New York Socialists Are Showing How to Stand Up to the Israel Lobby

In New York State, nonprofits complicit in Israel’s illegal settlements rake in tens of millions of dollars in tax-exempt donations per year. Socialist lawmakers are fighting to change that — and loosen the Israel lobby’s stranglehold on US politics.

Demonstrators for the Not on Our Dime Act in New York City, July 20, 2023. (Jewish Voice for Peace / Jake Ratner)

This past July 20, over five hundred protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Herald Square, holding signs demanding an end to Israeli apartheid and settler violence. Democratic socialist New York State Assembly member Zohran Mamdani addressed the crowd, saying:

When I grew up in this city, I grew up hearing the term “progressive except Palestine.” I grew up hearing that it was normal to hold an inconsistency only when it applied to Palestinians. I saw the politicians that I admired speak of universal rights and then draw the line right when it came to Palestinians. I was told that was simply how it is, that is how it has been, and it is how it will be.

The rally was in support of the Not on Our Dime!: Ending New York Funding of Israeli Settler Violence Act. The legislation, put forward by Mamdani in the State Assembly along with counterpart legislation by socialist Jabari Brisport in the State Senate, would end the nonprofit status of New York–based organizations that fund Israeli settlements. Because they are nonprofits, millions of dollars in donations they receive every year are left untaxed — meaning that public money that should be going to schools, health care, and investing in a green future is instead subsidizing the violent expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements.

The rally was organized by the Not on Our Dime coalition, which includes the Palestinian Youth Movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA), among other groups. It concluded with a march, led by Mamdani, to the offices of the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, one of these Zionist nonprofits. On our way to and outside its offices, we chanted and sang, proclaiming that Palestine would be free, and demanding an end to our state’s funding of Israeli war crimes.

Given that Zionism is hegemonic in New York; that New York State has laws targeting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement; and that until these past few years it was taboo for US progressives to extend our principles of universal justice to Palestinians, the push for the Not on Our Dime legislation demonstrates the changing tides for Palestinian liberation in the United States. The law also offers a model for socialist and progressive politicians who want to take on the powerful pro-Israel lobby and build material solidarity for the Palestinian cause.

Zionism’s Manifest Destiny

From the advent of Zionist colonization of historic Palestine, the movement’s goals have been maximizing the Jewish population, and its control of land, in the region. Following the 1947 United Nations recommendation for partition, Zionist colonists took up arms to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and came to occupy the majority of historic Palestine. Zionists begrudgingly accepted partition, recognizing it as an inadequate but first step toward achieving their long-term mission. At the time, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, argued that “after the formation of a large army in the wake of the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and expand to the whole of Palestine.”

With the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israeli government followed through on this promise and came to occupy Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank as well as the Sinai in Egypt. Now controlling both the Jewish-settled and Arab lands between the river and the sea, fanatic Zionists began to take their mission into their own hands, expanding into the occupied lands with illegal settlements and displacing the Palestinians who lived there. Today, over seven hundred thousand Jewish settlers live in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This settler movement has provided the shock troops and the most militant vanguard of the Zionist project. The settlers subscribe to a blood-and-soil ideology that confers on them a racial or biblical entitlement to all land in historic Palestine, and they use militia violence and the power of the Israeli state to displace Palestinians. The Israeli government builds roads and infrastructure connecting the settlements to Israel (barring their use by Palestinians), upholds and carries out evictions of Palestinians to be replaced by Jewish settlers, and bulldozes entire homes.

Over the past few years, the settler movement and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have accelerated their attacks on Palestinian life. The current far-right government, which includes leaders of the settler movement, has repealed laws mandating the demolition of some existing settlements and barring the construction of new ones. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given his far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich full authority to oversee the expansion and consolidation of settlements in the West Bank, and to assert Israeli authority over its occupied Palestinian population.

As homes are demolished and Palestinians evicted, the IDF is there with guns. As settlers carry out pogroms, the IDF is often right by their side. And when Palestinians resist their violent occupation, they’re met with military raids that injure and murder civilians. The extreme ethnonationalism at the core of the settler project makes it all the more obscene that US-based organizations fund it — and that the US public is actively subsidizing these groups through their nonprofit status.

Not on Our Dime!

The American Friends of Ateret Cohanim is just one of the many New York–based nonprofit organizations that have collectively sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel to fund the settler project. But, as one speaker put it at the rally, funding war crimes is not a charitable endeavor.

Even Joe Biden, no friend of Palestinian liberation, has said as much. Just this year, observing the settler movement’s expansionist fervor, the Biden administration reimposed a ban on US taxpayer money funding collaborative research or academic institutions in Israeli settlements. If an ardent Zionist like Biden can come out in opposition to US funding of illegal settlements, one would think that the Not on Our Dime Act would be a slam dunk.

But when Mamdani first released his groundbreaking legislation, he received a torrent of accusations of antisemitism, including from his own colleagues. A majority of the Democratic Party conference in the State Assembly — a whopping sixty-six Democratic assembly members — signed onto an open letter claiming that the legislation’s “purpose was to attack Jewish organizations . . . demonize Jewish charities . . . [and] to antagonize pro-Israel New Yorkers and sow further divisions within the Democratic Party.”

Cynically wielding Jewish identity to defend Israel’s crimes is as old as Israel itself, but it is shown to be all the more hollow when used to defend crimes that even strong Israel advocates like Biden have felt forced to condemn. That a majority of the assembly’s Democratic conference signed onto this smear demonstrates the hold of the pro-Israel lobby over our political system, and the cravenness of a political party that claims to stand on the side of the poor and oppressed.

Mamdani and his fellow socialists in office who put forward Not on Our Dime are charting out a new path for progressive politicians in standing with Palestine. The Israel lobby has successfully made the question of Palestinian liberation a red line for politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties, attempting to make standing with Palestinians a career-ending position. Progressive firebrand Nina Turner, who doesn’t even support BDS, was defeated in her Ohio congressional race due to an influx of millions of dollars into her district by pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI). Representative Summer Lee in Pennsylvania only narrowly won her race, in a district where she should have been a shoo-in, due to massive investments by the Israel lobby in her opponent’s campaign. Whether it’s due to the money of the Israel lobby or large Zionist bases in their districts, more often than not, progressive politicians have shied away from support for Palestine for fear of losing elections.

Socialists for Palestine

But tides are shifting toward support for Palestinian liberation. Just last month, progressive and socialist members of Congress like AOC and Rashida Tlaib took a principled stand in voting no on a bill that declared that Israel wasn’t racist. But it’s not enough to be a principled minority taking losing votes against our government’s support for Israel; the Left needs to go on the offensive. One example of this was a recent letter organized by Bernie Sanders and Jamaal Bowman to the Biden administration urging the president to investigate the use of Israeli weapons in carrying out human rights abuses of Palestinians.

Mamdani’s bill provides a powerful model for pro-Palestine legislation. Instead of shying away from support for Palestine, Mamdani and fellow socialist elected officials Jabari Brisport, Marcela Mitaynes, Phara Souffrant-Forrest, Kristen Gonzalez, and Sarahana Shrestha are taking the Israel lobby head-on. As socialists in office they recognize that they can’t avoid struggles for justice and challenges to the establishment — their job is to bring these fights out into the open and devote their platforms to building them.

This legislation is one in a long line of principled stands taken by New York socialists in office, like when city councilors Alexa Aviles and Tiffany Cabán were among the very few to vote against Eric Adams’s austerity budget, when state socialists in office voted no on Governor Kathy Hochul’s austerity budget this year, or when in 2021 Mamdani spoke publicly about how the establishment twisted his and others’ arms into voting yes on a subpar budget by threatening billions of dollars secured for working people. It’s this kind of aggressive, confrontational strategy on the part of socialists in office that can help build a movement to deliver real change for the international working class, from New York to Palestine.

Socialist organizers and working-class movement leaders in office, buoyed by increased support for Palestinian liberation among progressive Americans, have for the first time ever forced Zionism’s zealots onto the defensive. In 2021 opinion polls, 25 percent of American Jews stated that they believe that Israel is an apartheid state, and 58 percent supported restricting aid to Israel to not be used for settlements in the West Bank. Both those numbers are likely even higher today. Just this year, for the first time in American history, more Democrats sympathize with Palestinians than Israelis by a margin of eleven points. The Not on Our Dime Act has even received a letter of support from over one hundred Jewish leaders, rabbis, and activists. The letter echoes Mamdani’s speech in Herald Square last month, declaring support for “justice and human rights for all people — no exceptions.”

Following a chant of “Not on Our Dime!” by the over five hundred protesters at the July rally, Mamdani declared, “That is what we are calling for. We are calling for it because we know that the days of that inconsistency, the days of drawing the line at Palestine, those days are over.” It will be the work of the Not on Our Dime campaign, and those of us fighting for Palestinian liberation around the United States and the world, to make those words a reality.