Most Americans don’t pay much attention to New York City politics. As one of the deepest blue political bastions in the country, the struggle for political ascendancy in the Big Apple can seem to be merely a choice between left and lefter. But while New York has become a one-party city in which Democrats don’t so much predominate as the Republicans have disappeared, that doesn’t mean debates there are insignificant. To the contrary, the city is in some ways a laboratory experiment in which it appears the future of the Democratic Party is up for grabs.
That’s especially true with respect to the question of whether it will be, as it always used to be, a pro-Israel political party. And the struggles of Andrew Yang—the entrepreneur/philanthropist and one-time presidential candidate who has now shifted his ambitions to taking possession of the city’s Gracie Mansion—illustrate this dilemma.
New York is still the world’s largest Jewish city (that is, in terms of those living within its city limits; if we were talking about metropolitan areas, Tel Aviv would now be No. 1), which means that mayoral candidates are bound to wish to appeal to the sensibilities of Jewish voters. But given how diverse the New York community is, that’s easier said than done. After all, a much larger percentage of New York Jewry is not merely Orthodox but denizens of ultra-Orthodox enclaves. At the other end of the political spectrum, Jewish voters who live in more upscale neighborhoods like the Upper East and Upper West Sides tend to be extremely left-wing rather than merely liberal.
In an earlier era when white ethnic voters held the balance of power in the five boroughs, appealing to them meant mayoral candidates would take international tours of the three “i’s”: Ireland, Italy and Israel. Irish and Italian voters don’t seem to be cohesive voting groups anymore, but a million Jews still reside in the city. Yet figuring out what they want is not so easy. That’s especially true if, like Yang, you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to the Middle East or Jewish issues.
According to a recent poll conducted by Politico, Yang has parlayed his name recognition from his presidential run into the frontrunner’s position in a mayoral race, where he is competing in a field where there are literally dozens of contenders with only a few of them considered to have a chance. While his lack of political experience is an asset at a time when voters are tired of career politicians, his willingness to say what he thinks various groups want has become a serious problem.
Clearly listening to the advice he’s been given by political consultants, Yang has staked out a position on education that is bound to help him with the ultra-Orthodox. While some in the Jewish community believe the state should be pushing haredi yeshivahs to raise their standards so as to give students a better secular education as well as a religious one, Yang has outflanked his rivals by staking out a hardline stance in which he believes these schools should be left alone. That’s a position that will likely win him Orthodox votes without costing him much support elsewhere.
But navigating the debate about Israel isn’t proving to be so easy.
In an op-ed published in The Forward, Yang laid it on thick while seeking to suck up to New York Jews with flowery rhetoric about his love for the Lower East Side and the shared immigrant experience that Jews have with those who have come to this country from places like Taiwan, the birthplace of his parents.
But then he went full-on Zionist declaring his support for Israel and opposition to the anti-Semitic BDS movement in terms that earned him praise from the Jewish community:
“A Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment. Not only is BDS rooted in anti-Semitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy.”
But as good as that position was, he soon learned that waving the blue-and-white flag isn’t quite the political slam dunk he thought in a Democratic primary dominated by voters who lean to the far-left.
When confronted about this correct evaluation of the anti-Semitic nature of BDS at a mayoral forum hosted by the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, Yang discovered that not everybody in New York loves Israel. In fact, some New Yorkers hate it.
When Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, whose claim to fame is her role in orchestrating the Women’s March protests against former President Donald Trump and promoting anti-Semitism inside that group, pressed him about BDS, Yang folded like a cheap carpet.
Instead of sticking to his guns, he started backing away from his anti-BDS position, declaring that he made a mistake in the op-ed by having “confused” peaceful supporters of economic warfare on the only Jewish state on the planet with “very, very violent” people, and declaring that he had nothing but the greatest respect for those who believe anti-Zionism is right.
The problem here is not just that the distinction he tried to make between various kinds of BDS supporters is meaningless. BDS is inherently discriminatory because it seeks to deny to the Jews rights that no one would deny to anyone else. People like Sarsour hate Israel because it’s a Jewish state, not because of any alleged shortcomings.
Yang isn’t the only top-tier mayoral contender who is having trouble articulating a position on BDS. City Controller Scott Stringer is a conventional, ultra-liberal Manhattan Jew who also proclaims his opposition to BDS. Yet knowing that he would have to tack to the far-left to win the all-important Democratic primary nomination, he’s been flirting with anti-Semitic supporters of intersectional ideology that is implacably hostile to the Jewish state, such as members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Lest anyone think the DSA is some ancient leftist relic of pre-Holocaust socialism, today it’s the political home of party rock stars like New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, who knocked off Rep. Eliot Engel in a primary that ended the career of that pro-Israel stalwart. Yang and Stringer may think they can survive the loss of pro-Israel Jewish voters, but not stands that offend the DSA.
It’s impossible to know how all of this will impact the June primary that will likely decide the identity of the next mayor. But this matters because if the increasingly loud ranks of the leftist activist wing of the Democratic Party are going to decide the identity of the next mayor of New York City, it also bodes ill for the future of pro-Israel Democrats candidates.
While the bulk of the Democrats who make up their congressional majority are conventional pro-Israel politicians, the wind is clearly at the backs of so-called progressives like AOC and her pals in the expanded “Squad,” who have little patience for politicians who think supporting the Jewish state is good politics.
New York City isn’t representative of America, but the people who are the loudest and most influential Democrats in the city are very much the inspiration for younger and more left-wing members of the party elsewhere. Simply put, the woke activists in the DSA may not tolerate having a mayor who would write an anti-BDS op-ed such as the one that was published under Yang’s name.
Seen from this perspective, Yang’s retreat from calling out BDS supporters for their anti-Semitism isn’t just a local kerfuffle but a litmus test that may have a lot to say about the future of the Democrats.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.