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New York's Democratic Socialists urge candidates not to visit Israel

Candidates seeking endorsements are being spotlighted by Democratic Socialists of America, rising force in New York politics
The DSA also asked candidates if they support the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement
DSA is asking candidates if they support Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement (AFP/File photo)

The New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a rising force in the city's politics, rejected accusations of antisemitism after it asked local candidates seeking endorsements to pledge not to travel to Israel if elected.

The DSA said on Friday that it was respecting a call from Palestinians for officials to not travel on government junkets, and to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation through the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement.

"Members of City Council are regularly taken on an expenses-paid trip to Israel that functions primarily as a political junket to foster ties between local officials and the Israeli state. It is the only country that Council Members are regularly taken on delegations to visit for this purpose," the DSA statement said.

"Given that there has been an explicit call from Palestinians to not go on such government junkets and to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation and discrimination through boycott, divestment, and sanctions, we asked prospective candidates whether they would respect that call."

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The DSA issued the statement after it was flooded by a deluge of accusations from lobby groups, particularly the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of New York, who called its candidate questionnaire "despicable" and "utterly reprehensible".

According to a screenshot of a candidate questionnaire posted on Twitter by NY1's Zack Fink, the DSA asked candidates if they would "pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to City Council in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation?". 

"Even though foreign policy falls outside the purview of municipal government, gestures like travel to a country by elected officials from a city the size and prominence of New York still send a powerful message, as would the refusal to participate in them," the questionnaire added.

Within the foreign policy section of the questionnaire, the DSA also asked candidates if they supported the BDS movement.

The JCRC of New York sponsors annual trips for elected officials and business leaders to Israel. 

Elected officials "should not be denied an immersive opportunity to deepen their understanding of Israel", Michael Miller, JCRC's executive vice president, said in a statement to the Jewish Insider.

Rising force in politics

Left-leaning Jewish and pro-Palestinian groups attributed the criticism to the DSA's increasing influence in New York politics. The DSA has condemned all Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank - which the International Court of Justice has said stand in contravention of international law - and criticised Israel's debilitating siege of Gaza.

"DSA building power w/o compromising on Palestine is threatening, so they need to delegitimise it," said Simone Zimmerman, the founder of B'tselem USA, a non-profit that documents human rights violations in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Zimmerman, who also co-founded the progressive Jewish organisation IfNotNow, added that pro-Israel groups had turned Israel into an issue in domestic politics by criminalising speech that criticised the country and pushing for anti-BDS measures in state governments. "They are the ones who singled out Israel in our politics, not DSA."

The DSA began supporting the BDS movement in 2017, according to the co-chair for its Portland chapter, Olivia Katbi Smith.

The organisation has been growing in political influence in recent years, with seven out of the eight DSA-backed candidates running for US Congress or for New York's state legislature having won their races this year. 

Some New York politicians have also criticised the questioning of those seeking DSA endorsements, saying it was antisemitic and may deny some individuals a visit to their homeland.

"A credible elected [politician] shouldn't be judged by what countries visited, but their intent to help others," tweeted Joe Addabbo, a state senator in New York.

Naomi Dann, communications director for NYC Council Member Brad Lander, argued against this, saying the question was important.

"There are tens of thousands of Palestinian New Yorkers, many of whom have been displaced or separated from family because of Israeli govt policies," she said in a tweet.

"Elected officials in NYC represent those communities just as much as they do American Jews with close ties and family in Israel. It's time they acted like it."

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