Last summer, this magazine enthusiastically endorsed Bill de Blasio in his campaign for mayor of New York City, praising “his commitment to reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” Later we celebrated his landslide victory, and we still stand firmly behind him on the issues most critical to the future of New York.
So it was especially dismaying to learn that, less than a month after he assumed office, the mayor who had promised a more inclusive and transparent administration than that of his predecessor delivered a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a gala not listed on his public schedule and not open to reporters. De Blasio pandered to the powerful right-wing lobby, assuring attendees that “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC…when you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I will answer it happily, because that’s my job.”
Deplorable? Yes. Surprising? Hardly. Perhaps the most depressing feature of this ritual of abjection is its predictability—the fact that for decades, this has been standard operating procedure for many American politicians, even ones who are steadfast on core progressive issues like de Blasio. Office-seekers learn to assume early in their career that if they don’t pledge fealty to AIPAC, retribution will be swift and their political life could be a short one. So rather than test the limits of the lobby’s power, most of them go along.
AIPAC’s dominion—reinforced by Christian Zionists and the usual cast of neocon hawks—is destructive on many fronts. Not only has it prevented a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict by enforcing lockstep US support for the most retrograde elements in Israel; in recent years it has, in league with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, been doing everything it can to provoke US conflict with Iran. Now, when a conciliatory new government in Tehran is seeking rapprochement with Washington—the best hope for US and regional security in more than three decades—AIPAC and its allies have been pressing Congress for renewed sanctions precisely in order to kill that hope, which could set Washington on the path to war.
However, it’s important to recognize that many of the assumptions that underpin AIPAC’s influence don’t carry the force they used to. Praising what he called the “deep connection” between New York and Israel, de Blasio pointed out that New York is “home to the largest Jewish community outside the state of Israel,” as if Jewishness and Zionism (and, by implication, Zionism of the AIPAC sort) were indivisible. But polls consistently show that among Jews, Israel actually ranks very low on the list of political priorities, as do the long-running tensions with Iran. Of far greater concern are the economy, the growing gap between rich and poor, the struggle for social justice—the same issues that animated de Blasio’s mayoral campaign and propelled him to victory. Apart from the question of what Jewish New Yorkers want is that de Blasio is the mayor of, and should speak for, all New Yorkers, including the hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Arabs, not to mention Christians, Buddhists, atheists and others, who live, work, pay taxes and vote in the city.
And beyond that is the fact that AIPAC is no longer the only lobby game in town. J Street was established in 2008 specifically to back politicians who support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It also supports the recent interim accord between Tehran and Washington, opposes the new sanctions AIPAC is pushing and—in a pointed rebuke to AIPAC’s bullying tactics—encourages “vibrant but respectful debate about Israel.” Criticism of Israeli policies, it argues, “does not threaten the health of the state of Israel—but certain Israeli policies (and the silence that too many in the American Jewish establishment choose when vigorous protest of those policies is necessary) do threaten Israel’s future.” Beyond J Street, a host of Jewish groups and individuals in New York and across the country are fighting not only for social justice here but against occupation in Palestine too—an ethical mission they see as truly indivisible, and far more in keeping with the ancient Jewish precept of tikkun olam (“healing the world”) than the toxic militarism of AIPAC. Jews are a strong presence in many campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, for example, and activist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have been mounting a courageous resistance to AIPAC.
Bill de Blasio, an “unapologetically progressive” mayor, as he put it in his primary victory speech, is at the height of his popularity. He thus has a unique opportunity to help end the stranglehold of AIPAC by meeting with J Street. He could also meet with New York’s sizable Palestinian and Muslim communities. By publicly welcoming groups that promote genuine peace in the Middle East, his foreign policy would be far more consistent with the progressive policies he promotes at home. And he might find, just as he did in his mayoral race, that such actions have far more support among New York’s—and the country’s—citizens than many imagined.