Palestinians Are Ignored in Another NYC Mayoral Race

The top candidates, including Andrew Yang, have showed where they stand

Busy week! Check out my recent dispatch on the mayoral race for the Village Voice, which is back. I also wrote about Andrew Cuomo’s problems for Gothamist, Jacobin, and the Daily Beast.

I will also have a Cuomo-related project to announce very soon. I think you will be excited about that. Stay tuned.

Not long after Andrew Yang entered the mayoral race, he wrote an opinion piece for the Forward, a Jewish newspaper.

As a presidential candidate, Yang largely focused on economic issues, like universal basic income and automation, and didn’t wade into thornier debates surrounding religion, save for his initial stance against circumcision. He had the freedom, as a long-shot candidate, to talk about the issues he cared about and dodge those that didn’t readily fit his agenda. Reporters didn’t often press him on geopolitical questions. There wasn’t really much of a need to, given his odds of winning the Democratic nomination were so remote.

Now Yang is a front-runner, if an unconventional one. He is the best-known candidate and he has the largest fan base, though we don’t know yet how many of the Yang Gang are registered Democrats in the five boroughs. Guided by Bradley Tusk, the Uber millionaire who advised Michael Bloomberg, Yang is beginning to merge his cheery ambitions with unsettling realpolitik. His plans for a public bank and a cash-transfer program for the poor are admirable, and would make a tremendous difference in the lives of the most vulnerable New Yorkers. But on Israel and the plight of Palestinians, he has clearly picked a side: one of conventional ordinary politics, one group celebrated and the other ignored. In this instance, at least, he is indistinguishable from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the two other Democrats with the best shot at winning at the moment.

“A Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment,” Yang wrote in the Forward. “Not only is BDS rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy. Strong ties with Israel are essential for a global city such as ours, which boasts the highest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel. Our economy is struggling, and we should be looking for ways to bring back small businesses, not stop commerce.”

There are many progressive Jews who are sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement or support it outright. As a Jewish leftist myself, with a father who spent time on a kibbutz and a mother who volunteered in Israel, I can say I fall more into the former camp—my skepticism of BDS, which is a nonviolent protest movement, lies chiefly in its lack of apparent effectiveness. Boycotting Israel is not changing Israel. Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Israel is evolving into a theocracy, with hard right forces ascendant. There is a reason Donald Trump is wildly popular there. The traditional left in Israel is virtually dead. As I wrote four years ago—also, funnily enough, in the Forward—there is little for me, a left-wing American Jew of European descent, to admire in 21st century Israel. It is a rich, sophisticated country, and I hear it is beautiful. But like its vaccination efforts—wonderful for some, horrid for those whose lives are perpetually horrid—it is grounded in profound inequities.

The Palestinian people are denied a country of their own, and live under apartheid-like conditions. Their battles with Israel are always asymmetric; Israel has first-rate weaponry, funded by the United States, that can easily murder combatants and civilians alike. Israel cannot be a functioning democracy while denying Palestinians basic rights. If Israel didn’t have the influence it has enjoyed in the United States for decades, this tragic state of affairs would have been condemned by mainstream Democrats a long time ago. To criticize this status quo is not to engage in anti-Semitism—does Yang think I hate Jewish people?—because this is not how critiques of powerful nation-states work. Should I renounce my American citizenship because I find fault with America? If I write critically on America’s healthcare system and military-industrial complex, am I wishing for its destruction? Anti-Semites want nothing more than to equate the nation of Israel with the Jewish people, to link every sin of the Likud Party with a diaspora of millions.

I may not be a member of the BDS movement, but it is certainly not fascism, and shouldn’t ever be linked to it. Such attacks, levied by Yang, chill free speech and make it impossible to advance any sort of protest movement rooted in non-violence. It’s clear Yang wrote this opinion piece in a bid to win over Orthodox and Hasidic voters in Brooklyn and Queens, who are very conservative but remain registered Democrats to vote in primaries. None of this is new. In 2013, both Bill de Blasio and Bill Thompson, the top two Democratic candidates, traveled to Borough Park repeatedly to kiss the ring of the revanchist assemblyman Dov Hikind, a raging Islamophobe who once dressed in blackface and would go on to be an ardent supporter of Trump. Thompson happily won the Hikind primary, though de Blasio beat him in the end.

Yang, like other mainstream Democrats, denies the Palestinians humanity and dismisses those who now live in New York City. It is not enough to show up at mosques and small businesses; either you demonstrate some semblance of awareness of their geopolitical reality, or you don’t. The broader Muslim community (not all Palestinians are Muslim, though a majority are) has been an afterthought. Though it can be difficult to hold a person accountable for every single opinion an interviewer may have held, past or present, it’s undeniable Yang has been too willing to accept the support of a podcast host who once asserted “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” To make matters worse, it appeared Yang chose to go on this podcast rather than appear at a Muslim Democratic Club of New York forum.

I asked Yang earlier week about why he equated BDS to anti-Semitism, why he appeared on the podcast of Sam Harris, and why Palestinian and Muslim New Yorkers should support him when he is against them on their issues.

“I’m for all New Yorkers and that includes people of every religion and background,” Yang replied. “I’m very excited to sit down with leaders and activists in the Muslim community very soon. I think we have something rescheduled with that organization but New Yorkers can sense that I am for New Yorkers of every background, every faith—I respect everybody.”

It was an overly generalized answer that dodged the BDS question entirely. I was not surprised. This is the mealy-mouthed stuff anyone who has spent time around New York politics is used to. Yang has merely joined the tired fray. Remember Stringer and Adams, the two Democrats I mentioned before? Stringer, the current darling of various progressives, believes exactly the same things about Israel that Yang does. In 2014, Stringer stood up at a rally to cheer Israel’s rocket bombardment of Gaza, urging on the killing of Palestinian civilians. “Let’s fight back, let’s be angry, let’s really give it to them the way we should,” Stringer said. “We are in the right.”

Adams, meanwhile, was so enraged that Brooklyn College would allow a public forum on BDS that he joined Hikind and others at a rally calling for the resignation of the college’s president. He recently told the Forward he would be “without a doubt” a leading voice against BDS, and in support of Israel, if elected mayor. A former state senator, Adams has enjoyed a close relationship with the Crown Heights Hasidic community.

Maya Wiley, de Blasio’s former counsel, does not have any history engaging with these issues, one way or the other. She told the Forward she is not a BDS supporter but does back “all people’s first amendment right to protest and boycott. This includes BDS.” Competing for progressives with Stringer, she nonetheless has said nothing, like the others, about affirming the rights and dignity of Palestinians.

The paradigm on all of this will shift, but New York’s leading Democratic politicians aren’t there yet. Old habits, as they say, die hard. Some constituencies must be appeased; others must be disregarded altogether. In this case, at least, Yang is not unconventional at all.