Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel has upended the political landscape in New York, cracking open fault lines through two of the city’s most important constituencies: a Jewish community that is the second largest in the world and a newly energized leftist movement that has risen to prominence in the city.
The tension erupted after New York’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America promoted a pro-Palestinian rally on Sunday in the heart of Times Square. As protesters there cheered the rocket barrage that devastated Israeli citizens, politicians closely aligned with New York’s left recoiled in horror and scrambled to respond to outraged Jewish New Yorkers.
Hours after the rally, carefully crafted statements began to trickle onto social media, as left-wing Democratic leaders, under intensifying pressure, sought to distance themselves from the event without alienating the activists who had helped put some of them into office. By Monday, D.S.A. officials themselves began to back away, and on Tuesday, they put out a statement outright apologizing “for not making our values explicit.”
The attacks and acrobatics laid bare long-simmering resentment between mainstream Democrats and the socialist-inspired groups that have achieved a foothold in city politics, often by waging aggressive primary campaigns against incumbents they deem too moderate.
And it underscored how deeply the seemingly faraway conflict in Israel resonates in even the most local of political battles, in a city home to more Jews than any other in the world.
“This is not a time for nuance. People who have been dancing on nuance, it’s going to be really, really hard,” said Stu Loeser, a leading adviser to New York Democrats on Jewish issues. “It is an important which-side-are-you-on moment.”
Only 24 hours after the event did the city’s most prominent — and most scrutinized — democratic socialist politician, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, weigh in, denouncing what she called the “bigotry and callousness expressed in Times Square on Sunday.” She added that the event “did not speak for the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation.”
Representative Jamaal Bowman, who was elected in 2020 with the help of D.S.A. activists but now faces a primary challenge in his heavily Jewish Westchester district, attacked the rally in a statement to The New York Times and called the incursion by Hamas a violation of international law. An ally of Mr. Bowman also disclosed for the first time that the congressman had let his membership with the D.S.A. lapse last year.
But, illustrating the complexity of the issues, Mr. Bowman also warned against conflating Palestinian civilians with Hamas militants or losing sight of the “root causes of this conflict.”
What unfolded over those 72 hours captured the shifting, complicated reality of liberal New York, a city that is both the wellspring of Jewish American culture and the birthplace of the modern American left.
Democrats in New York remain broadly supportive of Israel as a state, but criticism and outright dissent have become widespread in recent years. Many younger left-wing activists, including Jewish ones, see Palestinian liberation as closely connected to the cause of racial justice and view Israel as a prosperous oppressor nation. And many Jews, old and young alike, have strongly opposed the country’s right-wing government, which they believe is weakening democracy and fear could undermine the possibility of Jews and Palestinians coexisting peacefully.
But now, amid a mounting Israeli death toll and counteroffensive in Gaza, supporters of Israel are pushing all those groups aggressively to set aside policy differences and pull together as a single bloc.
The fresh pressure to support Israel at a dire moment threatens to isolate D.S.A. activists and their elected allies, at a time when the movement is already struggling to maintain the momentum it has enjoyed in New York since the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“If you don’t condemn the D.S.A. ‘rally’ that took place today with swastikas, ‘intifada’ signs and chants of ‘river to the sea’ then we KNOW you hate Jews too,” David Greenfield, a former city councilman and prominent Orthodox Jewish Democrat, warned on Sunday. “And we won’t ever forget.”
Jonathan Rosen, an influential public relations executive, helped elect a generation of big-city progressives, including former Mayor Bill de Blasio and Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney. But on Sunday, he criticized his own allies, warning that the far left risked becoming a pariah in areas like the Upper West Side and Park Slope with large, liberal Jewish communities.
“The very far left and the D.S.A. made a profound miscalculation,” Mr. Rosen said. “Just because liberal and progressive Jews have been outspoken critics of the Israeli government’s failure to live up to its values, does not mean we don’t love the state of Israel.”
Sunday’s rally was announced at a fraught moment, as New Yorkers absorbed news of the Hamas attacks and some tried frantically to reach friends or relatives in Israel who might have been caught in the carnage. A city that prides itself on diversity felt stretched to the limit, as New Yorkers seeking to justify the massacre of Israeli civilians faced off in Times Square against Jewish and pro-Israel counterprotesters, who waved Israeli flags or yelled “Go back to Gaza.”
As one speaker described the thousands of rockets fired by what she called the Hamas “resistance” in Gaza onto civilian targets in Israel, many in the crowd cheered. Others voiced a familiar chant that Jews view as calling for the eradication of Israel: “From the river to the sea! Palestine will be free!”
By Monday, even the D.S.A. seemed uncomfortable.
In an interview, Jeremy Cohan, a co-chair of the New York City chapter of the D.S.A., said the organization had promoted the rally at the request of a Palestinian solidarity group — he was not sure which — and that the D.S.A. had not organized or sponsored the event.
“I don’t think I regret for a minute standing against war and standing up for supporting an approach that points to the deeper roots of this conflict,” he said. But, he added, “we did not communicate that in a way that was adequately sensitive to the suffering of the people on all the sides of the conflict.”
Mr. Cohan also said he thought the barrage of criticism was “an opportunistic move by New York’s political establishment to try to drive a wedge in the growing progressive left ecosystem.”
The D.S.A. and other far-left groups have never been numerically dominant in New York City, where their membership hovers in the tens of thousands, and a little more than a dozen hold elected offices. But they have exerted an outsize influence on political debate in the city and nationally, helping push the center of the Democratic Party leftward.
Most are regarded as safe in their seats. But rising attacks against Israel may give more moderate Democrats an opening to marginalize D.S.A.-aligned officials and accelerate the party’s move back toward the political middle ahead of next year’s elections.
How they navigate the fault lines around Israel could also affect their prospects for office statewide and especially citywide, where Jews are roughly one in nine residents.
The tension is also playing out among left-leaning Jewish religious and political organizations.
Arielle Angel, the editor in chief of Jewish Currents, a leftist magazine outspoken on behalf of Palestinian rights, said that in her corner of the political world, there was a desire to acknowledge the horror of the attacks without losing sight of the decades of Palestinian suffering that had informed them.
“Jewish groups, generally, are struggling with the loss of life while also struggling with the fact that this kind of violence feels completely inevitable, and these same Jewish groups have been warning against it for a very long time,” Ms. Angel said.
The attack by Hamas also led to a swift turnabout for Jews who attend services at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. For the past nine months, the congregants have protested the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. But on Saturday, they sang the Israeli national anthem during morning services.
The following day, the congregation’s rabbi, Rachel Timoner, a well-known voice for progressive Jews in the borough, sent an email to temple members saying that C.B.E., as it is called, stood “in unequivocal solidarity with Israel and Israelis.”
In a phone interview, she said that Hamas had always been dedicated to the destruction and murder of Jews and that Israel had “every right to defend itself and defend its people.”
“On another day let’s talk about oppression and what is the path to the safety determination and freedom for both peoples,” she added. “Today, let’s not protest people who are in the midst of being murdered and kidnapped.”
Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting.