How Palestine and BDS became part of New York's mayoral race

A man stands on a pole as people attend a protest in support of Palestine in Queens in New York on 22 May, 2021.[AFP via Getty]
6 min read
Washington, DC
25 May, 2021
In-depth: Until now, the assumption has been that being staunchly pro-Israel was par for the course in New York. But the past several years have seen a surge of progressive activism across America, part of which has been the Palestinian cause.

The upcoming race for New York City mayor has somehow captured international attention. While an election in America’s biggest city is no doubt important, it is hard to remember another time when New Yorkers’ choice of mayor has made headlines around the world. 

When Andrew Yang was asked about his thoughts on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, he stumbled for months, all the way through the recent crisis in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

“He wanted to play it safe, but he walked into a trap,” Atalia Omer, professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, tells The New Arab. “Maybe he has a lack of understanding that Jewish views are changing.”

"The past several years have seen a surge of progressive activism across America, particularly in diverse and liberal strongholds like New York, part of which has been the Palestinian cause"

This appeared to be the case when in January he penned a personal essay in the Jewish magazine The Forward, in which he came out strongly in opposition to the BDS movement, which he described as “rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses.”

His piece was quickly met by criticism from activists and progressive groups, including The Jewish Vote, which responded in a tweet: “The Jewish Vote exists b/c Jews AREN’T a single-issue voting bloc. We’re tired of being treated like one. If @AndrewYang wants to win our votes, he should focus on #TaxTheRich, Defund the Police, a #GreenNewDeal—NOT equating a nonviolent human rights tactic to literal Nazis.”

Fumbling campaign statements

After several attempts to placate his critics on the matter, in March, when pressed by a Palestinian-American moderator at a campaign event, Yang finally said he had chosen his words poorly, and said he appreciates people standing up for what they believe in, though he still does not support BDS.

This follows efforts in states across the country, including a 2016 executive order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, to ban BDS – which has consistently been deemed unconstitutional.

Then, as violence broke out in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, disproportionately hitting Palestinian civilians, Yang said that Israel had the right to defend itself. 

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“I'm standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists. The people of NYC will always stand with our brothers and sisters in Israel who face down terrorism and persevere,” Yang wrote in a 10 May tweet.

He was met with criticism from activists, progressive politicians, as well as one of his democratic opponents in the mayoral race, Dianne Morales, while two of his other opponents offered more balanced statements of support for Israel. Yang then tried to make amends with his own nuanced take. 

Days later, he said that some of his volunteers “felt that my tweet was overly simplistic in my treatment of a conflict that has a long and complex history full of tragedies. And they felt it failed to acknowledge the pain and suffering on both sides. They were, of course, correct. I mourn for every Palestinian life taken before its time as I do for every Israeli.”

Yang added, “Support of a people does not make one blind to the pain and suffering of others.”

But it was too late. He had already shown himself to be uninformed on the issue – or at least unaware that it was important to New York voters. 

By the time Israel and Hamas had announced a ceasefire, Yang’s lead in the race had, according to some polls, turned into an approximate tie with Eric Adams, a candidate with similar policy platforms, but who has been much less vocal about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Adams has said more or less the same thing. But he has more of a base. He’s a Brooklyn guy. He’s steeped in New York politics. Yang seems hapless,” Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University, told TNA

Protesters and activists gather to defend the Palestinian resistance movement on May 14, 2021 in New York City. [Getty]
Protesters gather in New York City on 18 May to show solidarity with Palestinians. [Getty]

A shifting discourse

Are Palestinians an important part of New York’s mayoral race? Until now, the assumption has been that as the city with the highest Jewish population outside of Israel, being staunchly pro-Israeli was par for the course.

But the past several years have seen a surge of progressive activism across America, particularly in diverse and liberal strongholds like New York, part of which has been the Palestinian cause

“In the Black and Latino communities, there’s sympathy for the Palestinians. This also shows up in the Jewish community. It’s a local reflection of New York’s complicated ethnic politics and of what’s happening more broadly,” says Lockman.

"Yang is in the lead, but who knows what will happen on June 22 (election day)?"

Omer, whose recent book Days of Awe traces the shifts and trends of the American Jewish community developing solidarity with Palestinians, sees young Jews “reimagining their Jewishness and leveraging their privilege to resist.”

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When she asked them about their turning point, many told her it was Gaza in 2014. Others said it was “the George Floyd moment.”

She says, “It’s about human rights and human worth. It’s the same logic as Black Lives Matter. It’s clarified when we’re all under attack – Jews, Muslims, gays. It’s the centrality of human rights discourse.”

In addition to a growing discussion of Palestinian issues in New York City is the fact that Palestinian and Arab-Americans themselves are now running for important political positions.

Tahanie Aboushi is running for district attorney of Manhattan, while Rana Abdelhamid, who is Egyptian-American, is running for Congress in a district of New York City that represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Both are outspoken and are running on progressive platforms.

"Until now, the assumption has been that as the city with the highest Jewish population outside of Israel, being staunchly pro-Israeli was par for the course"

These candidates have not shied away from discussing their identities, nor have they limited themselves to niche constituencies. Aboushi has the endorsement of Jewish Vote, the Alliance of South Asian American Labor, and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club (an LGBTQ group).

Their crossover appeal could be the sign of growing inclusivity in New York City, or a shift away from identity politics, particularly among younger voters.

A new era in New York City politics?

A recent opinion piece in CNN by Lincoln Mitchell pointed to a decline in the three i’s in New York City elections: Israel, Italy and Ireland.

“Those days are now firmly in the past,” writes Mitchell. “None of this year's candidates this year are running these kinds of identity-based campaigns.” 

This is not to say that New York City has become a pro-Palestinian city. Israel is still an important part of the city’s concerns, given its history and population.

However, it appears that a level of nuance is now required on the Israel-Palestine issue that might not have been necessary in the past. 

“Everyone is making calculations and trade-offs and hoping it will go away. But there will be more ahead as polarization grows on these issues,” says Lockman.

“They will not be able to give the same answers as their predecessors from decades ago.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews