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  • The Snubs and the ‘Sukkah’:John Lindsay and Jewish Voters in New York City
  • Jeffrey F. Taffet (bio)

The Jewish Community as of now stands in opposition to the Mayor’s reelection … Jews are disaffected as citizens, as New Yorkers — or more correctly — as lower middle — and middle class Brooklynites, Bronxites, and Queensites. And they share their complaints, disappointments, and exasperations with others of similar socioeconomic status. They question both the substance and motivation behind the Mayor’s policies and action …1

New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay (governed 1966–1973) needed Jewish voters to win his reelection bid in 1969. But in the months before the election, survey and anecdotal evidence suggested that Jewish support at the polls would not be forthcoming.2 Many Jews had come to believe that Lindsay had not been effective and, more importantly, that he had little interest in supporting their particular interests.

Recognizing the necessity of courting Jewish voters, Lindsay took a series of important symbolic steps to reassure Jews that he understood and sympathized with their concerns. Most notable among these was an extraordinary reception he gave in a sukkah for Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during her visit to New York in late September of 1969. Lindsay’s advisors believed that this reception was the key factor that helped him win Jewish support and, by extension, the election. In his second term, Lindsay continued to focus on appealing to Jewish voters using the model set by the Meir visit — by embracing their international concerns. This included energetically snubbing foreign leaders whom New York Jews believed had anti-Israel agendas, traveling to Israel, and embracing the nascent Soviet Jewry movement.

Lindsay’s approach to these issues reflected the ways in which international and local politics intersected in New York City. In a city [End Page 413] containing large and powerful ethnic communities with ties to foreign countries, Lindsay, like his predecessors and successors, recognized he needed to act as a kind of foreign minister for the city as a way of helping him to connect with ethnic voters. While this meant an occasional trip to Ireland and Italy and, later, to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, issues related to Israel were most significant throughout the postwar period. Many Jewish voters expected that their representatives, even ones on the city level who had little international power, would speak to their concerns about Israel’s future.3

Study of Lindsay’s efforts regarding international politics helps to explain how Jewish political power operated in New York City, where Jews were extraordinarily influential. Eli Lederhendler, in his study of New York Jewish life in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote that the city served as a kind of “Jewish Camelot.” He argued that it was a double urban utopia in which Jews could become leaders in a “cosmopolitan paradise, providing unhindered participation in the life of a world-city” and also a place where they could “build a Jewish cultural center that might sustain the entire Jewish people.”4 New York was both a great secular city that Jews had helped make great, and an object to advance Jewish concerns nationally and internationally. As a result of these two factors, New York City leaders had to make sure that their international policies reflected Jewish sensibilities, just as Jewish New Yorkers had come to understand that the municipal government could be an effective tool in influencing global politics.

Many writers have addressed the relationships between Israel and American political systems, often in critical tones.5 While many Jewish [End Page 414] voters were certainly interested in Israel, and did involve themselves in lobbying activities, politicians were not simply pawns. Political leaders attempted to develop their pro-Israel credentials to advance their own electoral prospects. Understanding Lindsay’s actions and how he came to appreciate the links between Israel and city politics thus illuminates the evolution of Jewish involvement in the foreign policy arena.

Lindsay and the Jewish Vote

Lindsay’s need to attract Jewish voters in the 1969 election was a function of basic electoral and demographic realities in New York City. In 1960, approximately 2.1 million Jews lived in the city, representing about...


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