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“Palestine is an Invitation to Organizing": In Conversation with Zohran Mamdani
The first-term assemblyman talks about what it's like to be one of the country's most outspoken proponents of BDS while serving in Albany.
Zohran Mamdani leads a Palestine solidarity march organized by office through the streets of Astoria. Photo by Kara McCurdy.
On July 8th, 2014, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against the Gaza Strip. For nine days, Israeli warplanes dropped bombs over nearly 2,000 targets across the enclave, from Beit Hanoun in the northeast to Rafah in the southwest. Overlaid on a map of New York City, Beit Hanoun would be right around Yankee Stadium, and Rafah would be just off Battery Park. On the tenth day, the bombardment escalated to a full-blown ground invasion, kicking off a month of carnage that became one of the bloodiest since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967.
Among the most appalling atrocities that summer was the massacre at Shuja'iyya, one of the poorest and densest neighborhoods of Gaza City. Israeli tanks and artillery batteries tore into its residential buildings from the ground while missile strikes hit them from the air, killing 60 civilians in a matter of hours. In the aftermath, families puzzled over which of their children lay before them on the steel gurneys of the morgue at nearby Shifa Hospital, their missing heads obscuring their identities. Even American military intelligence was shocked by the level of savagery.
But not our elected representatives in Queens. As columns of tanks poured into Gaza, a dozen local officials gathered on the steps of Borough Hall to express their solidarity with Israel. City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz expressed some other thoughts too:
“[Koslowitz] called on Israelis to defend themselves from the ‘warped’ Palestinians hellbent on destroying the nation.
‘I’ve lived my whole life with Jews being attacked. Enough is enough,’ Koslowitz said. ‘The Palestinians, they don’t care. Hamas doesn’t care about their children. We do.’
‘Their thinking is warped. They are warped and they better stop killing our people,’ she continued. ‘They started it, and we will finish it.’”
Depraved, certainly. But by the local standards of the time, also fairly unremarkable. After Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011, a special election was held in September for his former seat straddling South Brooklyn, the Rockaways, and Central Queens. Bob Turner, a Republican from Breezy Point, scored a major upset over David Weprin, the Democratic nominee and scion of a prominent Queens political family. The thrust of Turner’s campaign was that Weprin, an observant Orthodox Jew, was insufficiently supportive of Israel and overly supportive of the “Ground Zero mosque.” In the context of rock-bottom turnout and sky-high disapproval ratings for Barack Obama, that was good enough for a five-point victory.
But in the context of redistricting, it wasn’t a victory built to last. In 2012, the seat was bisected, and the Central Queens portion became the basis for the current incarnation of New York’s 8th Congressional District. Though any Democrat was now virtually certain to win the general, Turner’s successful demagoguery on Israel loomed large in the minds of the candidates running to replace him. The result was a humiliating race to the right between the two leading contenders:
“Grace Meng, a Democratic assemblywoman…who is Chinese and known for her staunch advocacy for the borough’s Asian community, tells crowds that while she has never been to China, she visited Israel two years ago. Another Democratic contender, Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who is Jewish, has received a coveted endorsement from former Mayor Edward I. Koch because of Mr. Lancman’s outspoken support of Israel.
The candidates squaring off in this race embody the spectrum of backgrounds from New York’s most diverse borough, but all are engaged in a competition to court Jewish voters so heated that it is referred to internally by one campaign as “Israelapalooza.”
This spectacle of personal and national self-abnegation culminated as only something called “Israelapalooza” could, with this mailer appearing a week before Election Day:
Unfortunately for Lancman, the constituency for this gambit just wasn’t there in the new Flushing-based district. Meng prevailed with 50 percent of the vote to Lancman’s 28 percent. But in a display of magnanimity toward the Bukharian Jewish community that had backed her opponent, Meng penned an op-ed after her victory in which she dragged President Obama for refusing to say he was willing to bomb Iran, and for suggesting that Israel should halt illegal settlement construction in the West Bank.
The chairwoman of Meng’s campaign, Karen Koslowitz, was no doubt pleased.
Given this history, it’s all the more remarkable that just a few years later, Queens has emerged as a major center of pro-Palestine sentiment among both the public and the political class. After Israel’s latest assault on Gaza earlier this year, high-profile elected officials issued statements condemning Israeli aggression. So did candidates running against one another for City Council seats in Astoria and Long Island City. And after Andrew Yang tried to pin responsibility for renewed hostilities on Palestinians, he was heckled by voters at a campaign stop in Astoria, and disinvited from an event at the Astoria Welfare Society, a Muslim mutual aid organization.
All this inspired quite a bit of commentary as to just how dramatically the politics of Palestine have shifted in New York City, and especially in Queens. But is that really true? Relatedly, for those who have chosen to stand up for Palestinians, does it feel true? For insight into these questions and others, I sat down with the Queens official whose solidarity with Palestine has been the most visible, consistent, and resolute since he took office: State Assemblyman (and my old boss) Zohran Mamdani.
“I think there are aspects of it that are true, and I also think that it’s a really low bar to clear,” Mamdani told me as we began our conversation. “You can be the most progressive on Israel in New York City history and what does that actually mean?”
For the first-term lawmaker, the rhetorical shift is a welcome improvement over the total hegemony that the Zionist perspective enjoyed for decades in New York. But given the degree of political and material support that we’ve leant to Israel over the years, he thinks it will take more than words to truly move the needle. “Statements are important, but I think we’ll test how far we’ve come when there’s a vote that’s tied to this. And when we start to see political consequences for people who continue to tacitly or explicitly support the occupation and the apartheid state.”
By that standard, it wasn’t the blowback to Yang’s tweet that demonstrated the most progress on this issue. It was the fact that Eric Adams, whose statement on Israel was basically identical to Yang’s, was dropped from endorsement consideration by a prominent Muslim PAC as a result. “That shows the potential for this to actually become an issue that impacts municipal races because of the willingness to create consequences for these elected officials,” Mamdani observed. “We haven’t had that in the past. We haven’t had Muslim groups, or whoever it may be, create strategic voting that is organized and coordinated at a large scale around Israel-Palestine.”
More importantly, Mamdani believes the issue can be a source not just of negative consequences for politicians, but positive incentives. He says that for a moment, it seemed like the mayor’s race could have provided proof of concept for that as well. After the other candidates of the very loosely construed ‘progressive lane’ failed to offer a convincing rebuttal to Yang and Adams, “it felt like there were the beginnings of a Muslim political constituency that was unifying around Dianne Morales. One of the many tragedies of that campaign is that I sometimes wonder what could have been, in terms of one mobilized Muslim constituency taking anger around that issue and manifesting it at the polls.”
I asked Mamdani to elaborate on this point. How best to mobilize Muslim voters is a topic we discussed many times in the year and a half I served as his communications director. Astoria, where he challenged the incumbent assemblywoman in 2020, is home to one of the city’s largest Muslim populations. And certainly, the unequivocal defense of Palestinian humanity was always a distinguishing feature of our campaign.
But the bulk of our Muslim-targeted messaging centered on issues of more immediate, material concern: labor protections for ride-share and gig workers, debt relief for taxi drivers, and accommodations for Muslim students in public schools. Moreover, we thought quite a bit about how to appeal to Muslim voters who might be willing to consider a pitch from a candidate who shares their identity, but who hold more conservative views on topics such as homeownership, policing, and social mores - a familiar current in many immigrant communities.
Could an issue like Palestine - rich in symbolism, but more remote in impact - really be the mechanism to mobilize such a varied constituency, particularly for a candidate they might otherwise be skeptical of? His answer was persuasive: “The thing about Palestine - and this is the opportunity for the left - is that it’s brought about such serious consequences for those who’ve spoken up in favor of it that when you stand with Palestinians, it invites such respect because people know what the consequences are that you’re risking. And that respect can create a coalition that’s larger than one where everyone has identical positions on every single issue.”
“This is the potential for a future constituency, and it’s an invitation for organizing.”
Mamdani is well acquainted with the risks of speaking up for Palestine. Last August, after NYC-DSA’s Albany slate swept to victory over four incumbents in the State Assembly, the press got ahold of the group’s endorsement questionnaire for the upcoming City Council cycle. Candidates were asked if they would decline to travel to Israel if elected, a reference to the hasbara junkets organized for new councilmembers in order to promote the city’s relationships with Israeli state institutions - for example: the NYPD’s Tel Aviv branch. But because the limited scope of the question was unclear, it invited bad-faith misrepresentations.
The backlash was fast and furious from the media, civil society groups, and elected officials. Fifty-two Assembly Democrats - nearly half the conference - signed a letter condemning NYC-DSA as antisemitic, and declaring that “no political organization that embeds antisemitism into its platform should be welcome in the halls of our legislature.” And since the day the slate walked into the capitol building, many of their colleagues have gone out of their way to make sure they’d never feel they were.
“It’s really difficult. There’s a real personal toll,” Mamdani tells me, about the climate in Albany. “It’s a workplace like no other that I’ve ever been in. I’ve never worked somewhere where I’ll walk down the hallway, see someone, and they’ll pretend they don’t even see me. In some ways it’s like the toxic high school experience I never had.”
Does he attribute the chilly reception to his views on Palestine in particular? “You know Matt, it’s hard to know why someone is being chilly toward me given how many different positions I have, and we have as DSA, that make people angry. You cannot think that you’ll get up in a budget vote speech and say that maybe some of your colleagues should lose their jobs and then none of them would be mad about it. This is the necessary consequence of having the beliefs that we do.” For this reason, Mamdani doesn’t want your pity - he wants your solidarity in the fights to come.
“I don’t want it to come across as ‘woe is me, I can’t believe this is happening.’ This is a struggle for power. And if you’re going to try to take power away from capital and give it to the working class, you can’t assume there won’t be serious consequences for that, both interpersonally and at a larger scale.”
Thankfully, Mamdani has found a warmer audience for his Palestine advocacy back home in Astoria. After he spoke at a rally outside the Israeli consulate in Manhattan earlier this year to protest the displacement of Palestinian residents in Sheikh Jarrah, Mamdani tweeted that “every single one of my constituents that has written to me about Palestine has supported my call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions on Israel.” Though he tells me that a few people from the district contacted him after that tweet to register their opposition, “the ratio is nowhere near comparable.” In fact, he’s even found support in some unexpected places.
“There were a couple of people who actually didn’t support me in the primary who reached out to let me know that they really appreciated what I was doing, and that I was speaking up and being visible,” Mamdani says with palpable pride. I ask him if he thinks they didn’t know his views on this topic before, or if they’d based their vote on other considerations, or if they were simply acknowledging a job well done on an issue that mattered to them - regardless of their vote in the primary.
“Sometimes people don’t know what’s possible until they see it. To have an elected official speak up without any caveats around Palestinian dignity, it opens the door to expecting more from other people. And it brings the critiques we were making during the campaign to life. It’s one thing to say ‘look at what they’re doing and look at what I believe,’ it’s another thing to say ‘look at what they did and look at what I’m doing.’”
It wasn’t long ago that even in Astoria, now one of the city’s most important centers of left-wing power, the political class was aligned with the conservative Queens Machine instead of the socialist movement. One of the people at Borough Hall for that pro-Israel rally in 2014 was Aravella Simotas, the incumbent who Mamdani defeated last year in the Democratic primary. Throughout her career, Simotas never missed an opportunity to register her pro-Israel credentials: co-sponsoring resolutions to condemn the BDS movement, signing on to statements whitewashing the Palestinian dispossession at the heart of the Zionist project, and attending rallies in support of Israel’s wars on Gaza in 2012 and 2014.
But this year, when the daily violence of the occupation burst into the headlines once again, you couldn’t find Astoria’s representative at Borough Hall defending it. You could find him in Astoria Park, addressing hundreds of his neighbors gathered to stand in solidarity with Palestine, at a rally organized by his office at the request of a Palestinian constituent. As I watched from my perch on the concrete barrier between the park and the East River, I could hardly believe I was watching an elected official in New York City speak a truth in public that so many have tried so hard to silence:
“We know that the fight for justice for the working class in this state is the fight for justice for the working class in every state, and in every country in this entire world.”