New York’s Ties to Israel Bring the Gaza War Home

Even as experts warn of mass ethnic cleansing in Gaza, New York politicians have remained unwavering in their support for Israel since the Hamas attack. They’ve been less vocal about their state’s ties to the occupation of Palestine.

Chris Gelardi and Julia Rock   ·   October 19, 2023
Governor Kathy Hochul traveled to Israel this week, meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog (center), other Israeli officials, and civilians affected by the October 7 Hamas attack. | Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

It wasn’t until the evening of a “solidarity mission” to Israel, 10 days and more than 4,000 deaths into the ongoing war, that Governor Kathy Hochul advocated publicly for humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. In response to a deadly attack from Hamas militants, Israel has cut off food, water, and electricity in the already besieged area, and Israeli air strikes have killed thousands there.

“Any loss of innocent civilian life is heart wrenching,” she said Tuesday, calling for “pathways” to provide aid. “It is still my strong position that Israel must defend itself against terrorism, or else terrorism will know no boundaries.”

Like Hochul, New York’s top politicians have been outspoken and unwavering in their support for Israel since Hamas’s October 7 surprise attack killed at least 1,300 people there, including more than 1,000 civilians, in what experts say were war crimes.

“It’s a very strong consensus,” Assemblymember David Weprin said. “Israel has to retaliate and has to go in and destroy Hamas.”

They’ve been far less vocal about the humanitarian consequences of Israel’s siege and ongoing counteroffensive, during which experts say the country has also committed war crimes and is in danger of conducting mass ethnic cleansing. Asked about civilian deaths, Weprin placed his trust in the Israeli military. “Look, they’re the experts. Unlike the Hamas attack, they clearly warned everyone in Gaza,” he said. “They have better military intelligence than I do … that’s above my pay grade.”

State leaders have noted that New York has the largest Jewish population in the world outside of Israel, and many have loved ones affected by the carnage. They’ve pointed out that many Israelis hail from New York, including at least one of the roughly 200 hostages taken by Hamas.

What goes unsaid is that New York also has extensive ties to the occupation of Palestinian land that is deeply entwined with the current war.

Several major companies, nonprofit organizations, and individuals spearheading campaigns to overtake Palestinian people’s homes and annex their land hail from the Empire State. State leaders have quashed an effort to restrict the flow of funding to settlements, and the state government blocks economic attempts to pressure Israel into compliance with human rights law. The state has long invested retirement funds in the Israeli government, and it made an additional pledge last week.

“New York is the centerpoint of the relationship between the United States and Israel,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, one of the few local politicians who have called for a ceasefire. “We are complicit in what is going on.”

Governor Kathy Hochul, in a bulletproof vest reading "STATE POLICE," walks with Israeli hosts in Kfar Aza.
Governor Kathy Hochul visits the Israeli Kibbutz Kfar Aza on October 19. | Shlomi Amsalem

“Gaza is hell,” said Zein Rimawi, a 69-year-old Palestinian immigrant and chair of the Arab American Federation in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He has family members living there. “The poor people in Gaza, they have to suffer.”

Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the Israeli government has maintained an air, land, and naval blockade and roughly biennial bombing campaigns in response to the militant political party’s rocket attacks. Before the current war, Gaza’s unemployment rate hovered around 50 percent; authorities enacted rolling blackouts to meet electricity needs; nearly six in 10 children lived in such distress that they experienced reactive mutism, an otherwise uncommon anxiety disorder resulting in an inability to speak in social settings.

“This war has been going on for so long,” Essa Masoud, who is Palestinian-American and owns a grocery store in Bay Ridge, told New York Focus. “I’ve always been hearing about Gaza, kids dying, families being murdered. But this is affecting me more today.”

US officials have long held that the best hope for Gaza is a “two-state solution” to the greater Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. But prospects for a solution have dwindled. In the nearby occupied West Bank, the main site for a supposed future Palestinian state, the amount of land in Palestinian hands has shrunk, as settlers from across Israel have taken it — in some cases with the coordination and financing of New York-based organizations with charitable tax status. A coalition of groups including Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish anti-Zionist organization, is backing New York state legislation to revoke that favorable tax status, arguing it amounts to a public subsidy for illegal colonial activity.

“Israel has to retaliate and has to go in and destroy Hamas.”

—Assemblymember David Weprin

“You are stealing my house!” yells Muna el-Kurd in a May 2021 video. In the yard of her family home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem — half of which intruders had occupied since 2009 — she confronted a bearded man in a T-shirt and sweatpants.

“Why are you yelling at me?” said the man, Long Island native Yaakov Fauci. “If I don’t steal it, someone else is going to steal it.”

Fauci had lived in Sheikh Jarrah for a decade, recruited by the firm Nahalat Shimon International. The firm’s director, Seymour Braun, is a Manhattan-based lawyer. His organization’s parent company is incorporated in Delaware. The firm could not be reached for comment.

Fauci and Braun are part of a network of groups with extensive ties to New York that are helping slowly rid swaths of Israel and the occupied West Bank of Palestinians.

Some, like Nahalat Shimon, are private companies. Others are structured as charities. The Central Fund of Israel is a New York-based nonprofit whose stated goal is to ensure that donations from Israel backers “go to charitable causes” — but it also funnels millions of dollars a year to settler groups.

The organization is the primary funder for the Israel Land Fund — which has focused many of its “land reclamation” efforts on El-Kurd’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood — as well as other settler groups, like Regavim, which also receives support from the Long Island-based One Israel Fund. One of Regavim’s targets is Masafer Yatta, a collection of villages in the southern West Bank where Israeli soldiers have attacked residents who have tried to stop settler bulldozers from leveling homes, schools, farms, and infrastructure.

Another New York-based nonprofit, Friends of Ir David, as well as Manhattan billionaire Ira Rennert, are major funders of Elad, an organization whose members have taken over Palestinian homes and launched eviction proceedings in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwa. Elad works in close conjunction with the Jewish National Fund, a 120-year-old organization whose US branch is a New York-registered nonprofit. Israel’s Jewish National Fund owns nearly 15 percent of the country’s land and recently ramped up its settlement development programs. The Israel Land Fund, Regavim, the One Israel Fund, and Elad did not respond to requests for comment.

On an August trip to Israel, Mayor Eric Adams met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — as well as a senior settlement leader, drawing backlash from the prominent liberal pro-Israel advocacy organization J Street. New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, the highest-ranking Jewish politician in the city, called on Adams to meet with “Palestinian families whose homes were demolished.”

Residents of West Bank settlements have opened their own front in the current war. Emboldened by the violence, they’ve ridded entire villages of their Palestinian inhabitants, established new checkpoints to block Palestinian movement, and attacked houses and funerals. The Israeli military has been distributing rifles to settlers, who have killed more than 60 Palestinians since October 7, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Two on a platform fly Palestinian flags and hold a megaphone in Times Square.
Protesters in New York City rally in solidarity with Palestine on October 13. | Chris Gelardi

A few New York politicians have attempted to cut off the taxpayer-subsidized flow of resources to Israel’s settlement expansion — which human rights officials have decried as ethnic cleansing — only to be shut down by state leadership.

In May, Assemblymember Mamdani and state Senator Jabari Brisport introduced the Not on Our Dime Act, which would give the state attorney general the authority to deny tax-exempt status to groups that fund settlements, as well as the power to dissolve and sue settlement-funding organizations already registered as nonprofits in New York.

Their colleagues swiftly condemned their efforts. The week after they introduced the bill, 66 Democratic assemblymembers — a majority of the conference — released a letter decrying it as a “ploy to demonize Jewish charities” and “further sow divisions within the Democratic Party.”

“We are complicit in what is going on.”

—Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani

Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, who signed the letter, described the settlements as “human rights abuses,” but he took issue with the bill’s focus on Israel-Palestine.

“I don’t think attacking the only Jewish state is the answer to that problem,” Epstein told New York Focus.

Even if Israel-critical measures were to pass the state legislature, it’s unlikely the executive chamber would receive them warmly. In 2016, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order mandating that the state divest from companies participating in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which aims to pressure Israel to comply with international human rights law. Since then, the state Office of General Services has blacklisted up to 14 companies a year — mostly international firms — according to records obtained by New York Focus.

Cuomo’s successor leveraged his anti-BDS policy in one of her early moves as governor: Last year, Hochul threatened to divest Albany’s $110 million in Unilever holdings over a planned West Bank sales boycott by Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The company quashed the boycott after Hochul’s and other legal threats.

In one of his few public moves after resigning, Cuomo announced he would launch an advocacy group called Progressives for Israel. (The organization has not registered as a political advocacy group nor made any public comments since the announcement.)

Another Israel-aligned group emerged last year, spending largely anonymously donated funds on New York elections. Called the New York Solidarity Network, the group ostensibly aims to become a local version of the national American Israel Public Affairs Committee — “to help pro-Israel voters make an informed decision about who they would support in a primary.” Among its early advisers is former New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and its website features testimonies from US Representative Ritchie Torres and Assemblymember Inez Dickens.

Protesters hold signs reading "SAVE ISRAEL" and "YOU ARE GOING DOWN TERRORISTS" and fly Israeli flags behind NYPD gates.
Pro-Israel counter protesters respond to a pro-Palestine rally in New York City on October 8. | Chris Gelardi

Meanwhile, New York has made investments in the Israeli government via the Development Corporation of Israel, which is headquartered in New York City and has issued sovereign debt since 1951. The New York state pension system had invested nearly $250 million in the corporation’s Israel Bonds program before state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli pledged an additional $20 million last week. (At least seven other states have also bought bonds during the current war.)

According to a spokesperson for Comptroller Lander, New York City retirement funds are not currently invested in Israel Bonds or any other sovereign bonds.

When asked whether the state comptroller is concerned about reports that Israel is violating international law by targeting civilians, using illegal chemical weapons, and cutting off electricity and supplies to Gaza, DiNapoli’s office directed New York Focus to the press release announcing the latest bond purchase.

“I am heartened that so many other public funds have stepped forward to purchase bonds and support Israel, the only democratic government in the region, during these tragic and challenging days,” DiNapoli said in the press release. The program’s board chair added: “The Empire State has continually demonstrated that it strongly stands with the Jewish State today and forever.”

Governor Kathy Hochul at the Consulate General of Israel in New York on October 10. | Susan Watts / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

As homes, hospitals, and shelters in Gaza run out of supplies and Israel prepares for a ground invasion that could kill thousands more, a few New York politicians have pressed for peace.

“I’ve already called on asking Hamas to turn the hostages over. I’d also ask Israel to stop the bombing campaign, because I don’t think killing more innocent civilians is an appropriate response for the abduction of innocent civilians,” said Epstein, the assemblymember.

“I both resolutely condemn the attacks Hamas has mounted against civilians and grieve the ongoing colonial oppression of Palestinian people,” state Senator Jessica Ramos told New York Focus in a statement. “I am hopeful we can see a negotiated peace settlement in the region as soon as possible.”

But they are in the distinct minority.

“Of course Israel should abide by international laws of armed conflict, including proportionality, as it pursues a legitimate military objective of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas,” said state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal.

“Hamas knows peace for both Palestine and Israel means the end of their organization, and that is ultimately what we hope to see in the region,” Queens Borough President Donovan Richards said in a statement. “We know thousands and thousands of Palestinian families who had nothing to do with Hamas’s attacks are suffering,” he added.

On the federal level, New York lawmakers have been leading a campaign to send additional military aid to Israel. Representative Gregory Meeks, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bipartisan resolution calling for unconditional military support to Israel. Back from his own Israel trip, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said he’ll move quickly on a package that could amount to $100 billion in military aid split between Israel and Ukraine. (By comparison, the US on Wednesday announced that it was sending 0.1 percent of that in humanitarian aid to Gaza and the West Bank.)

For her part, Hochul spearheaded a letter to congressional leadership, signed by 17 governors, urging them to send Israel more federal aid. The letter did not mention Gaza or Palestinians.

Masked figure holds a sign reading "It is right to resist genocide."
Protesters in New York City rally in solidarity with Palestine on October 13. | Chris Gelardi

“It’s a race between these politicians: Who is supporting Israel more?” said Rimawi, from Bay Ridge, where two men waving Israeli flags reportedly assaulted a Palestinian-American teenager last week. He wishes local officials wouldn’t wade into international affairs; he said his Arab American Federation endorsed New York City Mayor Eric Adams with the understanding that he’d focus on the city.

Since the current war, Adams has falsely accused local political opponents of “calling for the extermination of Jewish people.” During a video call with Muslim community leaders last week, he “scolded” attendees and staff muted people who were critical of his rhetoric, Gothamist reported.

By unquestioningly supporting Israel’s onslaught and “inciting against” people expressing solidarity for victims in Gaza, Rimawi said, New York’s politicians are “bringing the war home from the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, many New York state and federal politicians have pressured the federal government to help Americans and their family members evacuate Israel, and some have provided constituents with resources to help loved ones. But far fewer have made the same overtures to Americans in Gaza.

“We’re going to continue to work hard to assist and to cut through whatever bureaucracy may be an obstacle to getting our friends, families home,” said Republican US Representative Marc Molinaro. Asked whether his office had provided support to Americans trying to flee Gaza, a spokesperson for Molinaro told New York Focus: “If any American citizen needs help, our office helps.”

New York politicians are “bringing the war home from the Middle East.”

—Zein Rimawi, Arab American Federation

His office did not respond to questions about whether any assistance had been extended to those in Gaza.

None of the other New York federal and state lawmakers who have taken measures to help evacuate Americans from Israel responded to New York Focus queries about whether they had applied similar pressure to help evacuate any of the hundreds of Americans trapped in Gaza.

“Many fellow New Yorkers have friends and family on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank right now,” said Sumaya Awad, a Palestinian writer and director of strategy at the Adalah Justice Project.

“Many are seeing their elected representatives tell them their lives are not worthy of grief.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Julia Rock is a reporter for New York Focus. She was previously an investigative reporter at The Lever.
Also filed in New York State

We asked 26 lawmakers who support the congestion pricing pause how they propose to fund transit upgrades. Most shrugged.

The state is blowing past key milestones on the way to its big emissions targets.

As climate disasters threaten a home insurance crisis, a new state bill aims at the problem’s root.

Also filed in New York City

The constant gridlock is a major drag on Manhattan’s businesses, and source of frustration for commuters. And it’s never been so bad.

Lawsuits had threatened to kill congestion pricing. Now, it might take a lawsuit to save it.

The police department’s PR team has more than doubled in size in the past two years. Some of its recent hires have histories of dishonesty and misconduct.