Middle East Conflict Impacts New York City Mayoral Race
Candidates’ positions on Israeli-Palestinian violence are scrutinized in campaign otherwise dominated by COVID, recovery and crime
The old adage is that all politics are local. Not so in New York City, where political happenings in the Middle East are playing an outsized role in this year’s mayoral election.
Last month’s outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas laid bare a new paradigm in New York: toeing a pro-Israel line – once standard among the city’s mainstream Democrat politicians – is now subject to much greater scrutiny.
The city is home to the nation’s largest Jewish population, along with a significant Palestinian presence in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Its liberal politicians have historically held pro-Israel leanings, including New York Democratic stalwarts like US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and US House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries.
Even current Mayor Bill de Blasio, once billed as a progressive hope, criticized other Democrats for shunning the 2019 AIPAC conference at which he spoke.
De Blasio, whose second term as mayor will end on Dec. 31, 2021, is barred from running again by term limits.
Two of this year’s Democratic front-runners – one who conceded after Tuesday’s preliminary primary results came in and one who currently holds the pole position – heavily courted the city’s weighty Orthodox Jewish vote. Entrepreneur and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams secured almost all of the city’s Orthodox Jewish endorsements, with most of those factions supporting Israel, so the pro-Israel positions of Yang and Adams came as little surprise. Republican primary winner Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels, is staunchly pro-Israel and made a well-publicized solidarity trip there during the Second Intifada. The Orthodox Jewish vote in the city turned heavily Republican during the Donald Trump era, but, for practical purposes, the community is endorsing Democrats, as a Republican stands little to no chance of winning a citywide election there.
As the latest round of conflict between Israel and Hamas flared up in May, Yang and Adams both issued statements in strong support of Israel. Yang tweeted, “I’m standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists,” while Adams said, “Israelis live under the constant threat of terrorism and war and New York City’s bond with Israel remains unbreakable.”
Those statements would not have been notable in the past. This time Yang was disinvited from an event in Queens marking the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. New York progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned Yang, tweeting out, “Utterly shameful for Yang to try to show up to an Eid event after sending out a chest-thumping statement of support for a strike killing 9 children, especially after his silence as Al-Aqsa was attacked. But then to try that in Astoria? During Ramadan?! They will let you know.”
Yang backpedaled, issuing a statement saying that support of one people doesn’t make one blind to the suffering of others, and prayed that the conflict would be resolved as peacefully and speedily as possible.
Still, Yang – previously unknown to the city’s Jewish community – secured a notable number of endorsements from rabbinical and organizational leaders.
“I have known some of the candidates for a long time. Some I met for the first time during this election cycle. Some I haven’t met at all,” City Councilman Kalman Yeger, whose district includes a large number of Yang’s endorsers, told The Media Line.
“Community leaders have come to an understanding of who speaks best from the kishkas [Yiddish for guts] to the issues of my community. I genuinely get the sense that Andrew feels a deep connection with our community – that he’s not just speaking in platitudes,” said Yeger.
Yang campaigned on some of the same issues affecting the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in Israel: religious freedom and support of religious education with few, if any, secular provisions.
Still, a prominent member of the Boro Park (Brooklyn) Jewish community who was among those who endorsed Yang in a highly touted late-April statement told The Media Line that he, in fact, wouldn’t be voting for Yang and doesn’t understand why Boro Park politicians were pushing a coalition to vote for him.
“It seems Yang grabbed the lead in the early polls and everyone wants to be associated with a winner,” said the rabbi, on condition of anonymity.
“Everyone in this community has a relationship with Adams or [comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott] Stringer. Yang is promising everything to everybody, but I don’t buy it,” said the rabbi, foretelling Yang’s plummet from early front-runner to also-ran.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Agenda 2021 coalition dropped Adams, an African American former police captain running on a crime-fighting platform, from its endorsement process after his campaign refused to issue a follow-up statement condemning Israeli actions during the flare-up and acknowledging the pain and suffering of Palestinians.
When Yang tried to play both sides of the issue, he turned off one prominent rabbi in a Staten Island group that handed its endorsement to Adams.
“No one wants to see the loss of human life and children killed in this latest round of violence, but Yang didn’t explain how Israel goes above and beyond before retaliating. I was already in favor of Adams but that moment showed me how Yang doesn’t understand the dynamics and can’t assert what is correct versus incorrect,” said the Staten Island rabbi, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
“When they attacked Adams for his support for Israel, he lost some support from Muslim groups, but he never wavered. We know we can trust him and what he’s telling us is realistic,” said the Staten Island rabbi.
Adams, who has visited Israel twice and has vocally disavowed the Israel boycott movement, saw his polling numbers go up and Yang’s go down right around the time Yang was stumbling over the Israel-Hamas issue.
“We know Eric, and his friendship has earned our loyalty,” Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, one of a number of Brooklyn activists backing Adams, told The Media Line.
“He represented the Crown Heights community in the state Senate for over 10 years and he is loyal to our friends. He’s defended us against unfair attacks like BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel]. I’m being asked why I’m not supporting Yang, but that’s asking the question the wrong way. Why go with somebody who I’ve met once or twice?” said Behrman.
With 90% of the primary votes counted, Adams held a hefty advantage over the rest of the field, though the city’s introduction of ranked-choice voting this year dramatically complicates the counting process, and a winner might not be known for weeks.
In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, though, what’s changed in New York? For starters, new immigrant groups have remade the electoral map. Muslims now comprise 9% of the city’s population, compared to Jews at 13%.
The changing demographics have also forced candidates away from the long-time tradition of identity-based politics in the city, with ethnic bases no longer voting as reliable blocs.
“It used to be expected that candidates for mayor would visit the ‘three I’s’ of Israel, Italy and Ireland during election years or risk losing one of the major ethnic groups in New York. Those days are now firmly in the past,” Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based veteran political consultant, told The Media Line.
“None of this year’s candidates are running these kinds of identity-based campaigns. It is precisely the diversity of New York City, and of this pool of primary candidates, that has rendered identity politics something of the past. Politics here can no longer be as simple as taking a position on Israel that pleases one group or having a last name that is familiar to another,” said Sheinkopf.
Beyond that, the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party is simply more powerful than it once was. Ocasio-Cortez and freshman Rep. Jamaal Bowman, both of them backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), recently unseated pro-Israel, center-left incumbents Joe Crowley and Eliot Engel. DSA’s New York branch requires candidates to pledge not to travel to Israel in order to be considered for an endorsement. Bowman, whose district has a large Jewish population, unseated the powerful Engel last year. Engel had been the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Other establishment New York City Democrats have been caught up in the tides. Rep. Greg Meeks, the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, considered asking the White House to delay an arms sale to Israel in the wake of last month’s violence, although he ultimately backed off the request, much to the chagrin of those to his left. Meanwhile, Schumer stayed noticeably quiet during the latest conflict, leading some political watchers to theorize he feared a primary challenge to his Senate seat from Ocasio-Cortez.
The progressive favorite in the mayoral race, former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley, steered clear of the Israel-Hamas controversy, eventually garnering the endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez. Wiley, who was second only to Adams in the initial vote count on Tuesday night, had previously come out in support of the right to boycott Israel, even though she said she disagrees with the tactic. Nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, the furthest to the left among the mayoral contenders, sent out a statement saying, “We must condemn state violence unequivocally. … What is and has been happening in Palestine is apartheid.”
Other Democratic candidates in the race, including New York Times- and Daily News-endorsed Kathryn Garcia, along with Stringer, the only contending Jewish candidate, offered support for Israel, balanced by nuance and expressions of sympathy for Palestinians.
It turns out that Adams is the only notable candidate who didn’t temper his comments on Israel. It is much too early to know whether that has anything to do with his better-than-expected numbers at the ballot box. But the fact that in New York City so many candidates feel that playing it safe politically on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer means coming out in full support of Israel, is one of the more notable lessons of the campaign and appears to be another indicator of changing trends on the issue in a Democratic Party stronghold.