Bill de Blasio seems to be spending a lot of time worrying about Jews in Europe.
The New York City mayor has visited two different Upper East Side synagogues in the past month to deliver addresses about attacks on French Jews. He went to Paris for less than 24 hours in January to lay wreaths at the sites of the Hyper Cacher and Charlie Hebdo attacks, and to meet with French Jewish leaders. He released a statement about a vandalized Jewish cemetery in France on the afternoon of a federal holiday.
“The reason I went to Paris was because we as Americans — we have some responsibility here to say to our European brothers and sisters that we cannot accept a repeat of history,” de Blasio said on February 19, at one of the synagogue events. “That indifference only leads us down a very dangerous path.”
Those who know the mayor say that his concern is genuine; that he has a decades-long relationship with the Jewish community stretching back to his years as a New York City Council member; and that as mayor of the city with the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, he feels an obligation to speak out on attacks against Jews elsewhere.
But it might also be about smart politics.
The attacks on European Jews come at a time when the mayor is facing rock-bottom approval ratings among white New Yorkers. Though de Blasio has overall approval of 49%, according to a Quinnipiac poll released January 16, his approval among white voters is just 32%.
Quinnipiac doesn’t break out Jews from among those white New Yorkers, but Jewish voters make up a sizable portion of that white voting bloc, and one that reliably makes it to the polls. Losing the Jewish vote can help sink a liberal mayor, as was the case with David Dinkins, in whose administration de Blasio served. The mayor has run into trouble with some influential Jewish groups in recent months, particularly the Orthodox Union, which is dissatisfied with his universal pre-kindergarten program’s treatment of religious schools.
“You have to run for reelection, and election coalitions tend to be rather fluid in New York,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Very important constituencies have been ethnically and racially defined in New York, and Jews have been for a very long time a significant ethnic-slash-religious group of voters.”
It’s not the only time in recent weeks that the mayor has made conspicuous efforts to reach out to Jews. In late February, de Blasio made an unannounced stop at the wedding of the son of Rabbi David Twersky, the controversial leader of the Skver Hasidic sect in Rockland County, New York. Twersky, who is seen as nearly godlike by his followers, rules the Hasidic village of New Square with an iron fist. A Forward expose by Frimet Goldberger published in December found that Twersky refused to respond to allegations of child sex abuse in the community brought to his attention.
A video posted by the Jewish blog JP Updates appeared to show de Blasio bending to kiss Twersky’s hand. Though a powerful bloc in state politics, Skver has relatively few followers in New York City.
And on February 24, the mayor reached an agreement with a handful of ultra-Orthodox groups to roll back some regulations on a controversial circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh, long an issue of contention among the ultra-Orthodox.
One of de Blasio’s Upper East Side synagogue visits to talk about the plight of European Jews was to Park East, a tony Modern Orthodox congregation led by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor and longtime interfaith activist. A choir of school children sang the national anthems of Israel, the United States and France.
Schneier hosted Pope Benedict XVI at his congregation in 2008, and in 2013 his Appeal of Conscience Foundation gave a religious freedom award to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, despite protest from Indonesian human rights advocates.
The Park East event featured French Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia, who used his own speech to compare the aftermath of the French attacks to the aftermath of 9/11. “I was yesterday [at the] memorial [to] 9/11, and I think we have to learn here, in New York… how to take hope after something very difficult for everybody,” Korsia said.
De Blasio, for his part, spoke about the need for vigorous response to threats to Jewish communities, and drew direct parallels between the current climate and the atmosphere that gave rise of the Third Reich.
“There were people like us, people who were involved and concerned, and people of faith, and people who read about the news of the world in the 1920s and the 1930s, who may have underestimated the threat at hand. They may have hoped someone, somewhere would deal with it,” de Blasio said at Park East. “It’s our moment to say, we don’t like this trend we see, we don’t find it acceptable, we don’t allow anyone a pass.”
The comments echoed similar statements and speeches the mayor has made over the past month. The mayor traveled to Paris on January 20, 11 days after the shootings in the Hyper Cacher and 13 days after the Charlie Hebdo attack. It was a whirlwind trip, which began with a 10:00 a.m. wreath-laying at the Hyper Cacher site and including a private meeting and press availability with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
The next day, back in New York, the mayor admitted in a press conference that the trip had left him tired. “I have to say, particularly in my visits with Jewish community leaders, to hear the fear that people in the Jewish community in Paris feel right now was really troubling,” de Blasio said on January 21.
In addressing a foreign policy issue, de Blasio is joining a long line of New York City mayors who have used the prominence of their bully pulpit to speak on things that take place outside of the five boroughs.
“New York City mayors conduct their own foreign policy,” Fuchs said.
Mayor Dinkins gave Nelson Mandela the symbolic key to New York City in 1990, just months after his release from a South African prison. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani became an international figure after 9/11. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled widely, including a 2003 trip to Israel in the aftermath of a suicide bombing that killed 20.
These trips serve practical purposes for the city, raising visibility and, at times, goodwill. They also serve political purposes for the mayors who undertake them. Sometimes that purpose can be the burnishing of foreign policy credentials ahead of a run for higher office. Other times it can simply be the firming-up of ethnic coalitions ahead of a reelection campaign.
“What he’s doing is creating a perception, wisely so, that he really is with everybody in their time of crisis,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a conservative Democratic political consultant. “Good ethics are good politics. The ethical stand is to stand with Jews being attacked in Europe. That’s good ethics and it’s good politics.”
Still, observers cautioned that in this case, de Blasio’s interest is rooted in his actual political history, and not invented for points.
“We live in a cynical world, and no place is more cynical than New York City,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant. “The reality is it doesn’t have to be a cynical motivation.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.