It was supposed to be a routine stop on the busy schedule of a new mayor. In and out, no one gets hurt. A pro-Israel speech at the Hilton, then back to Gracie Mansion.
But Bill de Blasio’s Jan. 23 address to the New York chapter of AIPAC has instead kicked up lingering questions about transparency in his administration, the nature of his support for Israel and that of the Democratic Party, and the true constituency of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
At issue was one of the last lines in the off-the-record address, leaked via a heavily edited and truncated recording, in which de Blasio said City Hall was always open to AIPAC and that he would “happily” stand with them, anytime and anyplace.
That riled up a group of the city’s most prominent Jewish liberals.
AIPAC “speaks for Israel’s hardline government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone,” they wrote in an open letter to The Jewish Week and other media.
The 58 critics, including eight people who contributed to de Blasio's mayoral campaign, first said it wasn’t their place to define his job, but in the very next line wrote, “your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so.”
In response, City Hall released a statement that “Mayor de Blasio is committed to preserving and strengthening New York City’s relationship with Israel because of our shared values and the threat of terrorism that we both face.
“His commitment to this goal transcends any particular organization and is rooted in the people of New York City and their values.”
But the criticism didn’t end there. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former Reform movement leader, called the speech “a mini-crisis and a major embarrassment” in a Haaretz column and the editors of The Nation on Jan. 29 lamented that de Blasio had “pandered to the powerful right-wing lobby.”
Adding to the theatrics, a prominent Republican who serves as a trustee of CUNY emerged as de Blasio’s unlikely defender.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Sen. Al D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki, gathered a small group together to sponsor full-page ads in local newspapers calling the mayor’s remarks at AIPAC “eloquent” and insisting that “Mainstream Jewry expects and appreciates support for Israel from its elected officials and the primary organ which manifests this support: AIPAC.”
“It was very selfish,” said Wiesenfeld of the first open letter.
“These people are less concerned about Israel than they are about [de Blasio’s] political point of departure,” he told The Jewish Week. “Show me another ethnic group that has the kind of social pathology they exhibited.” Wiesenfeld noted that the same critics did not complain about AIPAC when it supported the left-wing governments of Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
The controversy suggests the unique bind in which the man who once defined himself as a Democratic socialist finds himself, running a city with the nation’s largest and most diverse Jewish population.
Outspokenly left-leaning on nearly every other issue, the mayor has not embraced the classically liberal definition of supporting Israel, which means opposing the continued occupation of the West Bank as a moral and long-term security mistake.
The speech came at a time when Israeli beverage maker SodaStream and its celebrity spokeswoman Scarlett Johansson have opened a debate about economic cooperation on the West Bank, and when academics are arguing over the propriety of boycotting Israeli schools to press for an end to the occupation. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry is operating at a fever pitch on a new initiative to push forward new peace talks.
During his campaign, his prior service as public advocate and in the City Council, de Blasio has steered clear of the thorny issues of the settlements and what should become of them, instead pushing for hard sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program and blasting the rocket attacks against Sderot from Gaza. His predecessors as mayor have mostly done the same.
The liberal signatories of the letter, including some who support boycott, sanctions and divestment from Israel, seem to expect otherwise from the mayor.
Signing the letter were Karen R. Adler, president of the Jewish Communal Fund, who worked with de Blasio on Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign; CUNY journalism professor and Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart; and Rebecca Vilkomerson, a founder of Jewish Voices for Peace.
Also signing were feminist philanthropist Barbara Dobkin; “Vagina Monologues” playwright Eve Ensler; author Erica Jong; feminist icons Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Gloria Steinem; novelist Anne Roiphe, and Rabbis Rolando Matalon of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Ellen Lippmann of Kolot Chayenu, Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah and Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I don’t know that any of us, this early in his term, would have reached out to him about this,” said Rabbi Lippmann. “But he opened the door to this with his message about AIPAC. Part of our message is, Look, this is a very big and broadly diverse community, and we have many ways of supporting Israel.
“To say the mayor’s job is to be open to AIPAC is a little over the top.”
Added Beinart, “Certainly the message [of the letter] is, consider all points of view.” In an interview Tuesday he said he considers the lobbying group well meaning but ultimately detrimental to Israel’s best interests.
“What they are doing is dangerous to the survival of a democratic Jewish state,” said Beinart, whose 2012 book, “The Crisis Of Zionism,” created a similar left-right debate about support of Israel among diaspora Jews.
He said he hopes that as a result of the letter de Blasio “thinks about Israel in the same way that he sees other issues … with a sense of equality, fairness and due process. Those are not principles that guide Israeli policy in the West Bank.”
Notably, the letter does not mention J Street, the alternative lobby group meant to embrace dovish AIPAC critics, or request that de Blasio give the group equal time.
De Blasio last week told reporters that the fundraiser was not included on his schedule at AIPAC’s request.
“The event has always been closed press,” a spokesman, Marshall Wittman said Monday, declining to comment further.
But some see the event as an opening salvo in a left-right battle for the mayor’s extra-large pulpit.
In the past it was enough for mayors to wave Israel’s flag in the annual parade along Fifth Avenue, visit Jerusalem and welcome its leaders here, while issuing periodic statements opposing terrorism.
Now, de Blasio is the first Democrat in two decades to run the city and possibly the most liberal resident of Gracie Mansion since Israel was founded, and he serves at a time when public discourse has evolved far beyond whether the Jewish state should survive to how it should survive.
“There definitely will be a little bit of a tug of war when it comes to Israel,” sad Leon Goldenberg, a Brooklyn Orthodox businessman who helped de Blasio gain support last year.
“He comes from Park Slope and the base is very liberal and progressive. They’re fine with BDS.”
Wiesenfeld’s ad, to run in The Jewish Press and elsewhere, is cosigned by just five other people, including Michael Nussbaum, executive editor of the Queens Tribune, and Cynthia Zalisky, director of the Queens Jewish Community Council.
It warns that Israel “faces an existential threat from the Islamic fascist dictatorship of Iran” and it continues, “In 1943, Rabbi Stephen Wise urged President Franklin Roosevelt not to meet with the group of rabbis who marched to the White House in a vain attempt to save some of the Jews not yet exterminated by Germany and its collaborators.”
In response to that message, Letty Cottin Pogrebin told The Jewish Week “Rather than simply express an opposing view, the ad attempts to vilify those who signed the letter to the mayor and, by so doing, to silence any further dissent from the AIPAC line. Sadly, for some in the Jewish community, slander is a substitute for honest debate.”
William Helmreich, a CUNY professor of sociology, sees de Blasio’s conduct as evidence of a complex political mind, and one that doesn’t like to be pigeonholed.
He noted that despite his progressive credentials the mayor is about to go to war with the city’s charter schools, which largely benefit students in low-income areas.
“They’re sending their kids to charter schools because they are better,” said Helmreich. “It’s not for the rich kids — they’re going to Dalton.”
He added that de Blasio was likely to be criticized from all sides because of the AIPAC embrace, because he made his comments believing they were off the record.
“Some people will think that if he knew reporters had been invited he wouldn’t have said it,” said Helmreich. “They will want him to say it publicly.”
Indeed, writing in the New York Post on Feb. 3, columnist Eric Fettman noted, “The sharpening of the partisan divide over Israel is a worrisome trend that’s being exacerbated by elements in both parties… De Blasio’s speech should have been a strong and welcome affirmation from the Democratic Party’s hard left that support for Israel and its defenders is not inimicable to their values.” Concern grows among Israel activists that they are losing traction in political circles as boycott advocates and others ramp up their efforts.
In Albany this week, the Assembly education committee pulled a bill from consideration that would have denied state funds to academic organizations that participate in boycotts of Israel. The bill, sponsored by the powerful Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, was opposed by the state teachers' union, a civil liberties group and others.
In the City Council, de Blasio focused on a predominantly Orthodox community in his Borough Park district. And as public advocate, he enjoyed a relatively obscure post that allowed him to focus mostly on civic issues.
Now, said Helmreich, as mayor he has to come to grips with the progressive segment of the Jewish community that may support BDS, or fall someplace in the center.
“He will have many chances to go to the left wing and talk about the [peace] negotiations. And people will tell him that he shouldn’t be taking the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu position, for example, in the current debate.”