(Originially published in the New York Jewish Week)
I served in the second mayoral administration of John Lindsay. There were achievements during those years (1969-1973) that I continue to be proud of, and battles that I lost. This is, I think, the first time that I have written about the experience and probably the last. For all of his administration’s shortcomings, it is important to note that Lindsay was a good mayor, and his detractors have misrepresented both the record and the man, who was kind and caring.
I believe that history will judge him favorably, despite a troubled relationship with some of New York’s Jews. He was mayor during a period of profound change in American society and politics, as well as in Jewish life, changes that made certain that his reform agenda would have rough going in a city that had special meaning to Jews everywhere.
The 1960s saw the abandonment of the fantasy notion of the melting pot, especially among New York’s ethnics, and the transformation of the genteel civil rights movement into the Black Power movement, with its rage and militancy. This was also the period of the Great Society, with its embrace of community action and proffer of programs based on the naïve assumption that tons of money, good motives and determined activity could break the cycle of deprivation that entrapped millions of Americans who had the wrong color skin.
Since the reality could not attain the lofty goals of the promise, these developments inadvertently contained the seeds of disappointment and anger, even violent protest. New York was nearly entirely spared such protests, though, in some measure because Lindsay walked the streets and showed that he cared. This was admittedly a preventative success but it was significant, if only because the maintenance of civil order through empathy and persuasion and without force is a high moral and political achievement.
While Lindsay could control physical eruptions, his administration could not control the new emotionalism of Jews, particularly those who lived in the outer boroughs and who came to believe that what was being done for the minorities was at their expense. In a sense, Lindsay and his inner circle operated on the premise that urban politics is a zero-sum game, so that money, appointments and other goodies could assure that there was enough to go around, that what was being done for blacks did not cost the Jews anything. This was a miscalculation because there was no reckoning of the emotional cost.
After 20 years of what seemed to be communal amnesia, Jews discovered or rediscovered in the 1960s the horrors of the Holocaust. This awakening deeply affected their reaction to contemporary events. Piggy-backing to an extent on the Black Power movement, there was a new sense of Jewish identity and activism. The struggle for the no-longer-silent Soviet Jewry added to the new Jewish ethnic brew. Even the Six-Day War in 1967, a reawakening for many American Jews, turned out to be unsettling, leading to new security issues that have yet to be resolved.
“Never again” was the slogan of the JDL and its bullies, but it is important to know that it was also the belief of many other American Jews as well.
When Lindsay acted to improve the lot of blacks and other minorities, emotional wounds were opened. School decentralization, vesting power in local boards representative of the communities, began at about the same time as the teachers’ union, which was predominantly Jewish in that period. Open admissions altered the City College system that had been a treasure of the Jewish experience in New York. A controversial Forest Hills housing project was to be built in a substantially Jewish neighborhood.
It hardly mattered whether Lindsay’s policies were right or wrong, effective or not. It didn’t matter either that minorities deserved a better deal and that black advancement was good and necessary for America. It didn’t mean much that the Lindsay administration was chock full of Jews at the top, at City Hall and the agencies, except perhaps that these Jews were accused of selling out. In fact, it didn’t count for much that a great number of New York Jews liked Mayor Lindsay and warmly supported his policies. None of this mattered to those Jews who were angry because open nerves were touched and emotional scar tissue was bruised once more.