for the record

Alessandra Biaggi distances herself from AOC on Israel

‘I support Israel,’ the New York state senator now running for Congress insisted, ‘not despite being a progressive but because I am progressive’

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi attends The Fashion Act Rally held by the Button and Needle Sculpture in Manhattan on February 12, 2022.

It was an early warning shot in a bitter primary battle that will test the strength of the activist left against a powerful incumbent who has recently drawn progressive wrath.

Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) endorsed New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi in her newly launched bid to dethrone Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), setting up a potentially bruising Democratic proxy battle of the sort that has figured prominently in recent intra-party matchups across the country, including in New York City and its surrounding suburbs.

For Biaggi, a political scion who represents portions of the Bronx and Westchester County, the high-profile nod was a progressive stamp of approval that has given her access to a robust grassroots fundraising network as she competes with a well-resourced opponent who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But it also comes with some baggage, not least among Jewish voters who view Ocasio-Cortez as hostile to Israel and are wondering where Biaggi stands in relation to the congresswoman.

During her time in office, Ocasio-Cortez has accused Israel of “apartheid,” threatened to condition U.S. aid to the Jewish state and opposed resolutions affirming support for a two-state solution and condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Following the conflict with Hamas in Gaza last year, she voted “present” on legislation providing supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. 

More recently, the Bronx lawmaker joined with her fellow Squad members in backing a controversial resolution that referred to Palestinians as the “indigenous inhabitants” of Israel but gave no recognition of Jewish history in the region.

All the while, she has largely distanced herself from mainstream Jewish leaders in New York City who have sought engagement.

In her first interview to address Middle East foreign policy questions since launching her campaign last month, Biaggi, 36, was eager to clarify that she disagrees with Ocasio-Cortez when it comes to Israel, even if the two progressives are aligned on such domestic policy proposals as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. “Just to be really succinct, there are issues that we differ on,” she said, “and our position on Israel is that.”

“I have consistently said, and I will consistently say here, too, that I support Israel,” Biaggi said in a phone conversation with Jewish Insider last Thursday. “I support it, not despite being a progressive, but because I am progressive.”

A spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment from JI.

It remains to be seen whether such arguments will resonate with the sizable number of Jewish voters in New York’s redrawn 17th Congressional District, which spans several counties in the Hudson Valley. Biaggi, who lives just outside the district but plans to relocate before the August primary, said she was in the process of conducting outreach to Jewish leaders in Rockland County and elsewhere when she spoke with JI late last week.

Meanwhile, in her current state Senate district, “a lot of people are alarmed,” said a Jewish community activist in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale who has long supported Biaggi but requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “Right now, there’s confusion because she is aligned with AOC on other things,” he told JI, using a popular shorthand for Ocasio-Cortez. “I understand where they’re coming from.”

But he cautioned against “drawing conclusions” too soon, at the risk of dismissing a potential ally before she has had the chance to clarify her views. “I think they’ll be happy to see that she’s progressive and she’s pro-Israel,” he said, revealing that Biaggi had already committed to making her first trip to Israel this summer with a group of local Jewish leaders. “If you write off the progressive community in totality,” he warned, “it could be very dangerous.”

Binyamin Krauss, the principal of SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school in Riverdale, described Biaggi as a “pragmatic progressive” who has been “open to learning” from Jewish community members on a range of issues. “She has expressed to me that she’s very supportive of Israel,” he told JI, “believing not only in Israel’s right to exist but to thrive.”

Still, he suggested, Biaggi will need to strike a delicate balance as she seeks to allay concerns over her affiliation with the far left while appeasing her progressive backers. “How she positions herself and how she allies herself in a very polarizing climate,” Krauss said, “is going to be challenging.”

Speaking with JI, however, Biaggi claimed she is well-equipped to navigate such tensions. “I’m someone who is, number one, fiercely independent in my thinking and my positions, and that is something that I find to be precious and something I protect fervently,” she boasted. “When it comes to positions specifically on Israel, my positions are my positions, and so they’re going to be different than some of the other House members.”

Ultimately, her views stem from a sensitivity to the history of Jewish persecution that, Biaggi explained, undergirds what she described as a deeply held appreciation for Israel’s foundation as a Jewish state. 

“It matters that Israel exists and that we support that existence and allow for Israel to be able to defend itself,” Biaggi told JI. “It’s very clear that there has not been a moment in time, from the beginning of time, where Jewish people were not either attempted to be persecuted or killed or erased from the planet, and to me, that is why Israel’s importance and existence is there. That is real for me.”

For similar reasons, Biaggi rejected the BDS movement as misguided, though she refrained from endorsing legislation that criminalizes efforts to participate in boycotts of Israel. “If people are going to support BDS, they have the right to do that,” she said. “However, I am not in support of it, and I never have been.”

Instead, she advocated for expanding ties between Israel and the range of Arab countries that, until recently, had maintained their own boycotts of the Jewish state. “I support the Abraham Accords because I’ve learned the history,” Biaggi said. “Normalizing relationships with Sunni-Arab nations is a really historic step in Arab-Israeli relations that, I think, will help to keep Israel safe.”

Those sentiments put her at odds with another progressive ally in the Bronx, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who has expressed support for her campaign. In February, the congressman announced he would withdraw his support for and vote against the Israel Relations Normalization Act, writing in a letter to constituents that the bipartisan legislation, aimed at bolstering the Abraham Accords, had “unhelpfully” alienated the Palestinians. 

Biaggi took an opposing position. “It’s important that we are really just encouraging communications between regions that historically have been against one another,” she said. The legislation, she argued, would “help to build on” such “successes and better integrate Israel into the region.”

Likewise, she described her support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “no-brainer,” and “the only way to secure peace and security for Israel” as well as “the Palestinian people.” Ending the conflict “should remain our number one goal,” Biaggi emphasized, adding that the U.S. could play “a key role in making that happen.” 

Echoing recent statements from the Biden administration, Biaggi criticized Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank as damaging to the prospects of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. “I just think it’s wrong,” she said. “We want to be able to allow for the Palestinians to live freely and to have the same kinds of freedoms that others around the world have, and I think that expanding settlements will undermine that.”

While some progressive lawmakers have called for withholding U.S. aid to Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, Biaggi, on the other hand, stopped short of backing such measures, clarifying that she is in favor of Iron Dome funding and, more broadly, supports continued security assistance, with no added conditions. 

“The aid that we’re giving to Israel supports the security of not just Israel but the Israeli people and all people who live in Israel,” Biaggi argued. “One of our main objectives is also to protect and to foster democracy around the world,” she elaborated, describing Israel as “our only democratic ally” in the region. “We should be very clear-eyed about our commitment to that goal.”

By advocating for policies aligned, by varying degrees, with the Democratic mainstream, Biaggi could effectively preempt attacks from pro-Israel groups that have frequently bedeviled left-leaning House challengers in primaries where more obvious differences over Middle East policy have emerged.

Most pro-Israel organizations have so far stayed away from the race, with the exception of the bipartisan lobbying group AIPAC, whose new political action committee endorsed Maloney in March, well before he had drawn a challenger and moved into a separate district. For the time being, United Democracy Project, an AIPAC-affiliated super PAC targeting several progressives this cycle, is “watching all the congressional races in New York” but hasn’t “made any decisions yet,” according to a spokesperson.

Even if pro-Israel advocates are willing to look past Biaggi’s association with Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile matchup has also exposed other Democratic fault lines that have sown division between moderates and progressives.

Recent polling released by the Maloney campaign suggests the race could be competitive with more than two months remaining until the primary election. While Biaggi was, at 15%, trailing by 30 points, the survey showed that Maloney had failed to clear the 50% threshold, a red flag for the five-term incumbent who, at 45%, pulled in only slightly more support than the percentage of voters who said they were undecided.

On Monday, the progressive Working Families Party announced it was pulling its support for Maloney and endorsing Biaggi instead, lending a crucial boost to her on-the-ground organizing efforts.

Biaggi proved she is capable of defying the odds in her first bid for public office four years ago, when she pulled off a surprise upset over former state Sen. Jeff Klein, whose chummy relationship with GOP lawmakers had made him one of Albany’s most powerful yet reviled Democrats. Her victory was part of a wave of progressive candidates who took down a prominent group of Democratic state senators known to caucus with Republicans.

Now, Biaggi is invoking a similar argument in her campaign to topple Maloney, accusing the 55-year-old congressman not only of enabling Republicans throughout his time in the House but opposing the advancement of signature Democratic policies such as the Affordable Care Act.

“Rep. Maloney’s record speaks for itself,” Mia Ehrenberg, a spokesperson for Maloney’s campaign, said in a statement to JI. “He has helped elect Democrats up and down the ballot, raising and contributing millions of dollars to candidates and party committees, campaigning for candidates, knocking doors, and rallying volunteers for his fellow Democrats. On the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Maloney has voted more than a dozen times to defend the law, supported efforts to expand ACA subsidies in the American Rescue Plan, and has always been a strong advocate of accessible, affordable health care.”

Biaggi had initially been running in a separate race to succeed outgoing Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), but found herself in limbo last month after the finalization of New York’s congressional map drew her out of New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which had mostly covered Long Island.

She launched her new bid, in mid-May, as Maloney faced widespread criticism for his decision to seek another term in a safer neighboring district held by Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), the freshman progressive who recently fled to a crowded open-seat House race in Manhattan. In forcing a potential primary fight without first having consulted with Jones, many Democrats believed Maloney had abandoned a mandate to protect fellow incumbents as the high-ranking leader of the House Democratic campaign arm.

Ocasio-Cortez, for one, had even called on Maloney to resign from his chairmanship before escalating with an endorsement of Biaggi, whom she had gotten to know in 2018 while mounting her own insurgent bid to unseat an entrenched House incumbent. “Alessandra has been here before — she knows what it takes to go up against powerful opponents and win,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote in a fundraising email last Tuesday. 

If not for Maloney’s recent gambit, which she described as “self-serving,” Biaggi claimed she would likely have returned to her state Senate seat.

“Running against Sean Patrick Maloney was not something that was on the vision board, so to speak,” she explained. “The reason I’m taking this risk and really running at full speed is because the risk of not having people in office who really actually have our backs, who are really putting the people first, is so much bigger to me than being reelected to the state Senate, where I know that seat is going to be solidly Democratic.”

While Biaggi said she had not informed Maloney of her challenge in advance, she “did call him before” deciding to run for the 3rd District in February. “He did not call me back,” she said indifferently. “But, you know, OK, whatever. Yeah, it’s fine, who cares. Totally fine.”

A spokesperson for Maloney, who currently represents New York’s 18th Congressional District, declined to comment on the record, but referred JI to remarks the congressman had made at a press conference where he explained his thinking on the race.

“From my point of view, I’m just running where I landed,” Maloney, whose residence was drawn into the new district, said last month. “If someone else is looking at the district, as well, obviously we’ll try and work through that as colleagues and friends. Ultimately, this is up to the voters, and that’s what it should be.”

Michael Lawler, a state assemblyman in Rockland County, is running in the Republican primary and is expected to advance to the November general election.

In the interview with JI, Biaggi said she is running “for the same reasons” she had originally jumped into the other race more than four months ago. “There’s nothing that has changed,” she averred, referring to a sense of “urgency” around such issues as abortion rights, climate change, gun violence, affordable housing and raising the minimum wage.

While in Albany, Biaggi, who leads the Senate Ethics Committee, chaired the state’s first sexual harassment hearing in 27 years and helped pass anti-harassment legislation that she has described as the “toughest” in the nation.

Locally, Jewish community members say, Biaggi has been on hand to address antisemitic vandalism, private school education and Holocaust remembrance initiatives, among other things.

“The Jewish community has been an incredible source of strength for me and also a source of community, and when I say source of strength, I mean both in learning but also in showing up for the community in times of great need,” she told JI. “Whether there were fires or there were other parts of the district that needed help with food distribution, this community has come together in a way that, I think, is really powerful.”

Before she assumed public office, the former lawyer served on Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and worked as an aide to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She was among the first elected officials to call for his resignation last year, amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct that precipitated his early departure from office.

If she is elected to the House, Biaggi would follow the path of her late grandfather, Mario, the Bronx congressman who, despite having resigned from office in 1988 amid a corruption scandal, is well-known among New York Democrats of a certain generation.

In the 17th District, Biaggi has encountered some voters who remember her grandfather, she said, including one man who said the congressman had once “caught” his mother “when she fell down a flight of stairs and saved her life.”

“I was like, ‘What?!’” Biaggi recalled. “‘OK, that’s incredible.’”

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist who knew and admired Mario Biaggi, said the congressman “cared about the Jewish people” and “was unswerving in his support” for Israel.

But he questioned whether Jewish voters will draw similar conclusions about the younger Biaggi, whose positions on Israel have yet to be tested. “She has the right name with the right history for those who know the history,” Sheinkopf said in an interview with JI. “And she has the wrong endorsements for those who are worried about the government moving away from the center and more to the left.”

Last week’s endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez, Sheinkopf speculated, could prove especially problematic, even as Biaggi seeks to convey that she is carving out an approach to Israel that sets her apart from the congresswoman.

“This is an area where I have really made a lot of progress and also have been really clear about my positions,” Biaggi said. “I’m not a close-minded, fixed-mindset person. Part of how I have grown my position is because I’m open-minded. I’m also a thoughtful person. I want to make sure that we’re putting our best foot forward in every way, and so, I think this is just one of those areas where we’re different.”