In a bygone era of New York City politics, you could always tell if a politician was serious about running for mayor if he made public plans to travel to the three “I’s”: Ireland, Italy and Israel. That sort of traditional ethnic politics in a city where Hispanics and African-Americans now are a majority of the population is out of fashion. There is not as much interest in the affairs of Ireland and Italy on the part of descendants of immigrants from those countries as there used to be. But in the city that still claims to have the largest Jewish population in the world (though the Tel Aviv metropolitan area has a larger number of Jews than greater New York), Israel still looms large in New York politics.
So when the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America sent out a questionnaire asking whether candidates for the 2021 elections for New York City Council would pledge not to travel to Israel, it showed that a sea change is underway in the politics of both New York and the Democratic Party.
In recent decades, political observers did not take the Democratic Socialists’ endorsements seriously. The DSA was a vestige of a bygone era left over from the time when the various strains of Socialists and rival groups of Trotskyites and Communists had large followings, especially among Jewish immigrants.
But in 2020, it’s no longer a remnant of the old left led by intellectual dinosaurs fueled by nostalgia for the Yiddish-speaking Bund.
With stars such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) headlining its efforts, the DSA is one of the fastest-growing and increasingly powerful political movements in the city, if not the country. In 2018, it elected two of its members to Congress: AOC and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). The “Squad” of four radical Democrats led by AOC, Tlaib and the equally controversial Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) will likely double in size in 2021. DSA member Jamaal Bowman defeated longtime incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and among the most stalwart defenders of Israel in Congress.
Just as important is the way the number of its officeholders is swelling in city and state elections. DSA members won seven more primaries, including five in which they knocked off mainstream Democrats in the New York legislature—a pattern begun in 2018 when AOC defeated Joe Crowley, one of the members of the House Democratic leadership.
This year, despite well-funded challengers supported by pro-Israel Democrats, all three of the above members of “The Squad” won their primaries with ease (the fourth member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, will head to the primaries on Sept. 1). Tlaib and Omar did so with the endorsements of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with no consideration given to whether their anti-Semitism or their support of the BDS movement should have marked them as beyond the pale for responsible Democrats.
It’s worth noting that Sen. Kamala Harris, who Democrats are set to nominate for vice president this week, and who is widely regarded as a friend of Israel and the Jews (via her Jewish husband, as well as what she has noted as a history of supporting JNF in her childhood) defended Omar last year after the Minnesota Congresswoman tweeted out anti-Semitic memes. Following the party line set by Pelosi and the Congressional Black Caucus, Harris thought the real issue brought up by her talk of dual loyalty and support for Israel being “all about the Benjamins,” was the way criticism of Omar’s anti-Semitism supposedly “put her at risk.”
Moreover, when one considers that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—the most visible Socialist in America—was again the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, it’s time to stop thinking of the DSA as an insignificant group.
During a week when Democrats will nominate Biden and Harris, who they are trying to sell to the country as moderates, any discussion of the DSA may seem off the topic. But the rise to prominence of AOC, who has a speaking slot at their virtual convention, and the DSA symbolizes the way the left has helped shift the Democrats to the left on a host of issues.
That’s why the efforts of the increasingly influential New York DSA to screen out Democrats who might support Israel are significant. As Politico noted last week, the radical wing of the party is looking to 2021 as the year they take power in New York.
Middle-class families have been fleeing the city as the impact of the defunding the police movement, the coronavirus pandemic and the leftist policies of incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio have made heavily Jewish neighborhoods like the Upper West Side of Manhattan increasingly unlivable. That means the chances of the DSA and its left-wing allies winning control of New York City should not be discounted.
Several New York Democrats have spoken out against the questionnaire. Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who represents a district in Staten Island and Brooklyn that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, rightly denounced the question as anti-Semitic. More importantly, Bowman has pledged his support for Israel. Somewhat chastened, the DSA now says it only wants Democrats to pledge not to go on sponsored trips to Israel but wouldn’t ban personal visits there.
But that does little to undo the damage. Nor does it diminish the way the DSA has successfully sought to chill expressions of support for Israel among Democrats who know that offending AOC and her followers can guarantee a primary challenge and a likely end to their political careers.
The DSA’s support for the anti-Semitic BDS movement is not in doubt. Equally clear is that top party leaders, including the presidential ticket, are seeking to avoid alienating the far left since they believe its enthusiasm is needed if Trump is to be defeated in November. Pro-Israel Democrats have reason to claim that they are still in charge. But the shift to the left lends weight to the assertion that “The Squad” and the DSA represent the future of the Democrats, not its past.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.