Should candidates for office in NYC weigh in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Five of the eight leading candidates in the race for NYC mayor have chimed in on the recent violence between Israel and Hamas. And the two competitors for first place, Andrew Yang and Eric Adams, faced fierce backlash for expressing their support for Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
Yang tweeted, “I’m standing with the people of Israel who are coming under bombardment attacks, and condemn the Hamas terrorists” hours after Hamas launched a barrage of missiles from Gaza aimed at Jerusalem. But he issued an apology the next day after being confronted by pro-Palestinian activists on the campaign trail. He was also disinvited to an event to distribute food ahead of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.
Adams, the new frontrunner according to recent polls, also came under fire for a tweet defending Israel, before deleting it and re-publishing it an hour later. This prompted the largest Muslim-American voting bloc, Emgage, to remove his name from consideration for an endorsement after the coalition of Muslim advocacy groups rescinded their endorsement of Scott Stringer, the city’s comptroller, who has been accused of sexual harassment.
The blowback prompted questions within both campaigns: would it be wise for candidates running for office to refrain from weighing in on foreign policy issues, especially ones as controversial as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“Politicians as a collective group are not the bravest people, and they tend to avoid controversy wherever possible because controversy can cost votes,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic campaign consultant. Nonetheless, he said, his advice to candidates has always been that good ethics is good politics.
“The good politics here is what you think is appropriate morally, and morally the people of Israel are allowed to defend themselves,” he explained.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ignited controversy weeks after he assumed office in 2014 by telling a pro-Israel audience that “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC,” suggested that Yang and Adams were too fast to issue “a throwaway line or for expediency.” He maintained that politicians should speak from the heart and articulate their stance based on personal experience when commenting on complex issues.
Sheinkopf, who was a consultant for Mark Green’s campaign against Mike Bloomberg in 2001, said that Yang should have reconsidered backing off his original comments. “You can get away with not standing up for Israel,” he said, referring to the shifting views within the Democratic Party. “But what you can’t get away with is being in two places at the same time.”
David Greenfield, who has not endorsed any candidate as CEO of the Met Council, a New York-based Jewish charity, said that a majority of the 1.1 million Jews in New York — who are estimated to make up about 20% of the electorate in next month’s primary — expect candidates to take a strong pro-Israel position. But the challenge is that “it’s exceedingly difficult to weigh in on complex global issues in 280 characters or less,” continued Greenfield, a former Council member.
His advice: “Resist the urge to tweet and release detailed statements instead.”
Stringer, who is polling in third place, took that piece of advice. In a statement given to the Forward last week, Stringer said that he supported Israel’s right to defend its people from terrorist groups, but also urged them to exercise caution and restraint to prevent further loss of life.
Dianne Morales, who is backed by leading progressive groups, accused both Israel and Hamas of wrongdoing.
Sophie Ellman-Golan, a spokesperson for Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, suggested the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a local issue that requires the attention of the mayoral candidates. “New Yorkers have loved ones all over the globe, and are personally impacted by struggles all over the globe,” she said. “Anyone seeking to be mayor of our city must be able to have empathy for all their constituents — Palestinian New Yorkers and Israeli New Yorkers, Jewish New Yorkers and Muslim New Yorkers — especially at times like these.”
JFREJ’s political arm, The Jewish Vote, recently announced their endorsement of Morales as its first choice for mayor.
“Our next mayor must be able to take a firm and principled stance against state violence, discrimination, and ethnonationalism, both here and abroad,” said Ellman-Golan. “We have endured decades of mayoral administrations that make excuses for state violence and civil and human rights violations. No more.”
Matt Nosanchuk, president of the progressive advocacy group New York Jewish Agenda, said that in a city that prides itself on its internationalism, candidates shouldn’t ignore an issue of great global importance. At the same time, he maintained, they should be “giving voice to the silent majority in the Jewish community,” who support Israel’s security while also recognizing the tragedy suffered by Palestinians. Liberal Jews “don’t check their values at the border, and they care about Israel,” he said. “It’s inevitable that you are going to have to engage.”
Nosanchuk, who was a White House liaison to the Jewish community under President Obama, said that the candidates should “learn what the issues are and not assume that placating the political right checks the box on Israel and the Jewish community.”