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Bill de Blasio and the search for pro-Palestinian progressivism in the Democratic Party

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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In an October 2013 mayoral campaign debate, Bill de Blasio—then still New York City Public Advocate—asserted that “There is no closer relationship on earth, literally no closer relationship, than that between New York City and the state of Israel.” In late November 2013, de Blasio—now Mayor-Elect—met Israeli President Shimon Peres and tweeted: “Had the honor of meeting @PresidentPeres today and discussing the close ties between New York City and Israel.”

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, Israelis, and Palestinians these ties run much deeper than the ones established or voiced for simple political convenience.

Civilians vs. security forces in New York City and Israel-Palestine

Sanaa’ Amer was 14 years old. As she was walking with her sister one day in her hometown of Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers approached Sanaa’’s sister and arrested her. As journalists arrived on the scene, Sanaa’ began to explain to them what happened. Then an Israeli soldier moved towards Sanaa’, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her to an army jeep. He struck Sanaa’ in the face and then forced her in the vehicle, where additional Israeli soldiers shouted at her in Hebrew and Arabic. Israeli soldiers took Sanaa’ to a settlement, where she was interrogated—and hit more times—before being transferred to a detention center. After 19 days with only one visit from a relative permitted during the whole period, the Amer sisters were transferred to Ramle Prison, where they suffered from the poor conditions of the facility and the treatment inflicted upon prisoners.

David Ourlicht was sitting with several people outside of a housing complex in Harlem, New York City. As two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers approached Ourlicht and the others, they suddenly drew their pistols and ordered everyone to lie on the ground. Additional police officers arrived and proceeded to search Ourlicht and the other people before allowing them to stand and requiring identification information from them. The police alleged the reason for the action was the report of a gun being present at the site, though no such firearm was recovered or proven to exist in that area.

Mustafa Tamini was protesting the expansion of Israeli settlements around the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh. The residents of the village had begun protesting regularly since two years before, and the Israeli security forces often met their demonstrations with violence. In December 2011, an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister at Mustafa from close range, mortally wounding the 27-year-old.

Dick Brennan, Roy Isen, and Luke Rudkowski were journalists documenting the Occupy Wall Street protests of October 2011. As they stood with the crowds of demonstrators in Lower Manhattan, police officers struck Brennan and Rudkowski with their batons, while Isen suffered a spray of mace to the face.

Fatima (name changed), a Palestinian woman, had been in labour for three hours as she traveled in a car to reach the Ramallah hospital to give birth to her child. Then the taxi she and her mother were driving in reached the Aljaba checkpoint and was forced to stop at the end of a long line of waiting vehicles. Fatima and her mother left the car to try to cross the checkpoint on foot, but Fatima gave birth soon after on the side of the road. She received help from bystanders until the ambulance arrived—45 minutes later—to carry her and her newborn baby to the hospital.

Asad Dandia is a student at a City University of New York community college. Asad became involved in a Muslim charity group and became a leader within his community. However, Asad began to hear reports that the NYPD had been conducting a surveillance operation on New York Muslims. Following these reports, several of his colleagues distances themselves from the charity and other group activities out of fear of the police. Successively, Asad discovered that a person who had recently joined the group had been an NYPD informant, and had provided information about Asad and other coworkers—including their pictures—to the NYPD.

These are individual instances of much larger and more diffused practices, which in turn exist within broader repressive frameworks.

Sanaa’ and her sister are two of around 700 Palestinian children aged 12 to 17 years old arrested by Israeli security forces and subject to inhuman treatment each year.

Ourlicht’s case was one of more than four million instances of New Yorkers being subjected to “stop-and-frisk” by the police since 2002; approximately 90 percent of these people are then released as completely innocent.

Tamimi is one of many—for instance, a total of five in just January 2013—Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli security forces while protesting or going about their daily lives.

Brennan, Isen, and Rudkowski were three of hundreds of protesters abused or arrested by the NYPD during Occupy Wall Street and related events.

Fatima is one of at least 68 Palestinian women who gave birth at Israeli checkpoints between 2000 and 2007; this led to 35 miscarriages and five women dying out of complications.

Asad was one of many Americans caught in the NYPD’s extensive surveillance operation targeted at Muslims.

Building the PEP case

There can be no direct comparison among these cases and policies: even though all stem from a deviant approach to achieving “security” or “public safety,” the contexts in which they have emerged and are carried out are substantially different. Furthermore, there can be no equivalence between the 60-year-old military occupation of Palestine and the types of policing that occur in New York City.

Nonetheless, the similarities that do appear highlight an important contradiction: while de Blasio has made himself the champion of the fight against inequality and discriminatory policies within the boundaries of his five boroughs, he ignores the analogous practices that have been occurring daily in Israel-Palestine virtually since 1948.

Objectively speaking, the mayor of New York is unlikely to voice political views that will alienate a sizable constituency. Likewise, it does not fall within the mayor’s powers or responsibilities to be active in foreign policy as far as matters of human rights or international diplomacy are concerned. Further, one might even consider it unwise and inappropriate for the mayor to discuss the policies of sovereign states.

However, de Blasio leans ingloriously over the edge of the “Progressive Except on Palestine” (PEP) cliff—one in which so many American Democrats fall. Presumably, some of de Blasio’s liberal supporters too may be at or beyond the PEP brink as they abhor the NYPD’s acts in the city while championing the Israeli security apparatus across an ocean and a sea.

Awaiting pro-Palestinian progressivism

De Blasio caused a stir with a campaign ad where he told his son Dante about the possibility that he too—as a young black male—might, one day, be stopped-and-frisked by the police. The same ad may also have broken ground in the U.S. for explicitly including “taxing the rich” as the candidate’s policy and labeling him as the “progressive choice.” These are important steps forward, and this analysis is not meant to detract from de Blasio’s vision for New York City.

But for observes of U.S. Middle East policy, the encouraging trend of some U.S. politicians adopting more liberal positions domestically is confronted by their inability—or unwillingness—to break existing paradigms vis-à-vis certain foreign states.

One is left to ask: how long will we have to wait for an American politician to air an ad telling their child that if they travel to Israel, they may be detained at the airport, interrogated about their political beliefs, and have their email and computer forcibly searched—before being turned back? Or that instead of taxing any American—rich or poor—any further, what they will do is redirect three billions’ worth of U.S. taxpayer dollars from subsidizing Israeli violations of international law to what the American public needs at home?

Sadly, the “ties between New York City and Israel” evoke thoughts of discriminatory policies and indiscriminate searches, police abuse and mistreatment of minors, and systematic violations of human rights. It may be time for those at the helm to avoid resorting to simplistic and public-pleasing comments and to adopt a posture that is coherent across the board and not bound to the establishment’s view. Otherwise, the “progressivism” we will see will only be a crippled shadow of the holistic liberal vision that we actually need and desire.

Giacomo Bagarella
About Giacomo Bagarella

Giacomo Bagarella was a member of the Palestine Solidarity Committee at Harvard University, from which he graduated with a degree in Government. He blogs at Perpetual Peace.

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2 Responses

  1. DICKERSON3870
    January 14, 2014, 3:22 pm

    RE: “In late November 2013, de Blasio—now Mayor-Elect—met Israeli President Shimon Peres and tweeted: ‘Had the honor of meeting @PresidentPeres today and discussing the close ties between New York City and Israel’.” ~ Bagarella

    REGARDING DE BLASIO’S “HONOR OF MEETING PRESIDENT PERES”, SEE – “Revealed: how Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear weapons”, by Chris McGreal in Washington,, 5/23/10
    Exclusive: Secret apartheid-era papers give first official evidence of Israeli nuclear weapons

    [EXCERPTS] Secret South African documents reveal that Israel offered to sell nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime, providing the first official documentary evidence of the state’s possession of nuclear weapons.
    The “top secret” minutes of meetings between senior officials from the two countries in 1975 show that South Africa’s defence minister, PW Botha, asked for the warheads and Shimon Peres, then Israel’s defence minister and now its president, responded by offering them “in three sizes”.
    The two men also signed a broad-ranging agreement governing military ties between the two countries that included a clause declaring that “the very existence of this agreement” was to remain secret. . .
    . . . The Israeli authorities tried to stop South Africa’s post-apartheid government declassifying the documents at Polakow-Suransky’s request and the revelations will be an embarrassment, particularly as this week’s nuclear non-proliferation talks in New York focus on the Middle East.
    They will also undermine Israel’s attempts to suggest that, if it has nuclear weapons, it is a “responsible” power that would not misuse them, whereas countries such as Iran cannot be trusted.
    A spokeswoman for Peres today said the report was baseless and there were “never any negotiations” between the two countries. She did not comment on the authenticity of the documents. . .
    . . . The documents show both sides met on 31 March 1975. Polakow-Suransky writes in his book published in the US this week, “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s secret alliance with apartheid South Africa”. At the talks Israeli officials “formally offered to sell South Africa some of the nuclear-capable Jericho missiles in its arsenal”.
    Among those attending the meeting was the South African military chief of staff, Lieutenant General RF Armstrong. He immediately drew up a memo in which he laid out the benefits of South Africa obtaining the Jericho missiles but only if they were fitted with nuclear weapons.
    The memo, marked “top secret” and dated the same day as the meeting with the Israelis, has previously been revealed but its context was not fully understood because it was not known to be directly linked to the Israeli offer on the same day and that it was the basis for a direct request to Israel. In it, Armstrong writes: “In considering the merits of a weapon system such as the one being offered, certain assumptions have been made: a) That the missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads manufactured in RSA (Republic of South Africa) or acquired elsewhere.”
    But South Africa was years from being able to build atomic weapons. A little more than two months later, on 4 June, Peres and Botha met in Zurich. By then the Jericho project had the codename Chalet.
    The top secret minutes of the meeting record that: “Minister Botha expressed interest in a limited number of units of Chalet subject to the correct payload being available.” The document then records: “Minister Peres said the correct payload was available in three sizes. Minister Botha expressed his appreciation and said that he would ask for advice.” The “three sizes” are believed to refer to the conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons.
    The use of a euphemism, the “correct payload”, reflects Israeli sensitivity over the nuclear issue and would not have been used had it been referring to conventional weapons. It can also only have meant nuclear warheads as Armstrong’s memorandum makes clear South Africa was interested in the Jericho missiles solely as a means of delivering nuclear weapons.

    In addition, the only payload the South Africans would have needed to obtain from Israel was nuclear. The South Africans were capable of putting together other warheads.
    Botha did not go ahead with the deal in part because of the cost. In addition, any deal would have to have had final approval by Israel’s prime minister and it is uncertain it would have been forthcoming.
    South Africa eventually built its own nuclear bombs, albeit possibly with Israeli assistance. But the collaboration on military technology only grew over the following years. South Africa also provided much of the yellowcake uranium that Israel required to develop its weapons.
    The documents confirm accounts by a former South African naval commander, Dieter Gerhardt – jailed in 1983 for spying for the Soviet Union. After his release with the collapse of apartheid, Gerhardt said there was an agreement between Israel and South Africa called Chalet which involved an offer by the Jewish state to arm eight Jericho missiles with “special warheads”. Gerhardt said these were atomic bombs. But until now there has been no documentary evidence of the offer. . .


  2. Jackster_Abs
    January 14, 2014, 10:46 pm

    This is a very insightful take on the topic. It’d take a lot to get de Blasio to express anything close to meaningful on this issue (given the large support he commands from liberal groups that are very attached to Israel), but one hope for at least a symbolic gesture.

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