Andrew Yang, Israel, and the Changing of the Left

A 2014-era tweet does not work in 2021

It was not very long ago that just about every Democratic elected official in New York held views on Israel that were indistinguishable from any ordinary, hard right Republican.  

“We know Israel lives in a very tough neighborhood,” boomed Hakeem Jeffries, the Brooklyn congressman. “And there are certain realities to that. We mourn the loss of civilian life on both sides of the conflict but when you live in a tough neighborhood, Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength. You know why? Because the only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength.”

“If there is one thing that brings us together—whether we are Black, white, Latino, Asian—is our firm belief that we recognize the right of Israel to defend itself,” said Nydia Velázquez, another Brooklyn congresswoman and ally of progressives. “Israel should not have to sacrifice its citizen’s safety to achieve that goal [of a ceasefire].”

“It is up to us in New York City to make the case for Israel!” shouted Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and future mayoral candidate, a man who hopes to be a standard bearer for the left. “We must make the case that tunnels are not being built by squirrels, but by terrorists! If we can’t beat the terrorists and they win, shame on all of us. Let’s fight back, let’s be angry, let’s really give it to them the way we should! We are in the right!”

The year was 2014, when Israel and the Hamas-ruled Gaza were at war. Israel said it launched the offensive on Gaza to put an end to rocket fire and remove the threat of attacks by militants tunnelling under the border. In the process, Israel bombed a U.N.-sponsored school sheltering civilians in Gaza. Ultimately, the war would last 50 days and end with a typically asymmetric death toll: 2,251 Palestinians, of whom 1,462 were civilians, were killed. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians died.

Hamas is a militant organization with blood on its hands, but it does not have Israel’s power—ultimately, any litigation of this conflict must take into account this asymmetry. Israel, lavishly funded by the United States, is a highly-sophisticated, first-world democracy. The Iron Dome catches the rockets. If there is war between the Israelis and Palestinians, only one side can suffer more degradation and death. Any progressive who is a supporter of Israel, still, must reckon with this brutal reality.

For a long time, the left flank of the Democratic Party had almost nothing to say about Palestinian suffering or the Israeli occupation. The above remarks were taken from a rally staged near the United Nations in the summer of 2014, when Democrats and Republicans were in lockstep: Israel had to do whatever it took to win, including slaughtering civilians. There were no dissenting voices, no cheering for Palestine, for BDS, for anything. It was Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever. Scott Stringer, raging from the podium, was merely the median politician, not the outlier.

In 2021, the Israelis and Palestinians are at war again. At least 30 Palestinians, including 10 children, are dead. In Israel, three have died as of Tuesday night. Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, can each exploit this tragedy for political gain: Hamas can claim leadership of the Palestinian resistance while Netanyahu, besieged by scandal and fighting for his political life, can seize on the war to keep himself in power.

As a Jewish leftist with long-standing criticisms of Israel and the Zionist project, I am not here to claim to be a neutral party or offer any exegesis on 70 years of history. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that. Unlike other critics of Israel, I am not going to proclaim every supporter of the Palestinian cause, or Hamas itself, exists without sin. I’m also not going to pretend there aren’t anti-Semites out there trying to hijack a worthy cause—safeguarding Palestinian life—to further an agenda of Jewish hate. Israel, which is a nation-state state and not analogous to Judaism itself, is no longer committed to a two-state solution, and Hamas is not exactly a reliable negotiating partner. In my utopia, all live in harmony in a multi-ethnic, multi-national democracy, with equal rights granted to all. This isn’t quite Zionism. And it’s about as equally likely, at this point, as Israel granting the Palestinians their own full-fledged state with the land promised to them.

Andrew Yang, front-running candidate for mayor of New York City, probably didn’t think too hard about Israel before jumping into the race in January. Why would he? A vast majority of Americans have no overriding interest in global affairs. It’s usually the highly-educated, or those with direct ties to a nation, who care to any great degree. When Yang ran for president, no one cared about his foreign policy positions. Yang’s consultant, Tusk Strategies, clearly made a calculation that conservative Orthodox Jewish voters who show up for Democratic primaries were not firmly supportive of any candidate. Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has evolved from a supporter of the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan into an unreconstructed Israel hawk, was never the most reliable ally. So Yang, making concerning concessions on a few key issues, swooped in, and has all but locked up the support of Orthodox leadership in New York City. He did in four months what rivals had been trying to do for eight years.

On Monday, in a nod to the reality that this is the very conservative coalition he has firmly aligned himself with, Yang sent out a tweet that rightfully enraged much of the left. “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.”

It was far worse than the mealy-mouthed statements sent out by other progressive Democrats, who performed versions of “all lives matter” sloganeering by speaking, broadly, of tragedies in Israel, Palestine, Colombia, and even New York City. Unlike these other Democrats, Yang couldn’t even acknowledge Palestinian death. It was a tweet firmly trapped in 2014. His advisers either didn’t know or didn’t care. Ted Cruz and Stephen Miller, the revanchist architect of Donald Trump’s immigration policy, praised Yang’s tweet. Yang’s opponents, who for so long wanted to link him to far right figures, now had actual ammunition.

Yang’s statement got him heckled in Astoria and disinvited from a food distribution event in a heavily Muslim area ahead of Eid. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has a knack for lighting the fuse of a news cycle, denounced Yang forcefully on Twitter. “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,” she wrote.

Ocasio-Cortez was right of course: you don’t get to have it both ways. You can’t be a hawk for a right-wing theocracy while claiming to be an ally of people who may have relatives dying in Gaza. What Yang is learning is that the politics of five or 10 years ago do not work any longer. In a different time, before Netanyahu and Trump performed a mind-meld, it was possible to equate BDS to fascism, pen op-eds in local newspapers, and still visit all the mosques and show up for Eid. Muslims, ruthlessly spied on by Michael Bloomberg’s NYPD and otherwise viewed as too insignificant, by New York Democrats, for a sufficient pander, were happy for the attention. This was before the young left rose to power after the 2016 elections. This was before AOC. These days, the standard is much higher. Yang will face political consequences for ignoring the Palestinian people and Muslims writ large.

But Ocasio-Cortez, who is otherwise not always so outspoken on these thorny geopolitical matters, remains selective in her outrage. Yang is an easy target; he holds no office, and he may not even win one. What about Governor Andrew Cuomo, still the most powerful Democrat in New York, who released an almost identical statement?

Here it is in full:

“I am heartbroken by the tragedy that is occurring in Israel as hundreds of innocent Israelis are being targeted by deadly rocket attacks. These attacks have already taken the lives of too many, and the aggression must end now. Israel has a right to defend itself against this terror. We pray for the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and across the Middle East, and stand for peace and security, now and always.”

If Yang deserves scorn (and he absolutely does), Cuomo should get it too, because it’s what he does—and does not do—that has far greater implications for New York City. Ocasio-Cortez should not ignore Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi either. They are the true arbiters of American foreign policy, after all. And if Ocasio-Cortez is truly offended by Yang’s statement, she must indict the rest of the Democratic establishment, which has peddled lines like these for years. Beyond Dianne Morales, just about every candidate running for mayor is an Israel hawk. Adams released a statement almost exactly like Yang’s. If Yang or Adams wins this race, there will be yet another New York mayor with a conception of global affairs that ignores the plight of the Palestinians. Bill de Blasio, Michael Bloomberg, and Rudy Giuliani had no disagreements among them on Israel. De Blasio, the proud progressive, happily spoke at the AIPAC conference in 2019.

There is another argument to be made, one that is not so popular: if relentless Israel supporters can’t show up to help out on Eid, is the Muslim community better off? For many, the answer may unequivocally be yes. In the polarized climate we’ve entered, ideological purity can trump alliance-building. Yang may keep tweeting awful opinions, but if he’s going to be a mayor willing to offer tangible assistance from time to time, shouldn’t this be welcomed? Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism does the opposite, incentivizing Yang and his Orthodox Jewish allies to withdraw further, away from any kind of interfaith organizing.

The shift that has happened in New York politics over the last decade is, overall, welcome. The monoculture of 2014 should never be repeated; we don’t need to hear otherwise left-leaning Democrats like Stringer shriek from a stage about terrorism. We need balance and we need debate. Palestinians deserve dignity too, and it must be understood that it’s not their fault Hamas or the PLO can’t lead them out of misery, especially when Israel remains far richer and more militarized. Ignoring Palestinian suffering never made much sense for a Democratic Party trending left, for the younger voters who seek to end Apartheid conditions wherever they might be. In 2016, a Zionist Jew named Bernie Sanders opened the door, and now others will walk through it. Yang has chosen to go elsewhere. Whether or not he wins in June, he will come to learn that a politician can longer be everything to everyone. A side, in this polarized terrain, must be chosen.