It’s a form of gospel among political observers and the press that the New York City Council has never been more progressive.
Once marginalized under Speaker Christine Quinn, an ally of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Council’s progressive caucus now boasts 19 members, which amounts to almost half of the body. The Council has passed plenty of legislation to please the left: guaranteeing paid sick days for all New Yorkers, decriminalizing certain quality-of-life offenses and barring employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history before an offer is made. In these instances and others, the body’s liberal members can plausibly claim to be in lockstep with progressives outside the political establishment.
But the Council proved this month that their liberalism only goes so far. In a symbolic resolution, the body voted overwhelmingly to condemn a growing movement to boycott Israel over its increasingly deplorable treatment of Palestinians. The hearing and vote were extremely tense; supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as BDS, were accused of anti-Semitism, and dozens of rowdy pro-Palestinian protesters were ejected from City Hall. Over the years, the Council has avoided, for good reasons, weighing in on international issues but made an exception for Israel, the one place where even the most liberal politicians will adopt a posture far removed from the progressive grassroots.
It’s a phenomenon that will probably look curious in the decades to come. Why were so many avowedly left-leaning politicians in New York and other parts of America tripping over themselves to reaffirm their support for Israel? Melissa Mark-Viverito, the proudly progressive speaker of the City Council, backed the BDS resolution, as did many members of the body’s most liberal faction. In another reality, perhaps, Mark-Viverito would be on the front lines of the boycotts. Instead, she and other progressives are in danger of falling out of touch with their youngest voters, the millennial generation that will eventually emerge as a formidable bloc.
For a non-establishment progressive, there are plenty of reasons to be wary of contemporary Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a right-wing strongman, contemptuous of the two-state solution, Israel’s free press and America’s first black president. He has worked to align Israel with our Republican Party, now in its most unyielding conservative incarnation. The dream of a secular, liberal paradise in Israel is long dead: theocracy is on the rise, the West Bank is forever occupied and whatever cultural appeal existed to attract the likes of a young Bernie Sanders, who spent time on a kibbutz in the 1960s, is extinguished. A poll in March found that one in four Israeli Jews would vote for Donald Trump.
Americans born after 1980 are far more skeptical of Israel’s actions than prior generations. For many American politicians, criticizing Israel or showing sympathy for the Palestinian cause can be dismissed with the broad, reductive brush of anti-Semitism – if you can’t support Israel wholeheartedly, then you’re against Jews, the reasoning goes. But more and more young people do not equate all Jewish people with Israel, a nation-state with a government and foreign policy that, like any other, should be open for critique. Millenials are the only generational group in which fewer than half (43 percent) sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, according to recent Pew data. Are all of these people anti-Semites?
When Sanders, the Vermont senator who challenged Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, became one of the few leading politicians to openly question Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians, he did not suffer for it, a sign to other left-wing politicians that their politics will have to evolve to keep up with voter sentiments. Sanders, hardly adroit on foreign policy, later lost a battle to insert language regarding Israel’s occupation into the Democratic Party platform.
But Sanders might just win the war. Rarely are elected officials at the vanguard of any issue. Witness the minimum wage fight, where mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio once thought an $11.50 minimum wage too high and later evolved, as the $15 minimum wage hike became a national movement.
I expect the unabashed support for Israel to follow a similar trajectory. The issue may take a far longer and more contentious path, but change can’t always be so swift.
Ross Barkan is a journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in such publications as the Village Voice, New York Times, New York Magazine and Reuters.