Democratic Socialists of the New York City Council?

A debate that began with a controversial candidate questionnaire from the DSA comes as the group is working to deepen its involvement in city politics

The question, despite being buried at the end of a lengthy survey, seemed tailor-made to incite a bitter dispute over Israel.

Last August, the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a combative grassroots organization with a growing presence in local politics, distributed a questionnaire asking that City Council candidates pledge not to visit Israel if elected — and drew fierce and immediate backlash. 

Facing accusations of antisemitism for singling out the Jewish state, the DSA claimed it was simply opposed to elected officials accepting sponsored trips led by groups like the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York — which represents the Jewish community to New York government officials and counts more than 50 local Jewish groups as members — while clarifying that it had no objection to councilmembers visiting Israel “in a personal capacity.”

But nearly a year later, the questionnaire remains a fraught and emotionally charged topic, particularly among Jewish community leaders who fear that support for Israel is waning among Democratic candidates as the far left increasingly makes inroads in New York City. Those concerns have grown in the lead-up to the June 22 primary, where six DSA-backed candidates are competing in open-seat City Council races ahead of a massive turnover in the legislative body.

“The questionnaire was a harbinger of things to come,” Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “We’re now going to discover that supporters of Israel are going through increasing challenges on the City Council.”

With its new slate of candidates running in districts across Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the DSA is hoping to establish a beachhead in citywide politics after notching recent electoral gains at the state and federal levels. Five DSA-endorsed candidates won election to the state legislature last year, while Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), two of the most prominent progressives in Congress, both pulled off surprise primary upsets with backing from the socialist group.

While local politicians in New York wield no meaningful influence over foreign policy, pro-Israel sentiment was once something of a prerequisite for building a successful political career in a city that is home to the largest Jewish population in the country — outgoing Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, enthusiastically toured the Jewish state during his second year in office. 

But the DSA is now testing whether that supposition still holds as a growing number of progressives have become increasingly comfortable shunning Israel or denouncing the Jewish state outright. The recent conflict between Israel and Hamas seems to have accelerated that dynamic in New York City, as some mayoral candidates received backlash for supporting Israel — most notably Andrew Yang, who was publicly ridiculed by Ocasio-Cortez and heckled at a campaign stop in Queens for his comments condemning “Hamas terrorists.” In a follow-up statement posted to Twitter, the former presidential candidate expressed deep contrition for excluding Palestinians from his initial remarks. 

All of the DSA-backed Council candidates spoke out on social media last month as tensions escalated in the Middle East, voicing their exclusive support for the Palestinians — messages the DSA vociferously retweeted.

The DSA, which formally endorsed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in 2017 — and promotes an anti-imperialist agenda that includes ending “US complicity in Israeli apartheid, occupation, and other violations of Palestinian rights,” according to its New York City branch website —  seems eager to back candidates who agree with the vote. The only other foreign policy-related question in its recent questionnaire, an amended version of which is posted online, asked candidates whether they support BDS — but only required an explanation for those who answered in the negative.

According to Michael Whitesides, a spokesperson for the New York City branch of the DSA, all of the candidates the organization has endorsed this cycle support BDS, even if some appear to be reluctant to discuss the movement openly. Whitesides emphasized that the questionnaire isn’t a litmus test but suggested that “it would be difficult for a candidate who didn’t support BDS to earn our endorsement.”

As for the pledge, Arthur Schwartz, a City Council candidate in Manhattan who recently earned the backing of Ocasio-Cortez, said he sought the DSA’s endorsement even though he declined to abjure visiting Israel. His application was rejected, but he said it wasn’t because of his answer on Israel. “I was told that the reason they turned me down was my work to try to stop a busway on 14th Street,” he told JI, “so it wasn’t because I said that I would visit Israel.”

Arthur Schwartz (Facebook)

Still, Whitesides said the pledge was taken out of consideration during the interview process last fall following the uproar; but did not specify how its endorsed candidates answered. “There was an unfortunate miswording in that questionnaire that misconstrued the meaning,” Whitesides said, adding that future questionnaires for state and City Council candidates will include a question about BDS. 

The pledge — a version of which Whitesides was unsure the DSA would add to future surveys, which are still in the works — was not included in questionnaires for state candidates seeking endorsements in 2019, according to Whitesides, because “state officials are not given the same types of opportunities or pressure to take the same types of trips” to Israel as councilmembers. 

The JCRC, which has been leading missions to Israel for more than two decades, lists a number of recent State Assembly missions on its website. Whitesides did not provide a clarification when pressed on this matter.

Two DSA-endorsed candidates responded to requests for comment from JI about how they would approach Israel and BDS while in office. “We believe in the human rights of all people and the right of people to live free from occupation,” Michael Hollingsworth, a tenant organizer who is running for Council in Crown Heights, said in a statement. “That’s why our campaign supports BDS and stands in solidarity with Palestinans who are protesting military occupation.”

A spokesperson for Brandon West, who was recently a campaign manager at the Center for Popular Democracy and is competing for a seat in Park Slope, echoed that language. “The Brandon West campaign stands in solidarity with the Palestinian-led, BDS movement in their pursuit of freedom, justice and equality,” the spokesperson said. “Brandon West remains steadfast in his commitment to fighting for a just and equitable city that works for all working-class people.”

The other candidates who are running in Tuesday’s primary include Tiffany Cabán, who ran unsuccessfully for Queens district attorney in 2019 and is now vying to represent Astoria; Alexa Avilés, a community organizer in South Brooklyn; Adolfo Abreu, an organizer in the Bronx; and Jaslin Kaur, an organizer in Eastern Queens.

Though the City Council passed a resolution condemning BDS in 2016, KC Johnson, a professor of American history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, predicts that calls to boycott and impose economic sanctions on Israel will become increasingly common if a DSA-endorsed candidate wins any of the races. “My sense is that questions related to Israel will become more politicized,” he said in an email to JI, envisioning possible scenarios in which the City Council pressures New York City colleges and universities to endorse BDS while passing “resolutions condemning Israeli security actions.”

“Moreover, the faltering of the Yang campaign after AOC’s attack on him shows how DSA sympathizers are likely to target politicians who express even generic sympathy for Israeli civilians,” Johnson added, using a popular shorthand for Ocasio-Cortez.

But BDS isn’t supported by just the DSA’s candidates. John Choe, a Democratic City Council candidate in Flushing, supports the movement despite never appearing to have commented publicly about it, according to a woman who applied to work on his campaign and asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the discussion. During the interview in December, she said, Choe brought up his support for BDS unbidden, wondering aloud if his views on Israel would, given her Jewish identity, be a problem for her as a potential member of his staff.

“If you think a Jew is going to be uncomfortable with BDS then perhaps there’s something problematic about BDS,” she told JI. 

Taken aback, she replied that Choe’s support for BDS was a “red line” and that she no longer wished to be considered for the position. But she was equally disturbed that he had connected her Jewish identity with BDS, sentiments she later expressed to him in a lengthy email she shared with JI. 

Later, in January, they spoke via Zoom, the recording of which she also shared with JI. In the exchange, which was respectful and went on for about 40 minutes, Choe apologized for making her uncomfortable while adding that her reaction had caused him to reach out to Jewish constituents in the district in an effort to understand their concerns more proactively.

John Choe (Facebook)

In the recording, Choe emphasized that he was still a supporter of BDS as part of an effort to “recognize the human rights and civil rights of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian, to end the occupation of Palestinian lands, and to recognize the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” 

Still, he suggested that her reaction to his comments in the interview left him feeling unsure if he had developed an appropriate way to broach the topic in conversation. “I guess I have to figure out how to talk about this issue,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m a little tongue-tied right now because I don’t feel like I have a language, actually, to speak about this issue in a respectful way. And so, maybe I shouldn’t even bring it up in conversations right now. But that’s kind of what’s in my head right now.”

Despite his apology, the woman remains discouraged by what transpired. “If you think a Jew is going to be uncomfortable with BDS then perhaps there’s something problematic about BDS,” she told JI. 

Choe’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

The tense interaction illustrates how, in some instances, BDS is seeping into New York City politics and stoking division at the local level — a dynamic some Jewish community members credit to the DSA.

“It’s disappointing, really, that the DSA decided to insert Israel into the local political process and has made it this sort of do-or-die issue for their candidates,” said a prominent Jewish community leader who is active in local politics and asked to remain nameless while wading into the thorny issue. “It speaks to their broader goal of creating what is, in my view, essentially a purity test.”

But others question whether the DSA’s opposition to Israel is politically wise as it mounts campaigns in some districts with large Jewish populations. “My sense of what’s going on now is that this is no longer viewed as a positive endorsement because of that earlier litmus test,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of political science at Columbia University and a vice president at JCRC, referring to the pledge. “You’ve basically created an image for yourself of intolerance.”

“It was very interesting to learn that these policy points the DSA is asking their members to adhere to really don’t represent the will of the electorate,” Leb suggested in an interview with JI.

The New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive advocacy group, in partnership with The Forward,  recently surveyed a wide swath of City Council candidates and found that they were overwhelmingly supportive of Israel. Most of the 65 respondents — or 84% — said they would be willing to visit Israel while in office, while 79% of those surveyed expressed opposition to BDS.

“New Yorkers are not so far left as one might believe from some of the reports that are out there,” said Matt Nosanchuk, who led the survey and is NYJA’s president and co-founder, told JI. 

None of the DSA-endorsed candidates appear to have responded to the NYJA questionnaire. 

Jeff Leb, a political consultant, recently commissioned a poll on a similar topic for two independent expenditure groups on which he serves as treasurer, Voters of NYC and Commons Sense NYC, which is targeting a number of progressive City Council candidates this cycle including those backed by the DSA. The poll, conducted by Schoen Cooperman Research, surveyed an average of 500 to 600 people in three separate districts where DSA candidates are running: Avilés, West and Kaur. 

In each of the districts, the poll found that respondents were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports Israel. In Avilés’s district, 53% of respondents — the highest number in the poll — said they were more likely to back a candidate who supports Israel, while 17% said they were less likely to do so. 

“It was very interesting to learn that these policy points the DSA is asking their members to adhere to really don’t represent the will of the electorate,” Leb suggested in an interview with JI.

Not all progressive candidates are eager to seek the DSA’s endorsement. Christopher Marte, a Democratic City Council candidate in Lower Manhattan, filled out the DSA’s questionnaire last year but decided not to pursue an endorsement, he said, after hearing back about an interview.

Chris Marte (Facebook)

“I’m not a socialist,” he told JI in an interview, emphasizing that he was more eager to win support from local Democratic clubs. “If that’s one of the main criterias of it, then I didn’t think I was going to get it, so we just decided to focus on the campaign.”

Marte, who has visited Israel with a program affiliated with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, did not reveal whether he has pledged not to visit the Jewish state but suggested that he disagreed with including the question. “For me, I have a different take on it, just because I’ve been there,” he said.

With four days remaining until the primary — and early voting almost over — Jewish community leaders are engaged in educating voters about the upcoming City Council elections. 

The Jewish community “is quite concerned” about the DSA, said Michael Nussbaum, the president of the Queens Jewish Community Council. His organization is involved in what he described as an intensive effort — including radio and print ads, robocalls and email blasts — encouraging Jewish New Yorkers to vote for their Jewish values next week without explicitly endorsing any one candidate because of its nonprofit status.

“The Jewish community should be on edge concerned and motivated to go vote,” said Daniel Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jewish assemblyman in Queens, who believes that the DSA has used language while speaking about Israel that he regards as unnecessarily inflammatory at a moment when antisemitic attacks, some of which coincided with the conflict with Gaza, have increased. 

Ethan Felder, a labor lawyer and Queens Democratic Party district leader, worries that such tensions will only intensify if the Jewish community remains passive in the face of growing anti-Israel sentiment on the left. “There’s an interconnection between what’s happening in the Middle East and what crosses into antisemitism,” said Felder, who describes himself as a progressive. “My opinion is the Jewish community needs to be very clear in explaining to people what antisemitism has always been, which is viewing Jewish people as swindlers and imposters, and why that’s exactly at the crux of what anti-Zionism is.”

“It is really very much a concern of mine as a Jewish political refugee who experienced antisemitism in my birth country and also have experienced it in the United States,” said Anna Kaplan, a Democratic state senator from Long Island who fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution. “But to see again in 2021 in New York? We’re having the same dialogue over and over again. It is very disheartening and very upsetting.”

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