James R. Russell
James R. Russell

Don’t vote for Sliwa for Mayor of NYC

Curtis Sliwa is running for Mayor of New York on the Republican ticket. Don’t vote for him.

Like many New Yorkers sick and tired of crime way back in the waning decades of the twentieth century, I applauded Curtis Sliwa’s vigilante group the Guardian Angels, young men of every size, color, and creed who patrolled the subways in their red berets. They probably accomplished very little but they boosted morale. It was Rudi Giuliani, a former organized-crime-busting prosecutor, who marshaled the forces of government and put an end to most crime in the city and went on to lead us with dignity and integrity through the difficult days after 9/11.

Giuliani’s predecessor was the late David Dinkins. An African American, he was a courtly and pleasant man— I remember he lived next door to our building on upper Riverside Drive in Washington Heights and I even met him once when I was very young— and de mortuis nil nisi bonum, “say nothing but good of the dead”. It must be admitted, though, that he was a poor mayor, and was notably insensitive to the legitimate fears of the Jewish community during the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. The dismal record of Dinkins seems sterling in retrospect, compared to the disastrous administration of the present Democratic mayor, De Blasio.

Jewish New Yorkers may be understandably hesitant to vote for the Democratic candidate, who is also African American (not that it matters— the only “race” is the human race). I think that as a former cop he may indeed be just the right man for the job. Law and order are his agenda. Although the Democratic party in my view is bad news these days no matter who’s running on its ticket, I want to urge our community NOT to vote for the Republican candidate, Mr. Curtis Sliwa.

Here’s why. At the end of April 2002, I was invited to be one of several speakers at a mass rally on Times Square, which was attended by tens of thousands, in commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. I am now Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard; back then I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and taught the language, literature, and folklore of that ancient people. Up on the podium that day, happy to be in the heart of my hometown, I was excited to find myself sitting next to Curtis Sliwa. I thanked him for the great service the Guardian Angels had rendered our fair city and asked him to autograph the inside cover of a little volume of Armenian mystical poetry I used to carry around. He did so, we shook hands, and I’ve still got the book with his John Hancock in my library.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when he got up to make his speech and devoted it in large part to an attack on… Israel, which he described as the most powerful country in the Middle East. The crowd went wild with delight. He had them eating out of his hand. Many Armenians I’ve met over the years are anti-Semites, unfortunately, and it takes very little to get them going on the subject. Israel’s failure officially to recognize the Armenian Genocide is something they tend to harp on; and I’ve been critical of that position myself, much as I understand the unsavory real-life choices you have to make in a tough neighborhood. (Armenia, incidentally, is a close ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is sworn to exterminate us.) But the point is, this was not a seminar on Israeli foreign policy. It was a public commemoration in 2002 in New York City, which, the last time I checked, is located in the United States of America, which country did not then recognize the Armenian Genocide either. Sliwa could have criticized the USA, where we were. But he focused on Israel.

The USA is the strongest and richest country on earth, with about 350 million people, is about 3000 miles wide, and has placid neighbors above and below and an ocean to either side of it. Israel is nine miles wide, has nine million people, and cannot keep the murderous terrorist maniacs that surround it from lobbing missiles by the thousands at its civilians. (Its efforts at self-defense are condemned as aggression.) The USA could afford to ruffle the feathers of Turkey. Israel was and is in a different position.

I was about to say that the USA, also unlike Israel, has never suffered a massive attack on its civilian population on its own soil. That would have been accurate a year before. But remember, ladies and gentlemen, that Curtis Sliwa was grandstanding with his Israel-bashing a few miles from, and just a few months after, the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Who were the attackers? Nineteen Muslim terrorists, most of them from Saudi Arabia. Who danced and handed out candies after 9/11? Muslims, that’s who. Sure, a Harvard dean wrote to me some time later that “every real American knows Israel is the source of our problems.” Sure, some profound thinker scrawled on the memorial wall of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a stone’s throw from the smoking ruins, “Is Israel still worth it?” Anti-Semitism is by no means the sole property of Arabs or Muslims. What else is new? My point is that the Turks, Kurds, and some Arabs who massacred Armenians in World War I were all Muslims, every single one. Not Jews. But Curtis Sliwa found a way that pleasant spring afternoon to blame the Jews.

This man has an ongoing problem with my people, to put it mildly, and he wants your vote for mayor of my hometown, the City of New York. Don’t give it to him.

During the great bus and subway strike of 1965, which for twelve-year-old me was a grand adventure— but everything in NYC was better back then— a court issued an injunction against the Transit Workers’ Union, to which the TWU’s boss, Michael Quill, responded in his thick Irish brogue, “The judge can drop dead in his black robes.” Well, as far as I’m concerned, this Jew-baiter can put on his Guardian Angels red beret and do the same. Or at least stick to his present-day job. Because “Angels” like this we need like the proverbial hole in the head. And as for guardians, the Psalm says, the LORD is my Shepherd. So whatever you do, don’t give Curtis Sliwa your vote for mayor of the City of New York. Vote Democratic this time.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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