New York Jewish leaders perplexed that AOC won’t engage with them

Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears to have only participated in three publicly known Jewish events in New York

Not long after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) pulled off a surprise upset in the June 2018 Democratic congressional primary, Michael S. Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, reached out to set up an in-person meeting. Ocasio-Cortez, then 28, was a relative newcomer to politics, but her star was rising, and she was all but assured a seat in Congress representing the reliably blue 14th district, which encompasses parts of the Bronx and Queens. 

Miller, whose organization represents the Jewish community to New York government officials and counts more than 50 local Jewish groups as members, had hoped to begin a dialogue with the young progressive upstart — and, after speaking with her chief of staff, was informed that a meeting with Ocasio-Cortez would be arranged. Two years and multiple follow-ups later, Miller is still waiting on her call.

“That was October of 2018,” Miller said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re now on the verge of October 2020, and I have yet to meet with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

“There is a lot of frustration,” he sighed.

Miller isn’t alone among New York’s Jewish leaders in wondering why Ocasio-Cortez, who is poised to be reelected to a second term in November, won’t return their calls. In interviews with JI, several prominent members of New York’s Jewish community said they have made overtures to the freshman congresswoman, who turns 31 this month, only to have their entreaties be ignored.

“We were prepared to meet, but there was no reciprocity,” said Rabbi Joe Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, recalling an experience similar to Miller’s. “When I spoke to her she was like, ‘Of course.’ But when it came to arranging a meeting, no response.” 

“I don’t know what her reasoning is,” he added with a sense of befuddlement. “I think she has to explain why, as a member of Congress who meets with all different kinds of groups, she’s not willing to meet with us.”

The freshman congresswoman’s move last week to withdraw from an Americans for Peace Now event commemorating Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 for his attempts to broker peace with the Palestinians, underscored what many Jewish leaders have come to regard as a perplexing dynamic in which Ocasio-Cortez seems to have distanced herself from mainstream Jewish groups.

“We’re disappointed that she withdrew from the APN event because it was a lost opportunity,” said Matt Nosanchuk, president and co-founder of New York Jewish Agenda, a new advocacy group that seeks to build alliances with progressives in and out of the Jewish community. “We feel that there is space for someone like AOC to demonstrate solidarity,” Nosanchuk added, using the popular shorthand for Ocasio-Cortez.

Amanda Berman, founder and executive director of Zioness, a liberal feminist organization that supports progressive and Zionist causes, also expressed alarm at Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to retreat from the Rabin event. Before the incident, Berman said her organization had made several attempts to set up a meeting with Ocasio-Cortez, all unsuccessful. Afterward, they posted a highly critical but conciliatory open letter on Twitter and forwarded it to the congresswoman’s chief of staff in the hope that they would hear back. Crickets.

“She speaks in so many ways that are really inspiring to young progressive Jews and old progressive Jews,” Berman told JI. “There’s so much about her that really has awakened the progessive roots of our community, but at the same time, it’s really painful that when we want to celebrate her on something like that and say thank you for standing up for us as women, we have to hesitate and think that she doesn’t stand up for us as Jewish women.”

“It’s such a bummer,” she said. 

Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, declined to detail his conversations with Ocasio-Cortez about the event, which is scheduled for October 20 and will be hosted by the actor Mandy Patinkin.

“We invited her because we thought she would be a good addition to the program and that it was an opportunity for the thousand-plus people who were going to be on the program to hear from her,” Susskind told JI. “The event is about honoring Rabin the man and also honoring his legacy of being willing to take risks for peace,” he added, “and being willing to be a leader who does grow and change.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s about-face was lauded by far-left activists who regard Rabin as a controversial figure despite his efforts to bring about a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In making her decision to back out of the memorial — seemingly set off by a tweet critical of Rabin from Alex Kane, a contributing writer at Jewish Currents — Ocasio-Cortez consulted with at least two far-left Jewish groups, Jewish Voice for Peace Action and IfNotNow, according to representatives from both organizations who declined to disclose the particulars of the discussions.

The groups told JI that they have met and been in contact with Ocasio-Cortez throughout her time in Congress. “We have had ongoing conversations with her office since she was elected in 2018, about a number of issues,” said Yonah Lieberman, a co-founder of IfNotNow. 

Beth Miller, senior government affairs manager at Jewish Voice for Peace Action, the political and advocacy arm of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, said that the group’s local leaders in New York, as well as its Palestinian partners, have met with Ocasio-Cortez in her district. In addition, Miller said that Jewish Voice for Peace Action has communicated with the congresswoman’s office to offer resources and thoughts on issues including “initiatives to protect Palestinian rights.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s involvement with the aforementioned groups suggests a selective level of involvement with the Jewish community. Over the last two years, Ocasio-Cortez appears to have only participated in three publicly known Jewish events in New York.

Just before taking office, Ocasio-Cortez appeared at a Hanukkah celebration at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center in Queens. The event — at which the congresswoman, who is Catholic and of Puerto Rican descent, surprised audience members by announcing that her lineage included Sephardic Jews who had escaped Spain during the Inquisition — was organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the progressive advocacy group whose members have spoken with Ocasio-Cortez “many times in the past,” according to the organization’s political director, Rachel McCullough. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a 2018 visit to the Bronx House. (Courtesy)

“Shortly after taking office, I invited AOC to visit,” said Howie Martin, CEO of Bronx House, a Jewish community center in the Bronx. “I had convinced her staff that she needed to be out in the community.” Ocasio-Cortez accepted his invitation, speaking to the senior center and reading to a class of pre-K children. “It was a very nice event and many members and representatives of the Jewish community were in attendance,” Martin said, adding that since the event, “we have not had any contact with her or her staff.”

And in January, as a show of solidarity with the Jewish community, Ocasio-Cortez participated in a widely attended march against antisemitism, telling an Israeli Channel 12 reporter that it was “incredibly important” for her to show up and “make a very strong and unequivocal stance against the rising tide of antisemitism.”

Still, several local Jewish leaders are calling on the congresswoman to engage more deeply with the Jewish community, including with individuals who support the State of Israel. 

“We certainly appreciate AOC marching alongside us at the rally to fight antisemitism,” David Greenfield, CEO of the Met Council and a former New York City Council member, told JI. “However, antisemitism comes in many shapes and forms. The most nefarious being antisemitism that is cloaked in anti-Israel propaganda. I wish she would take the time to engage with her constituents and so many New Yorkers who passionately support Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland.”

A local community activist who lives in the congresswoman’s district echoed that sentiment, telling JI that members of the community are dismayed by her lack of direct outreach. Among them are liberal Zionists and Jews who agree with her on domestic progressive issues but “have been disappointed with her lack of follow-through and with her reluctance to support pro-Israel causes in Congress.”

In early 2019, Ocasio-Cortez did meet with members of a local chapter of J Street. A J Street spokesperson told JI the meeting was part of the group’s direct contact and engagement with members of Congress at the local level.

However, according to a source close to AIPAC, a group that until 2018 frequently boasted of its ability to meet with all 535 members of Congress and the Senate around its annual policy conference, Ocasio-Cortez herself has not met with any AIPAC members from New York. Some local AIPAC activists were able to meet with her staff, the source noted. The congresswoman also declined an invitation to join other freshman members on an AIPAC-affiliated trip to Israel in August of 2019. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to requests for comment from JI regarding her engagement with the Jewish community in New York.

The freshman congresswoman is widely considered the most prominent member of the high-profile “Squad,” which boasts two members — Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — who are in favor of boycotting the Jewish state and have been critical of pro-Israel groups. 

During her time on the Hill, Ocasio-Cortez has authored letters and cast votes that are tough on Israel. The congresswoman was one of just 17 representatives to vote against a House resolution condemning BDS on the grounds that the bill was a threat to free speech, and she recently spearheaded a letter, signed by other progressive representatives, threatening to condition aid to Israel over annexation. 

Ocasio-Cortez also drew ire for comparing ICE’s migrant detention centers to “concentration camps,” an analogy that several Jewish leaders said diminished the legacy of the Holocaust. In a lengthy radio conversation last summer — one of the few interviews in which she has publicly discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community — Ocasio-Cortez defended her word choice. 

“I didn’t pull that word out of anywhere,” she said. “Academics, historians, people who study political science, they all started coming and saying, ‘This is what this is’ before I did. I just amplified what the experts were already saying, and people tried to make this about antisemitism, too,” she added. “But I never said these were Holocaust-style concentration camps or death camps. We have had concentration camps before in the United States when we interned Japanese Americans.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s district in the eastern Bronx is home to few Jewish constituents. According to Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan, her district was heavily Jewish in the 1940s, but data compiled by the Berman Jewish DataBank, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America, estimates that the number of Jews in the district now only accounts for about 4% of the population, or roughly 28,000 constituents.

“She doesn’t need them,” Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, told JI. “The district doesn’t have lots of Jews, and if she has a Jewish constituency within it, they’re more to the left and they’re younger and are less affiliated. They have less relationship to communal activities and communal groups. So why would she worry about it?”

“The movement that she’s creating has nothing to do with Israel, and really doesn’t need members of the pro-Israel community for funding,” Sheinkopf added, alluding to the changing role of money in campaigns. “She can’t do anything that would upset her own applecart, and being too close to Israeli issues or Jews who are on the right or center-right would in fact interfere with parts of her movements.”

However, Stu Loeser, a longtime political consultant in New York, suggested that it would be a mistake to assume that Ocasio-Cortez is not actively engaged with her Jewish constituents. “They are hearing from her as much in social media and regular media as anyone,” Loeser said, adding his speculation that the complaints some mainstream Jewish organizations have lobbed in her direction could be influencing Jewish constituents to regard her in a negative light.

“That makes it difficult for her to communicate with traditional Jewish organizations within her district,” Loeser said. 

Outside of her district, a number of Jewish leaders remain frustrated that Ocasio-Cortez has been aloof.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said his group reached out to the congresswoman around the time she was elected. “There was no interest demonstrated,” he said. 

Until recently, Hoenlein was open to pursuing a line of dialogue with Ocasio-Cortez, but he told JI that her decision to pull out of the Rabin event convinced him that a meeting was no longer of interest because he believes she is too politically extreme. 

“I would not dignify her now by having a meeting,” he said.

Yet some Jewish leaders aren’t giving up on her just yet, mindful of the strong possibility that Ocasio-Cortez will be a part of New York’s congressional delegation for some time and is likely to pursue higher office.

“AOC herself has talked about her interest to ‘learn and evolve,’” said NYJA’s Nosanchuk, alluding to a 2018 PBS interview in which Ocasio-Cortez promised to take a more measured approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than she had before she sought public office. “We feel that we can be a voice within the Jewish community with which she and others can meaningfully engage — and that, while we will have differences in some areas, in other areas we believe that we can find common ground.”

JCRC’s Miller expressed a similar hope. “I would like to educate and be part of that evolution,” he said, “if myself and many others would be allowed into the inner sanctum.”

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