Campus beat

Bill de Blasio presses the ‘progressive case for Israel’ at Harvard

Speaking to Harvard Law students, the ex-NYC mayor seeks to dispel 'horrible stereotype' that progressives don't support Israel, even as he fears for the 'future of democracy in Israel'

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a press conference after witnessing police being retrained with new guidelines at the Police Academy on December 4, 2014, in in New York City.

Bill de Blasio, the former mayor of New York City, wasn’t sure what to expect when, a week ago, he met with a diverse group of students at Harvard Law School to defend his long-held belief that progressive values are compatible with, if not contingent upon, maintaining support for Israel.

The topic of the event was sure to be met with at least some resistance, particularly on a campus like that of Harvard University, where instances of anti-Israel activism have drawn national scrutiny in recent months.

But de Blasio said he was largely encouraged by the response to his talk, billed as “The Progressive Case for Israel” and held in a classroom at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 28. “We had a real dialogue, and folks were struck by that,” de Blasio told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “There was actually a sustained discussion.”

Even as the tenor of the discussion “was at times heated” and “at times a little tense,” he acknowledged, “it was still civil in the scheme of things.”

“I heard views I would call left-wing, views I would call right-wing, views I would call pro-Israel and views I would call pro-Palestine,” de Blasio recounted. “I heard a range in the course of an hour, and no one left the room, no one walked out. People stuck with it. I actually saw some hope in that.”

De Blasio, who recently concluded a semester-long fellowship at Harvard, was asked to speak at the university by the Alliance for Israel at Harvard and the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, which co-hosted the event.

“Bill de Blasio served for two terms as mayor of New York City, which has the highest Jewish population of any city across the globe,” Marc Heinrich and Ari Spitzer, co-presidents of the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association, wrote in a joint email to JI. “We were honored to co-host Mayor de Blasio and hear him speak to the greater Harvard Law School community about how New York’s Jewish community impacted his core values as a public servant.”

As a veteran Democrat who built strong relationships with Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn while in office, de Blasio, 61, said he was eager to reflect on such experiences at the Harvard event. “I talked about meeting Holocaust survivors, and, very powerfully, one woman who showed me and my family the tattoo on her arm from Auschwitz,” he said, recalling “a shock of recognition that the violence associated with antisemitism was so real and so recent and, horribly, continuing all over the world.”

“That’s one of the reasons that, to me, we cannot underestimate for a moment the challenges Jewish people face in this world, and why the State of Israel is absolutely needed as a refuge,” de Blasio insisted. “That does not negate other legitimate issues that need to be addressed, and it certainly doesn’t negate the valid concerns of Palestinians. But my central thesis is, progressives are supposed to stand up for oppressed peoples.”

The invitation to speak at Harvard, de Blasio elaborated, was also an opportunity to “dispel” what he described as “a horrible stereotype that suggests that some vast number of progressives are not supportive of the State of Israel.”

“I think that’s just absolutely inaccurate and based on no evidence, and I think it’s important to bear witness,” he added. “There’s a lot of us who support the State of Israel. Many of us don’t agree with the Netanyahu government, but we support the State of Israel.”

Speaking with JI, de Blasio emphasized that he is troubled by the direction of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose effort to advance a controversial judicial overhaul has drawn mass protests across the Jewish state. “I think the actions of the Netanyahu government are extremely worrisome,” he said. “I am worried about the future of democracy in Israel.”

He clarified, however, that such concerns, which have recently been echoed by a growing number of Democratic leaders, are consistent with a pro-Israel outlook. “You can still love Israel and support the State of Israel but acknowledge it has a democracy problem,” he said, “just like I love America and acknowledge my own country has a democracy problem.”

“The notion that sometimes people are accused of antisemitism if they disagree with the current Israeli government is obviously outlandish and needs to be called out,” de Blasio added. “That came up in the dialogue, and I said, ‘I know so many leaders who are deeply respectful of the Jewish experience and happen to disagree with the Israeli government, and there’s no contradiction.’ I think that has to be understood better.”

Last summer, de Blasio raised some eyebrows when he dropped his support for AIPAC during a brief run for an open congressional seat in Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. His objection to the pro-Israel lobbying group, which he had long defended, was that its political arm had recently targeted a fellow progressive Democrat, Nina Turner, in a Cleveland-area House primary. 

During that election, Jewish voters in Cleveland had expressed reservations over Turner’s approach to Israel, which drew attack ads from pro-Israel groups including a super PAC affiliated with AIPAC.

In an interview with JI last June, de Blasio defended his decision to denounce AIPAC, noting that he did not agree with all of Turner’s Middle East policy positions but remained loyal to her as a friend. The New York Democrat, who visited Israel during his second year as mayor, maintained that he “can simultaneously be a very proud progressive and a very proud supporter of Israel,” adding, “I don’t see any contradiction.”

The recent event at Harvard was, in many ways, a continuation of that argument, as he reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and underscored his opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, among other things.

His remarks came days before Harvard’s Arab Conference, where an outspoken supporter of BDS who has been accused of antisemitism, the former Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour, delivered a keynote address in which she exhorted students to protest “apartheid” Israel. The consulting giant McKinsey & Company, which sponsored the event, announced on Monday that it had “stepped away” from the conference after learning that one speaker, whom it did not identify by name, “had a history of antisemitic comments.”

The weekend speech from Sarsour followed other examples in which debates over Israel have stirred controversy at Harvard. Last year, the editorial board of its student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, endorsed the BDS movement, drawing a sharp rebuke from the student president of Harvard Hillel, among others.  (The paper’s news team covered the Blasio event last week.) In 2016, third-year law student Husam El-Qoulaq, invoked an antisemitism trope during a question-and-answer period at an event with former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

In January, meanwhile, the Harvard Kennedy School said it would grant a fellowship to the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, after the school’s dean had reportedly vetoed its initial offer amid concerns over Roth’s apparent hostility to Israel.

“I think, in academia, it’s important to respect and hear a diversity of voices,” de Blasio said of the Roth dustup. “That’s my only comment on that.”

As a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health this past semester, de Blasio said he had been invited to speak with Jewish and Muslim groups but never had the chance to engage with students together, as he did last week.

“It’s great to speak to people of different viewpoints separately, but it’s especially powerful to bring everyone in the room and be like, ‘let’s hash it out,’” he told JI. “I don’t mean that’s like, you know, kumbaya. I don’t mean it’s going to be easy. But if we’re not devoted to that kind of open dialogue and having the tough conversations, then we are accepting of an absolutely unacceptable status quo.”

During the question-and-answer session of the discussion, de Blasio, who is now a visiting fellow at New York University and American University in Washington, D.C., said he heard from both Palestinian and Muslim students who voiced what he characterized as “very real concerns” about the content of his argument.

“What I tried to do was listen and give them the chance to get their whole statement or question out, even if I disagreed with some elements of it, and answer as someone who respects the Muslim community,” he explained. “Beginning with the atmosphere of, I believe, respect and willingness to listen, doesn’t mean watering down my views. But I do think encouraging dialogue, being willing to take tough questions, is valuable unto itself.”

One student attendee, Ben, a second-year law student at Harvard who declined to share his last name, affirmed the former mayor’s assessment in an email shared with JI. “I couldn’t get over the diverse perspectives that we got to hear from: Israelis, Jewish progressives, right-wing evangelicals, pro-Palestine activists,” he said in a message sent to the Harvard Jewish Law Students Association after the event. “It was intense, exciting and thought-provoking.”

De Blasio, for his part, said he considers it a minor if ultimately meaningful achievement that the conversation did not devolve into a shouting match or result in a walk-out.

“This is a microcosm of what we have to do for our country and for the Middle Eastern region in general,” he suggested. “It was a very, very small, localized first step at Harvard, but it was better than never being in the room together.”

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