certainly, it feels icky when civic leaders speculate about these kinds of things.  On the other hand, like the Sinead O’Connor piece I posted yesterday, Koch’s essay captures a public figure in raw struggles around faith, life, death, justice, and forgiveness.  You need to know, before reading the excerpt below, that Koch has just described newly-found evidence of FDR’s less than progressive attitude toward the fate of Jewish professionals living in a newly liberated North Africa following World War II.  I’ll also mention that I remember learning about FDR’s rather crass sentiments toward the Jewish members of his own administration in high school.  Yes, I went to high school in the 90’s, but I doubt this was a case of revisionism.  On to Koch:

I appreciate FDR’s contributions to the survival of our country. At the same time, I have never forgiven him for his refusal to grant haven to the 937 Jewish passengers on the SS St. Louis, who after fleeing Nazi Germany had been turned away from Cuba and hovered off the coast of Florida. The passengers were returned to Europe, and many were ultimately murdered in the Nazi concentration camps before World War II ended. I have said that I believe he is not in heaven, but in purgatory, being punished for his abandonment of the Jews. The concept of purgatory is Catholic. I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept. The Casablanca document reinforces my conviction that President Roosevelt was, at heart, not particularly sympathetic to the plight of the Jews.

I’m not sharing this piece to stir up a big debate about FDR’s eternal reward.  But I am very interested in and sympathetic to the way Koch rather nonchalantly identifies himself religiously in the excerpt above. “The concept of purgatory is Catholic.  I am a secular Jew, but I am a believer in God and the hereafter, and I like this Catholic concept.”  Period.  I don’t relish the thought of anyone being stuck in purgatory, but I love Koch’s honesty about spiritual beliefs he has chosen, some informed, indelibly, by his inherited Jewishness, others by the pluralistic settings of successive communities and constituencies.

Here and there, I’ve described myself as an eclectic or even provisional Christian.  Even though I am a protestant, traditions from across the wider Christian experience appeal to me in various ways, as does a whole lot of secular philosophy.  This sort of up-front religious navigation strikes me as honest and compelling in ways that weren’t readily accessible to the pilgrims of other eras.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Did not know that about FDR…..
    Good old Ed. I lived in New York when he was mayor…I loved the man! He would say what he felt and even if it wasn’t what you agreed with, you respected him, and he smiled a lot–my kind of man.
    Regarding purgatory as a Catholic thing, there are some references in the Old Testament to a “purgatory” (not given that name) or a place where the soul is purified before entering into eternal life, and rabbinic interpretation attests to this, so a Jew believing in purgatory is not so far fetched. :)

    Like

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