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NYC council candidate under fire for antisemitic tweets calls trips to Israel ‘propaganda’

Moumita Ahmed, one of the eight candidates running in the Feb. 2 non-partisan special election for the New York City Council seat vacated by former Councilman Rory Lancman, who took a job in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, said during a debate on Tuesday that she supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Last week, she came under fire over an alleged antisemitic tweet.

“I support the two-state solution and I support people’s right to boycott,” Ahmed said during a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Citizens Union, Queens Daily Eagle and the Gotham Gazette. “In my district, there are differences of opinions when it comes to that, so I want to make sure that I protect people’s First Amendment right to boycott.”

The 24th Council District includes the neighborhoods of Kew Garden Hills, Hillcrest and Jamaica Estates – all with significant Jewish populations. Lancman, who resigned in November to serve as a special counsel for ratepayer protection to the governor, said the Jewish community in the district he represented since 2014 “is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, and not just philosophically: they studied there, their children might be studying there now, family members live there.” Lancman, who said he has not endorsed a candidate in the race, added that an “anti-Israel advocate at any level of government anywhere is a threat” to the community, “and given the explosion in antisemitic hate crimes in New York City, a threat to me.”

Last week, Ahmed, who is aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), faced backlash for a tweet she published in February of 2015 in reply to a @PalestineGlobal tweet that contained an image of a baby with a bleeding bullet hole on its forehead and a red ribbon across its body with the Star of David. “My every heartbeat is for the children of Palestine,” she responded to the tweet.

During the forum this week, Ahmed apologized for the tweet. “Antisemitism is wrong. It is something that I’m committed to fighting against,” she said, “and I will show up for you every time you are under attack.”

But Ahmed said she would decline to take part in an annual sponsored trip to Israel by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRCNY), an initial requirement in a recent DSA questionnaire. The questionnaire asked New York City Council candidates to agree “not to travel to Israel if elected… in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation.” It was condemned by New York officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio and State Attorney General Tish James.

“I am not going to go on a trip that is furthering any sort of propaganda or any sort of rhetoric coming from [a] government that is expanding settlements in Palestinian lands, for example,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said she would seek the advice of the progressive Jewish Vote group — that supports her candidacy — before deciding whether to take a trip to Israel. Ahmed is also supported by the Working Families Party and earned the backing of former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

State Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal, who lives in the district and was a former aide to Lancman, criticized the “disparaging comments” by Ahmed about the JCRC trips as “completely unacceptable.”

Rosenthal came under attack by Palestinian protesters while visiting Ramallah on a 2018 trip to Israel. The trips, he said, provide lawmakers “a fully informed view of what is happening, and their showcasing a wide range of opinions is commendable.”

Everyone has the right to be critical of a policy or event they do not support,” Rosenthal added. But the BDS movement “as a whole refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. They apply hypocritical double standards and they target and seek to delegitimize non-connected actors.”

Another candidate, Soma Syed, who sought the DSA endorsement but didn’t end up getting it, said she too wouldn’t go on a sponsored trip to Israel – but out of principle not to travel to foreign countries on non-governmental sponsored trips. “I would go to Israel on my own funds, or if the New York City government pays for it, and that goes for every country,” she said.

Syed expressed support for BDS and agreed to the travel ban when she applied for the endorsement, but she has since backtracked and criticized the DSA. “I don’t support BDS,” she said, adding that she didn’t even make it through the screening process, “and as time went by, I realized BDS was not the right solution. It’s not okay to single out a country, a group of people who have been persecuted for centuries. The way to do that is to have dialogue, to bring our Jewish sisters and brothers to the table and create a two state solution.”

The remaining candidates at the forum – former Councilman James Gennaro, Deepti Sharma, Dilip Nath and Neeta Jain – all said they would go on a JCRC-sponsored trip to Israel.

Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email [email protected]

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