It’s a sign of just how dumb our community can be that when Andrew Cuomo announced that he intends to fight antisemitism with a new organization called Progressives for Israel, he was roundly mocked and even condemned by left-wing Jewish organizations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back.
Three years ago, on January 27, 2020, I met Andrew Cuomo at the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. I was a guest of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Mariewecki. I talked about Israel with Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, a country perceived as hostile to the Jewish state, and the king and queen of Belgium.
I was shocked, however, that no senior American officials could be bothered to travel to Auschwitz for such a milestone occasion.
Except one: Andrew Cuomo, then the three-term governor of New York. Cuomo and I befriended each other at the ceremony, and I told him I would never forget his homage to the sacred memory of the Six Million.
Fast forward two months and New York was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo emerged as a national hero with his daily, nationally-televised briefings, which gave New Yorkers hope while the city and state were devastated by the deadly virus.
But Cuomo also received significant pushback, including from people like me, who felt he went too far in trying to severely limit the number of worshippers in churches and synagogues.
I was vocal on the issue, arguing that prayer was an antidote to hopelessness and a vaccine against despair. Of course, we needed the physical vaccines, and I publicly criticized the right-wing loonies who condemned them. But we needed to be vaccinated with faith and prayer as well.
While I pushed back hard against the restrictions, especially because I was in a year of mourning for my father and determined not to miss a single Kaddish prayer, I never questioned the fact that Cuomo was battling for people’s lives. He sincerely believed that the restrictions were the best way to protect his fellow citizens.
I will never forget how impressed I was when Cuomo argued that the lives of the elderly, who were particularly vulnerable to the virus, were as valuable as the lives of the young. “The life of my mother is not expendable,” he said. In our disgustingly ageist society, in which even Don Lemon of CNN recently said that women in their fifties are past their prime, there was something deeply virtuous about Cuomo’s statement. It inspired me.
But while Cuomo guided New York through the pandemic heroically, he would later be felled by #MeToo allegations and forced to resign his office.
About a year later, he contacted me and asked me to appear on his podcast to discuss the rise of antisemitism in New York. As providence would have it, I happened to be in Berlin, where I was the keynote speaker at the Congress for Young German Jewry. I did the interview from the top of the Reichstag building, from which the Nazi evil had spread across Europe.
Cuomo was fantastic. Rarely had I heard an American political leader stand so staunchly with the Jewish people. And truth be told, he had done so in his years as governor as well, visiting Israel an unprecedented three times and signing into law a New York State boycott of any business or entity that boycotted Israel. Andrew had followed in the footsteps of his illustrious father Mario, who was likewise a famed and tremendous friend of Israel and the Jewish people.
Indeed, I personally remember how, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe died in July 1994, I rushed back from Oxford, England, on a Sunday and somehow miraculously made it back in time for the Rebbe’s funeral in Brooklyn, N.Y. I saw the haunting image of the Rebbe’s body at the foot of his office, draped in a tallis and surrounded by tall yellow candles, and Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, wearing a small-brimmed blue hat, standing with his head bowed, paying his respects to the Rebbe. It was an image I shall never forget.
About two months ago, my mother, who had just celebrated her 80th birthday, got sick and was hospitalized. The doctors pushed us to quickly give up hope. Really? One minute she was dancing at her 80th, and a few weeks later, the doctors were telling us to throw in the towel. I remembered the words of Andrew Cuomo and pushed back against the advice of the doctors: “My mother’s life is not expendable.” I called Gov. Cuomo and told him how his words had inspired me to fight for my mother’s life.
We lost my mother, but she went down fighting. Her life was of infinite value. And when I organized a shloshim commemoration for her at Carnegie Hall, I invited Gov. Cuomo to address the crowd. He produced a masterful video condemning antisemitism and launching Progressives for Israel.
Of my beloved mother and his own illustrious father, he said these astonishing words: “Tonight my father, the late great Mario Cuomo, is sitting with the late great Eleanor Esther Elka Paul. I will tell you what he is saying. He is saying it is time for the Shabbos goy. The Shabbos goy can do work that benefits both the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. The Shabbos goy can turn on the lights on the Sabbath because it benefits everyone. I will stand and turn on the lights. I am starting an organization called Progressives for Israel and I am going to call out the question for Democrats: Do you stand with Israel or do you stand against Israel? Because silence is not an option. ‘Never again’ is not a prayer, but rather a call to arms.”
What an amazing metaphor. What an incomparable statement of support. What an amazing commitment—to rise as a non-Jewish friend of the Jewish people and defend Jewry and Israel as “the Shabbos goy.”
And what was the reaction of Jewish organizations? The New York Jewish Agenda, which promotes itself as a progressive group and has protested against the Israeli government, tweeted, “The chutzpah. One of the last things the Jewish people, progressives or Israeli democracy needs is a disgraced, not-actually-progressive, former governor inserting himself into this critical moment for Israel in a dangerously misguided attempt to stay relevant.”
Here you have a Jewish organization that almost no one has heard of saying that “the last thing we need” is a world-famous three-time non-Jewish governor of New York fighting for the Jewish people. The Jewish Agenda appears to think it has done such an amazing job of fighting antisemitism itself that it doesn’t need anyone else’s help.
Then there was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which ran the banner headline: “Disgraced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces new pro-Israel group.” Really? Disgraced? If Bill Clinton had launched a pro-Israel group, would they have written “disgraced former president” because Clinton was impeached due to a sex scandal? We’ll never know, because Clinton launched no national effort to combat antisemitism. Cuomo has.
Here we are, American Jewry, being pummeled from every side, having to listen to people like Kanye West tell us how much they love Hitler, just days after enjoying dinner with former President Donald Trump, who himself has Jewish grandchildren. And instead of thanking our allies, especially those like Andrew Cuomo who has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to the Jewish people, we slam them and humiliate them, showing zero gratitude.
Let’s be clear: Cuomo made serious mistakes as governor. We must live in a society where men treat women with professionalism, respect and esteem at all times. When men fail to do so, there must be consequences. Cuomo paid a huge price, ignominiously resigning his office after a series of landslide victories.
But America believes in repentance and redemption.
Andrew Cuomo is one of the greatest friends the Jewish community has ever had in high office. If he wants to rise to the challenge of fighting antisemitism and Jew-haters in a time of unprecedented attack, our response should be one of encouragement and gratitude, not denigration.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.