News & Politics

Amid Israel-Hamas war, Kathy Hochul takes the international stage

The New York governor has talked with the White House and Israel’s president about the war and Wednesday traveled to Israel for a “solidarity mission.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a 'New York Stands With Israel' vigil in New York City.

Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at a 'New York Stands With Israel' vigil in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the wake of the deadly attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas on Oct. 7, Gov. Kathy Hochul has been unwavering in her support of Israel. She spoke with Israel’s President Isaac Herzog soon after the attack, met with numerous Jewish leaders in the following days and Tuesday morning led a bipartisan letter of governors condemning Hamas’ attack and applauding President Joe Biden’s swift military assistance. She solidified her position as a prominent American ally of Israel on Tuesday, when she left for a “solidarity mission” to the country. As a governor, Hochul has little if any authority on the international stage. But her presence in Israel and staunch support have deep political implications for the governor, particularly as Orthodox Jewish communities continue trending rightward in recent elections.

In a press briefing before leaving for Israel, Hochul offered few specifics about what she plans to do during her trip to Israel. Unlike President Joe Biden, who also left on Wednesday for the country, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who visited over the weekend, the governor holds no institutional power to affect policy that would impact Israel or Palestine. She said she would “show solidarity with the people of Israel, offer resources, as well as directly hear from New Yorkers who've been impacted.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, one of the most senior Democrats in the state Legislature whose family has deep ties to Israel, told City & State she doesn’t know what she hopes to come out of Hochul’s trip to Israel. “Clearly she is trying to send a message, as we, so many are, that we stand behind Israel and support them,” Krueger said. “But I’m not sure what the role of New York state in international affairs officially is.”

Hochul’s decision to visit Israel has received praise from other Jewish leaders in the state. “JCRC-NY applauds Governor Hochul for her swift decision to visit Israel – a clear demonstration of her solidarity with the people of Israel, who are still reeling from Hamas’ barbaric attack on Israeli civilians,” Noam Gilboord, interim CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said in a statement. “New York is home to the largest Diaspora Jewish community, one with close ties to Israel and deep concerns for the safety (of) our family and friends who live there.” Assembly Member Nily Rozic and former New York City Council Member David Greenfield were also among those thanking Hochul on social media for the trip. 

For Hochul, both the visit to Israel and her staunch support are a political no-brainer. New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, and Jewish voters make up powerful voting blocs in and around New York City. Even if Hochul’s presence in Israel does not serve a practical purpose, it can help shore up her relationships with Jewish New Yorkers. “She has been very vocal in her solidarity and support,” Democratic consultant Camille Rivera said in a text. “I don’t think it’s surprising she would go to show solidarity.”

While courting support from New York’s Jewish community has always been important for Democrats, it’s especially important for Hochul now. She narrowly won reelection last year against Republican Lee Zeldin, who is Jewish and performed well among Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City and its suburbs. Westchester – which voted in large numbers for Hochul – is also home to a large Jewish community that is already expressing discontent with Rep. Jamaal Bowman for his criticisms of Israel. Some Jewish leaders have approached Westchester County Executive George Latimer about primarying Bowman as a more Israel-friendly alternative. 

But Hochul’s unwavering support has also garnered her criticism, particularly from those who believe that she is leaving Palestinian, Muslim and Arab New Yorkers behind. Democratic consultant Basil Smikle said she “wants to show solidarity with the community and doesn’t feel there’s any real downside.” But he warned that “she’ll be judged on her sympathies to and allegiances with other communities should those voters need her leadership.”

Hochul in particular garnered criticism from progressives last week when City & State asked for her message to Palestinian New Yorkers amid the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza. At first, she called on “law-abiding Palestinians” to condemn Hamas and reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself. Hours later, and after blowback, Hochul called Palestinian New Yorkers a “cherished and respected” community and condemned hate directed at them.

Compared to her many statements in support of Israel, Hochul has been more reserved in her comments about Palestinians and Palestinian New Yorkers. She mentioned humanitarian aid for Gazan civilians during her Tuesday press briefing before leaving for Israel, but did not offer specifics about how she might advocate for that during her trip. Hochul said that in a meeting with the White House, she said she shared her support for Biden’s diplomatic efforts for Israel “doing so in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and allows the civilians in Gaza to get the humanitarian assistance they need – as long as we are not benefitting the Hamas terrorists.”

At the Tuesday briefing, Hochul lamented the loss of life after a hospital in Gaza was struck by a projectile that Palestinian officials claimed came from Israel and Israeli officials claimed came from Islamic Jihad. “We want to make sure that we acknowledge Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas,” Hochul said. “We also must make sure that civilians get humanitarian aid, and lament the loss of any life of innocent civilians.” She claimed it was the “same message of solidarity” offered in the letter she sent Tuesday morning, although that letter makes no mention of Gaza, Palestine, Islamophobia or humanitarian aid for Gazans. It did, however, call for continued U.S. aid to Israel in the coming weeks and months and asked for Congress to continue funding programs to combat anti-semitism at home. “Our prayers remain with those who have been lost, their loved ones, the people of Israel, and the Jewish community worldwide,” the letter concludes.