The scandal involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s alleged smear campaign against Cynthia Nixon may have erupted full force in the last days of their hard-fought gubernatorial primary race – but there was nothing new about its message to the state’s Jewish community.
From the very beginning, before Nixon officially signaled her intention to challenge incumbent Cuomo, her opponents worked to portray her as an Israel hater who believes in boycotting the Jewish state. They fit her into a narrative that equates the far-left, Bernie Sanders-supporting wing of the Democratic Party with vilification of Israel.
Long before Thursday’s Democratic primary vote, when Nixon was still preparing to formally announce her candidacy, Harvard law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz called the now 52-year-old “Sex and the City” star “anti-Israel.” He added, “She has collaborated with Israel haters Jewish Voice for Peace and Vanessa Redgrave in boycotting Israel. Do not support her bigotry.”
Dershowitz based his charge on a September 2010 letter Nixon signed, along with 150 other U.S. actors, writers, directors and artists, voicing their support for Israeli actors who refused to perform in West Bank settlements.
Since March, significant work has been done to convince New York’s Jewish voters that the actor-turned-politician stands on the “wrong side” of a divide. In the battleground between politicians actively advocating for the Jewish state and battling its opponents, and those who are alleged “Israel-hating anti-Semites” doing all they can to destroy it via the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Nixon has been placed firmly in the latter camp.
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That effort culminated in the controversial anti-Nixon mailer sent out by New York’s Democratic committee on the eve of Rosh Hashanah – perfectly timed to spark synagogue buzz. The flyer warned: “With anti-Semitism and bigotry on the rise, we can’t take a chance with inexperienced Cynthia Nixon, who won’t stand strong for our Jewish communities.” It added that Nixon had been “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism” and is pro-BDS.
In an editorial on Sunday, the New York Times slammed the mailer as “sleazy” and “dirty politics.”
Attempts by the governor and his campaign team to distance themselves from the mailer fell flat after a “smoking-gun email” was revealed by the New York Post: It detailed a pitch sent to the Post from an official “andrewcuomo.com” account last week, in which a Cuomo campaign aide proposed a story about Nixon’s support of the BDS movement, writing: “Nixon has supported insidious BDS campaign, signing onto letter boycotting Israel.”
Indeed, on the eve of the election, it was revealed that it was Cuomo’s aides and campaign staff who drafted and approved the language in the flyer.
Yet Nixon was probably better positioned than any other non-Jewish candidate to push back against the mailer’s charge that she has been “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism.” She is raising two Jewish children with her ex-husband, she herself attends a liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and she was able to bring out her own rabbi to call the charges a “baseless lie.”
“I am very alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism, in this country and globally,” Nixon said at a press conference on Sunday. She has been anything but silent, she said, because “I am frightened for my children. I am frightened for our world. And to use this kind of [unfounded] charge as a political weapon, as a smear campaign, is unworthy of Andrew Cuomo’s Democratic Party.”
Nixon’s position on BDS is more complex, and her carefully calibrated position reflects an attempt by several of this year’s progressive Bernie Sanders-inspired candidates to walk a tightrope.
On one side is their base, which is highly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause – including the Democratic Socialists of America, which formally endorsed the BDS movement in August 2017. On the other side are mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel voters and donors, to whom any whiff of boycotting Israel is anathema.
It is an increasingly narrow and uncomfortable space to occupy: Opponents of BDS have become as assertive as its advocates, attempting to fight fire with fire.
There has been no question over which side the incumbent governor is on, with Cuomo leading the charge for anti-BDS action. In June 2016, he signed the first-ever executive order by a governor requiring state agencies to divest themselves of companies and organizations that support the BDS movement. He declared that the move was intended to “help protect Israel from the threat of divestment,” and send “the message that this state will do everything in its power to end this hateful, intolerant campaign.”
Cuomo’s order represented an even bolder version of the anti-BDS legislation that has hit statehouses around the United States, as pioneered by now-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley when she was South Carolina’s governor. Haley’s measure had made South Carolina one of the first two states to enact legislation outlawing BDS.
Reacting to the mailer controversy on Sunday, Nixon outlined her nuanced position on an issue not given to subtle distinctions. She declared, “I am not a supporter of BDS, I have never been a supporter of BDS.” However, she also said that if elected, she would revoke Cuomo’s BDS executive order, restoring the ability of state agencies to do business with companies that boycott Israel – saying it was “trampling on people’s civilities.”
While she said she opposed BDS, “Neither do I favor what Andrew Cuomo does, in effectively making a blacklist of institutions and individuals who do support BDS. I believe they have the right to do that, and the ACLU condemned him for doing that. I do not personally support BDS, but I support the right of those who do speak about it.”
Nixon hasn’t been completely alone on the tightrope. Joining her are several other breakthrough progressives, including Minnesota congressional nominee Ilhan Omar. The Muslim candidate told a synagogue audience during her primary campaign in August that she did not support BDS – not necessarily because she felt it was unjustified, but because “it’s not helpful in getting that two-state solution.” The Somali-American said the “pressure” BDS creates is “counteractive,” prevents both sides from coming to the table and “stops the dialogue.”
Even Rashida Tlaib, a congressional Democratic nominee who has been harshly critical of Israel – and who lost her endorsement from J Street after she changed her position on the two-state solution – has also avoided outright endorsement of BDS. Instead, she said last month that as an “ACLU card member,” she stands by “the rights of people who support BDS,” and that “if you don’t support freedom of speech, you’re in the wrong country.”
Meanwhile, the poster girl of the new progressive surge, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has done her best to avoid the BDS question entirely.
The danger of smear campaigns like the one by Cuomo’s team – which will surely intensify as primary season gives way to the all-out partisan battle between Democrats and Republicans ahead of the November 6 election – is that they will become self-fulfilling prophecies. If candidates like Nixon – who attempt to stake out a thoughtful position in the shades of gray that exist between endorsing BDS and criminalizing it – are slapped with a pro-BDS label, they may figure there is little to lose by going all in and joining their progressive brethren in supporting full-on boycotts of Israel.
Such a result would be a victory for partisan extremists on both sides. For those who believe that, despite it all, support for a strong and secure Israel can coexist with progressive liberal values, it would be a resounding blow.