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In a break with tradition, NYC council members head to Israel without their speaker

12 members are on the annual trip, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York

A dozen members of the New York City Council departed Monday on a weeklong educational trip to Israel. But unlike previous trips sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, the delegation is not led by the chamber’s speaker. That office, the second-most powerful government position in America’s largest city, is now held by Councilwoman Adrienne Adams. 

Prior heads of the City Council, going back to the body’s first speaker, Peter Vallone Sr., selected the members of the delegation and led the mission. Two members of the Council, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said Adams declined to take part in the planning and wasn’t interested in leading the trip. That job has fallen to Councilmember Eric Dinowitz, chair of the New York City Jewish Caucus. Adams was elected after a hard-fought contest in January. (She is not related to Mayor Eric Adams.)

The annual JCRC trip was a contentious issue in the 2021 city elections. The Democratic Socialists of America then required candidates who sought their endorsement to pledge not to travel to Israel if elected. The DSA later clarified that it referred specifically to the annual JCRC trips. The City Council now has four members who are affiliated with the DSA and another dozen who came to electoral politics from progressive social movements.

A Forward survey last year, in partnership with New York Jewish Agenda, showed that a majority of candidates pledged to continue the tradition of traveling to Israel and the occupied West Bank if elected and oppose the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Sophie Ellman-Golan, a spokesperson for Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, a progressive advocacy group that formed an electoral arm, The Jewish Vote, in 2018 to support local candidates for office, said it advised members to refrain from going on this trip. 

The office of Speaker Adams did not reply to an inquiry about whether she did not participate in the trip because she was concerned about backlash from some progressive members of the council. But a council spokesperson said Adams determined it was “prudent” to remain in New York to focus on budget issues amid “multiple crises” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The official added that the mayor issued an updated financial plan earlier this month to balance the 2023 budget passed in June, and that the speaker wanted to stay in New York to ensure city government maintained adequate services for all communities across the city, “including our more than one million Jewish New Yorkers.”

Mayor Adams is traveling abroad this week — to Athens to attend a global gathering on combating antisemitism. 

The JCRC trips have a three-decade history with the City Council. Each year the group takes council members and other local politicians on an educational mission in which they meet with top officials as well as Jewish and Arab community leaders and journalists, and tour historical and strategic sites. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a pro-Israel progressive from New York and a former councilman from the South Bronx, said that his first trip to Israel in 2015, with the JCRC, helped him form his views of the Jewish state.

This year’s delegation includes 12 members — about the number that usually sign up. Most have never been to Israel before. The 51-member chamber includes 32 first-term lawmakers. 

Gideon Taylor, JCRC’s chief executive, said the group seeks to “show Israel from all perspectives and hope for a deeper understanding of the complex situation in that region.” 

Ellman-Golan said that JFREJ told members to decline to participate in the trip, not only to deal with budget issues, but also because “the emerging governing coalition in Israel includes the most overtly violent, racist, and extremist factions history of the State of Israel — and the trip fails to be in any way evenhanded and show the reality of state and settler violence against Palestinians.” 

A City Council staffer who requested anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations said Adams’ style is simply different from her predecessors’ and that she often prefers to empower others, such as entrusting leadership of the Israel trip to the Jewish Caucus. 

The JCRC did not immediately provide a list of names of members on the trip. However, according to a list shared with the Forward, Dinowitz is the only member of the Jewish Caucus who is part of the trip.

Dinowitz wrote on Twitter as the group departed on Monday afternoon: “With NYC having the largest Jewish population in the world, outside of Israel, I am so thankful for this amazing opportunity to travel, learn and share experiences with each other.” 

The council spokesperson said Adams will hold a roundtable with the members on the trip when they return “and believes their representation — that includes members of her leadership team — allows the body to fulfill its multiple priorities.”

Editors note: This post was updated to include the final list of participants on the trip and additional information.

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