NYC Socialist City Councillors Were Targeted for Their Israel Stance. They Still Won Big.

In Tuesday’s election, socialist city councillors in New York City easily fended off right-wing and centrist attempts to use their pro-Palestine stance against them. They won each of their races handily.

Councilmember Tiffany Caban was reelected in Queens, New York City, on November 7, 2023. (Felton Davis / Flickr)

In the days leading up to Tuesday’s election, the right-wing fearmongering on the Middle East reached a fever pitch. In an article published on November 4, the conservative New York Post flagged five pro-Palestine city council members up for election, accusing them of “blaming Israel for Hamas attacks” and other “hateful rhetoric” about Israel’s war in Gaza, and noting that three of them were members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Those lawmakers were Shahana Hanif of Brooklyn, Sandy Nurse of Brooklyn, Chi Ossé of Brooklyn, Tiffany Cabán of Queens, and Alexa Avilés of Brooklyn (the last three are DSA members).

The Post article contained numerous falsehoods, characterizing as “pro-Hamas” a DSA-organized October 20 protest at which Councilwoman Shahana Hanif, the first Muslim woman to serve on the New York City Council, was arrested. (Of course, that rally was not pro-Hamas, but did call for a cease-fire).

The Post wasn’t alone in relentlessly targeting these lawmakers in the weeks before the election. Mayor Eric Adams, Congressman Ritchie Torres, and others attempted to smear the socialists for political gain, accusing DSA of antisemitism and support for terrorism.

The fearmongers began forecasting electoral doom for the socialists last month as soon as the war began. Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, tweeted on October 8, when DSA was criticized for promoting a pro-Palestine rally on the day Hamas attacked Israel, “This will be the end of the DSA in NYC.” Torres said on October 29, “The DSA has made itself radioactive in New York politics, and those associating with the DSA do so at their own peril.”

Well, perhaps this crew should stay out of the political prognostication business.

All five of the lawmakers targeted by hardcore Israel apologists kept their seats Tuesday.

Not only that, all five of the targeted councilmembers won by a landslide. City councillor Chi Ossé, a DSA member from Bed Stuy targeted in the Post article for calling the Israeli occupation the “root” of the violence in the region and the Palestine liberation movement “legitimate,” won his election by 98.74 percent, the highest margin of any city council race in New York this year. (Notably, in most of these races huge numbers of people cast their votes on the Working Families Party ballot line, suggesting that voters were paying attention to the intricacies of progressive politics and approved despite all the right-wing fearmongering.)

These incumbents were expected to win, given that Democratic incumbents rarely lose in New York City, but given the heated conservative and centrist rhetoric around DSA and Palestine, the blowout victories offer hope that left supporters of a cease-fire in Gaza can weather similar attacks in bigger elections next year.

Supporters worked hard to get out the vote, and in a low-turnout election, the ground game is everything. As well, all these socialist elected officials are popular. They fight hard against Mayor Adams’s regime of austerity and for priorities like school funding and municipal composting. Voters appreciate them for it. Some voters do not always agree with all their stands — Palestinian solidarity, criminal justice reforms, and cutting police funding can be controversial — but these lawmakers are well regarded in their communities. It’s one of many instances where a heated media discourse can distract from normal people’s everyday concerns.

Another clear lesson from the council races is that even when criticized, these leaders didn’t back down. The attacks on DSA began as soon as Hamas attacked Israel, yet all the city councillors joined protests throughout October, including one organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, in which hundreds of Jewish New Yorkers filled Grand Central station demanding a cease-fire; or another demanding that Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer sign on to that position. Many of these councillors got arrested, showing that they wouldn’t wilt in the face of cynical fearmongering.

Equally important, a massive movement demanding a cease-fire is making Palestinian solidarity mainstream, while the massacre-apologists seem increasingly marginal (and dangerous). Street protests against Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians are the biggest antiwar demonstrations in twenty years, with many Americans showing courage by risking arrest, while others jeopardize their jobs and livelihoods to speak out. Large numbers of people are showing an increasing moral revulsion against the effort by Israel — and the United States — to crush Palestinian society, including their hospitals, universities, and schools, and rob Arab children of their lives and futures. This shared conscience is shielding lawmakers and robbing the issue of its power to hurt the Left.

It will certainly take more organizing to defeat attacks like this next year, as Israel’s defenders will pour much more money into congressional and state races. The issue is likely to loom large in local races in 2025, as well. Primaries in New York are higher stakes and bigger money than general elections; although extreme-right Republicans have made inroads in recent years, if serious massacre-apologists want to take on the DSA and its allies over this issue in the future, they’re certainly going to find the Democratic primary a more plausible route. The Left will need to be ready for this much more potentially effective tactic.

The Right kept throwing potshots, even in defeat. One failed Republican candidate who had campaigned on antisemitism — notwithstanding the enormous diversity of Jewish opinion on the war in Gaza — broke new ground in sore loserdom, declaring the city “irredeemable” and urging, “Jews, get out while you can.”

But Tuesday’s results in New York — and the massive protests — show that for now the Left enjoys plenty of goodwill among voters, and Palestine solidarity need no longer divide or marginalize us. That’s a good foundation for the bigger battles to come in 2024.