New York State

As ceasefire politics have gone mainstream, fractures have emerged in the Democratic Party

Five months into Israel’s invasion of Gaza, a growing number of politicians have demanded a ceasefire.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani spoke outside the White House last year as part of a hunger strike to pressure President Joe Biden to call for a ceasefire.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani spoke outside the White House last year as part of a hunger strike to pressure President Joe Biden to call for a ceasefire. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

“When I saw what unfolded on Oct. 7, my heart broke for the more than 1,200 Israelis who were killed on that day, and what they experienced,” Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani recalled recently.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack killed 1,139 Israeli soldiers and civilians and led to the kidnapping of over 240 people. In New York, politicians at all levels of government released statements of solidarity with Israel and called for the immediate release of the hostages.

For Mamdani, the Oct. 7 attacks were just the start of a still-ongoing tragedy. He correctly suspected that Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would launch a devastating counterattack on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas’ attacks.

“The bombing (of Gaza) began on the same day, and Netanyahu’s declaration of war, the Israeli government’s decision to cut electricity to Gaza, Knesset members calling for another Nakba meant that a time that should have been reserved for mourning became a time where we had to mobilize to stop the very real possibility of even more violence and suffering in the days and weeks to come,” he said.

As Israel first bombed and then invaded Gaza, a constellation of progressive Jewish, Muslim and Arab American groups began organizing demonstrations to call for a ceasefire. These demonstrations have continued, on a near-daily basis, for the past five months. While the calls for peace started with those groups and far-left politicians, the calls for a ceasefire in Gaza have become increasingly mainstream – to the point where even some staunch supporters of Israel have begun to use the term, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer called for a change in leadership in Israel.

As of March 13, at least four members of New York’s congressional delegation have called for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and four others have called for a temporary ceasefire.

In the months since Oct. 7, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, and northern Gaza has been rendered largely uninhabitable, with Palestinian civilians forced to flee to the southern Gaza enclave of Rafah. The U.S. has sought to implement a six-week ceasefire to allow for the release of Israeli hostages and the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Representatives of Hamas are planning to meet with international mediators in Egypt to discuss the details of a temporary ceasefire.

A growing movement

One of the earliest organizations to call for a ceasefire in Gaza was the Democratic Socialists of America. On Oct. 7, the far-left organization released a statement that condemned both the terrorist attacks on civilians and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The DSA’s social media accounts encouraged members to demonstrate against Israel’s planned invasion and included information about upcoming protests, including one scheduled to take place in Times Square on Oct. 8.

Though commonly referred to as “the DSA rally,” that demonstration was actually organized by a coalition of radical antiwar and Palestinian solidarity organizations – including the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the People’s Forum, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, and the Palestinian Youth Movement – that did not include DSA. At the rally, a speaker from the Party for Socialism and Liberation spoke glibly about the victims of the Oct. 7 attacks, and an unknown attendee was photographed holding up an image of a swastika on his phone.

Although no elected officials spoke at the demonstration, critics accused DSA-endorsed politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of supporting an antisemitic event. Ocasio-Cortez and other DSA-backed elected officials condemned the rally, and the New York City chapter of DSA later issued a statement apologizing for its tweet about the event.

In the aftermath of the rally, some predicted that DSA would become politically marginalized due to its opposition to Israel. Instead, the DSA has reportedly grown its membership as it has worked with other activist groups – including progressive Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice – to pressure elected officials to call for a ceasefire.

On Oct. 13, the DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace held a pro-ceasefire protest outside of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s apartment. Unlike earlier pro-Palestine demonstrations, this one was attended by elected officials – Mamdani and Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes, both of whom were arrested for disorderly conduct during the protest. A week later, state Sen. Jabari Brisport and New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif were arrested during a pro-Palestine protest in midtown Manhattan.

Eric Thor, the co-chair of the New York City chapter of the DSA, told City & State that the chapter has organized more than 70 pro-ceasefire events and run an extensive phone-banking campaign.

By the end of October, over a dozen elected officials in the state had called for a ceasefire. So had a number of progressive political organizations, including the Working Families Party, Indivisible and Sunrise Movement. In the months to come, an even more powerful institution would join the call for a ceasefire – organized labor.

Union solidarity

Historically, American labor unions have been very supportive of Israel. But as the left flank of the Democratic Party has become more critical of Israel in recent years, organized labor has gradually followed suit.

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, national union leaders were largely united in their support of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. At an Oct. 16 meeting of the executive council of the AFL-CIO, only a single person – American Postal Workers Union President Mark Diamondstein – spoke in support of a ceasefire, while American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten asserted that Israel had a right to defend itself, according to a New York Times account of the meeting.

Things were different at the local level, where some of the more radical union locals began to call for a ceasefire. This was especially true of the United Auto Workers, which in New York City represents many academic workers and public defenders.

Brandon Mancilla, the director of UAW Region 9A, which includes New York state, is a former graduate student organizer who supported his members’ early calls for a ceasefire. On Nov. 13, UAW Region 9A formally called for a ceasefire. An even bigger announcement came on Dec. 1, following a hunger strike outside the White House that Mamdani had helped organize and participated in, when the UAW’s international executive board signed on to the call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

After UAW, more unions joined the call for a ceasefire, including the New York State Nurses Association, the influential health care union 1199SEIU and the Communication Workers of America. Even Weingarten, a staunch supporter of Israel, in December called for “a bilateral, negotiated ceasefire that brings the hostages home, provides aid & agency to Gaza & gives security to millions living with immense trauma, sadness & fear.”

Hanif told City & State that the labor movement’s support for a ceasefire made a real difference, since it sent a clear signal to Democratic elected officials who rely on union support.

“A lot of electeds, I feel, were getting away by saying, ‘My constituents aren’t reaching out to me’ or ‘I haven’t heard from my constituents,’” she said. “Yet you got some of the well-known unions coming out with a clear position for a ceasefire, so that has already changed the direction and given, for lack of a better word, ‘credibility’ to the ceasefire movement and added so much more momentum.”

Intraparty fighting

The calls for a ceasefire in Gaza sparked a backlash from critics.

Daniel Rosenthal, a former Democratic state legislator who is now vice president of government relations for UJA-Federation of New York, told City & State that the politicians calling for a ceasefire were ignoring the facts that “hostages remain in captivity, including women, the elderly, and those who have been wounded (and) Hamas has vowed to repeat the attacks of October 7th again and again until Israel is annihilated.”

All of the elected officials in New York who have called for a ceasefire so far have also called for the release of hostages. Many elected officials – though not all – have condemned Hamas.

Hanif, the only Muslim woman on the New York City Council, represents a Brooklyn district with significant populations of both Jews and Muslims, and she said that critics have accused her of antisemitism and labeled her “pro-Hamas” due to her criticisms of Israel. “One rabbi here called me an eliminationist,” she said.

Mamdani has also been accused of antisemitism, both for his support of a ceasefire and his introduction of a bill last year known as the Not On Our Dime Act, which would block New York charities from funding Israeli organizations involved in the development of illegal settlements in the West Bank.

For Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose Hudson Valley congressional district includes a small part of the Bronx and a large portion of Westchester County, calling for a ceasefire and voting on Dec. 5 against a House resolution that equated anti-Zionism with antisemitism may have a political price.

On Dec. 6, Westchester County Executive George Latimer announced a primary challenge against Bowman. Latimer told City & State that he had been encouraged to run by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which endorsed his campaign and has given him more than $600,000.

Many Jewish institutions in Bowman’s district have endorsed Latimer’s run, and Jewish groups also launched a campaign to get local Republicans and independents to register as Democrats in order to vote for Latimer in the Democratic primary. Even the progressive pro-Israel group J Street, which had originally endorsed Bowman’s reelection, pulled its endorsement after he referred to Israel’s actions in Gaza as a “genocide.”

By February, calling for a ceasefire had become much less controversial. Reps. Dan Goldman and Jerry Nadler joined with other Jewish Democratic House members to send a letter to President Joe Biden calling for a “temporary ceasefire.” This was less of a demand than a statement of support for the president’s position; Biden had already said that he would like to see a six-week ceasefire. Even Latimer joined the call for a temporary ceasefire, though he made clear that he would not support a permanent one.

In an interview with City & State, Goldman drew a sharp distinction between the temporary ceasefire that he was supporting and the permanent ceasefire that people like Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman supported. “There can be no permanent ceasefire with Hamas still in control of Gaza, and so what we are calling for is just a temporary pause for hostage relief and humanitarian purposes, and then a more permanent solution will have to be reached later,” he said.

For activists and elected officials demanding a permanent ceasefire, these calls for a temporary ceasefire were a welcome step but insufficient.

“Americans are not rallying and protesting and calling their representatives to ask for a six-week respite in a massacre; they are asking for the end of the massacre,” Mamdani said. “It is clear that that pressure is having an impact, but it will not end until the massacre ends.”

Both proponents of a permanent ceasefire and their critics agree that the movement could fracture the Democratic coalition.

Hanif said that the Democratic Party leadership’s insistence on backing Israel is turning off the party’s young voters and Black voters, who overwhelmingly support a ceasefire. “These are going to be people who either we bring into the fold of the new Democratic Party, or they will forever be alienated,” she said.

While polls show that about half of Jewish Americans support a ceasefire, Rosenthal said that progressives’ hostility toward Israel risks alienating Jewish voters. “The majority of the Jewish community still supports liberal causes, but it remains to be seen if that will continue,” Rosenthal said. “Ultimately, it’s a question some of our elected officials and institutions will need to ask themselves.”

No resolution

So far, the movement for a ceasefire has had few tangible effects on U.S. foreign policy. The federal government has continued to provide military assistance to Israel and has vetoed U.N. resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

But the movement has had some success at the local level. A number of cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, have passed resolutions calling for a permanent ceasefire. In New York, Albany, Ithaca as well as the Hudson Valley progressive hot spots of Newburgh, Hudson and Beacon have all passed resolutions calling for a permanent ceasefire.

No ceasefire resolution has been introduced in the New York City Council – though not for lack of trying. Hanif said she submitted a request to draft a ceasefire resolution in October, but Speaker Adrienne Adams has so far opted not to introduce the resolution unless and until it is supported by a majority of the City Council.

“Those conversations are happening internally,” Adams said during a press conference last month. “My office has been encouraging and providing space for members with differing opinions to engage in important conversations to help us arrive at a place to express a relatively unified position as an entire body. So the work is ongoing.”

As of March 13, 17 council members have publicly supported a ceasefire – nine fewer than the number needed for a majority in the 51-member council.

Hanif said she has largely given up hope that the resolution will be introduced or that it will make a real difference if it is. “I just think that the political moment for the resolution has passed, because that was the bare minimum, the bare minimum, and we failed. The New York City Council failed, and I feel disappointed. … The resolution – if it does get introduced, wonderful. But I don’t have hope for that. I’m not organizing around it.”

Over the past five months, the movement for a ceasefire has gone from the political fringe to the mainstream. But for all its influence in progressive spaces, the movement has so far failed to achieve its primary goal – ending the war in Gaza. The activists and elected officials protesting for a permanent ceasefire have no plans to give up the fight for peace.

“We do not want to win a moral victory,” Mamdani said. “We do not want to write incredible books about this moment that are validated years from now. We want to end a genocide of a people that is continuing day by day. That is the ultimate goal.”