In recent weeks the New York political scene roiled in the wake of three separate but significant controversies revolving around American support for Israel: city and state legislatures divided over two separate votes relating to antisemitic violence and charities supporting Jewish victims of terror, and a City University of New York Law School valedictorian delivered a fiery polemic against Israel, the United States, and the rule of law itself. Each of these controversies derived from a growing split within the Democrat Party between older, moderate liberals who have traditionally supported the Middle East’s strongest democracy, and an ascendant, far-left wing of younger Democrats opposed in principle to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
New York is seen by Jews all over the world as a kind of second home and major center of Jewish life. Yet while Israelis and diaspora Jews may think of New York as a place where Jews may live safely and unapologetically both as Jews and fully invested Americans, the rise of hardline leftist in New York politics, and their views regarding Israel, challenge these assumptions and have serious implications for the future of the Democrat Party.
‘Personnel is policy’ is a familiar axiom in politics. Today’s leftist city council and state assembly members are tomorrow’s mayors, governors and members of Congress. And there are strong indications that the Democratic Party’s foot soldiers — staffers, campaign workers, and activists — who will eventually run for lower-level positions are even further left than their bosses. While the aging old guard of the Democratic Party at the national level has tamped down some (but not all) of the anti-Israel stridency of Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar and the rest of the “Squad” for the time being, their young Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) cohorts at the state and local level in New York are emboldened, with indications that their hostility to Israel extends to even liberal Jews who dare support the world’s only Jewish state.
End Jew hatred…
In the wake of antisemitic attacks in the city, the New York city council recently passed a resolution establishing April 29 as “End Jew Hatred Day,” a perfunctory, procedural gesture of support for a community alarmed by an uptick in antisemitic violence. While this might seem to be uncontroversial and worthy of unanimous support by design, it was passed in spite of direct ‘no’ votes from two council members and four ‘abstentions,’ from Democrat council members who concluded that fighting antisemitism was a controversial position unworthy of their unqualified support.
Two progressive Democrats, Shahana Hanif (co-chair of the council’s “Progressive Caucus”) and Sandra Nurse, directly opposed the bill, while four others (Rita Joseph, Charles Barron, Alexa Avilés and Jennifer Gutiérrez) in the progressive camp chose to abstain from a declaration of support for ending the hatred of Jews. All six represent districts in Brooklyn, home to almost half of the city’s Jews.
Hanif refused to support a bill that was also supported by Republicans, on the grounds that they had not done enough in support of trans issues and the BLM movement. Barron gave a meandering speech about Israel’s support for South Africa, though the legislation did not mention Israel at all. The others all made clear that their support for the notion of ending anti-semitic violence was contingent on who else was opposed to it or the actions of Israel as some sort of context.
This was followed in May by five Democrats (all DSA endorsed) in the New York State Assembly introducing a bill, “ Not on our dime!: Ending New York funding of Israeli settler violence act,” to prohibit New York nonprofits “from engaging in unauthorized support of Israeli settlement activity,” violation of which would provide authorization to the State Attorney General to revoke tax-exempt status. This activity could include support for victims of terror attacks occurring in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
‘Not on our dime!’ was introduced by Zohran Mamdami of Queens, whose mother is a prominent film director Mira Nair and whose father, Harvard-educated Ugandan academic Mahmoud Mamdani, has a long history of voluble anti-Zionist rhetoric. The bill was sponsored by State Senator Jabari Brisport, a teacher and DSA activist from Brooklyn. They were joined by cosponsors: Sarahana Shrestha, a Nepalese DSA activist living in Ulster County who became a citizen in 2019 before winning election to the Assembly in 2022 with the support of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Phara Souffrant Forrest, a Haitian-American nurse, DSA member and Democratic Party renegade who defeated a candidate supported by House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, again with the support of AOC, and Marcela Mitaynes, a naturalized Peruvian-American DSA member and housing activist who supports canceling rent for all private and commercial tenants. Notably, these elected officials represent DSA and adjacent left-wing, anti-colonialist ideology rather than a groundswell of anti-Zionist fervor in New York’s immigrant communities.
The pragmatism of Democratic Socialists of America
While Jews are still well-represented among Democratic elected officials, they have struggled to recruit progressives to join them in simple condemnations of antisemitism or in support of the victims of terrorism. Instead, progressives have formed their own ostensibly Jewish organizations like Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), and The Jewish Vote, far-left anti-Zionist entities created for the purpose of inoculating anti-Zionist radicals against accusations of antisemitism while also supporting the general policies of the hard-left progressive movement and Democratic Socialists.
In 2023, the New York ‘progressive’ notion of progress is heavily informed by the Democratic Socialists of America, founded from the debris of American Communism by Michael Harrington and others in 1982 as a pragmatic left-wing policy pressure group within the Democratic Party. A somnambulant and scarcely relevant book club for aging Jewish academic radicals until the star-making election to Congress of Queens DSA member Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in 2018, DSA has vastly increased its membership and influence, especially in New York. While becoming younger and more ethnically diverse, DSA reoriented in favor of a harder-left, anti-imperialist stance, in the view of founding member Jo-Anne Mort. While “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools” remains a pithy and informative phrase, today’s DSA-backed candidates seem to agree with Leo Strauss’ observation that antisemitism (in the form of anti-Zionism) is a useful tool for socialists who see fools as an important constituency.
The relationship between anti-Israel pressure groups, the Progressive movement, and hard-left politicians is easy to trace. For example, the director of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus is Emily F. Mayer, co-founder of If Not Now, yet another far-left anti-Israel pressure group. Her husband is Democratic operative Waleed Shahid, who drew criticism for a distasteful tweet complaining about a pro-Israel candidate winning a Democratic primary, “Wait until you hear what happened in next week’s Goy Outsider,” a reference to the Jewish political newsletter Jewish Insider. They were married in a wedding officiated by New York City Comptroller and self-described Democratic Socialist Brad Lander, who was instrumental in forming the very first Progressive Caucus while serving in the Council.
Lander is an able politician almost certain to run for mayor in the next cycle with the full support of NYC’s formidable Progressive elections apparatus, including the DSA and Working Families Party. A long-time associate of such odious anti-Israel activists as Linda Sarsour, Lander is viewed with distaste by his home borough’s Orthodox communities and is notorious for ignoring events like a huge march of radically antisemitic Black Israelites not far from his own residence in Park Slope. He took the bizarre step of renouncing his son’s right to access Israel’s Law of Return at the poor boy’s own bris. To reiterate, this is a man with a more than reasonable chance of becoming the next Mayor of NYC, who did not condemn Fatima Muhammed’s speech or speak out about a large gang of explicitly antisemitic marchers in his own neighborhood. Nor did he show up to this year’s ‘Celebrate Israel’ parade as almost every other Jewish elected official in the city did. Lander is renowned for his expert and relentless pandering and electioneering, who has gone to churches to wash the feet of undocumented immigrants and covered himself in rainbows to march in various LGBT parades. But supporters of Israel are personae non gratae in the Progressive movement, and Lander doesn’t chase votes he can’t win.
Indeed, when former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of a new organization, ‘Progressives for Israel,’ both progressives and supporters of Israel expressed incredulity. The Progressive movement, in New York as elsewhere, is virtually united in its opposition to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. While they will frequently seek cover for their BDS-style activism by declaring their opposition to Netanyahu or “current government” of Israel, they don’t acknowledge that the major opposition parties in Israel largely favor the same security policies as the Likud Right. But their real cover comes from Progressive, anti-Zionist but ostensibly Jewish pressure groups like JFREJ, Jewish Vote, If Not Now, etc. These groups advocate in lockstep for other progressive causes, such as a ban on evictions, police abolition, and mass decarceration, but their real value is in koshering anti-Israel positions for progressive elected officials, Jewish and not.
While the Democratic Party recently dealt with anti-Zionist offensives in the City and State legislatures, the New York City public university system opened another front. On May 12, City University of New York Law School student Fatima Mousa Muhammed delivered a graduation speech in which she condemned Israel, the United States, and the rule of law itself as a “manifestation of white supremacy.” With all the charm of a PFLP spokeswoman issuing demands for plane hijackers, Muhammed accused Israel of “raining bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the young and old” and “imprisoning children.” She described the United States as “an empire with a ravenous appetite for destruction and violence,” the New York Police Department as “fascist,” and prophesied the downfall of them all, the obligatory language of all revolutionaries.
Muhammed is a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, primary organizers of the Boycott, Divest Sanction (BDS) pressure group. This year’s diatribe followed last year’s CUNY Law commencement speech by an equally strident SJP member Nerdeen Kiswani, who complained of “Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government” and belongs to yet another anti-Israel group, Within Our Lifetime Palestine, that has called for “global intifada.” A member of Within Our Lifetime, Saadah Masoud, was recently imprisoned after being convicted of federal hate crimes for pummeling a Jewish man at a Within Our Lifetime event. He and his accomplices planned to attack Jews but explicitly mentioned the importance of referring to their victims as ‘Zionists’ and not ‘Jews,’ if there was any lingering doubt about the semantic twaddle the BDS-types enjoy.
CUNY Law School has become a publicly-funded hotbed of anti-Israel activism: both faculty and student councils have voted to express support for BDS and its stance on Israel. Fatima Mousa Muhammed’s speech was enthusiastically received, with several applause breaks from the future lawyers and judges trained and credentialed at CUNY Law. In fact, the school’s Jewish Students Association (a “Jewish” organization of which Muhammed herself is reportedly a member!) issued a statement supporting the speech and denying that her call to dismantle the “settler colonial project” of Israel is antisemitic. Jewish activists warned that criticizing Muhammed for her alleged antisemitism would lead to “real” antisemitism by emboldening neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
While the ideological bent of government officials in America has generally shifted in response to public consensus as reflected in the results of elections, a progressive administrative class has emerged in New York’s Democratic Party, as in other places, that does not reflect a consensus of public opinion. These progressives are prevalent in academia, in the legal profession, the vast, publicly-funded non-profit sector, and among elected officials and their staffs. These administrators and operatives are increasingly and more stridently left-wing than the voters themselves. In particular, the personnel involved in New York Democratic Party elections and staffing Democratic elected officials, especially at the local level, reflect an emerging hostility towards Israel and even Jewish-American interests that should be noted.
New York City’s Democratic Primary elections invariably decide the eventual winner of the general elections for city and state office. This means that the DSA-aligned, anti-Zionist progressive wing of the Democrat Party will continue to make gains by punching above their weight. The majority of operatives and activists working these campaigns, even those working for moderate candidates, are themselves progressives and very often neutral at best on Israel. They will continue winning races against moderate, pro-Israel candidates who get shouted down as supporters of ‘settler colonialism’ and ‘apartheid’ if they dare take a position short of opposition to Israel’s ‘government,’ even if these moderates insist on meek-sounding statements supporting Israel’s right to ‘exist.’
If New York Democrats are forced to weigh the benefits of strengthening their hold on the younger, more hardline left wing of the party, with its emphasis on anti-colonialism and identity politics that place Israel and Zionism on the ‘wrong side of history,’ versus a traditional but aging and dwindling base of moderates friendly to Israel, the result will be a dilemma for American Jews and supporters of Israel. They can continue to vote for representatives who will be ambivalent at best on Israel, out of party loyalty. They can try to win the argument and pull the left wing back into the fold, so that future Democrats build on America’s still-strong relationship with Israel, or they can appeal to the party’s moderate majority to reject anti-Zionism and antisemitism outright. Lastly, they can decide if they still want to be part of a club that doesn’t want someone like them as a member.