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.
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.