Why Are Progressive Legislators Opposing New York’s First Anti-Settlement Bill?

The “Not on our dime” act would ban tax-deductible donations to Israeli settlements, but centrists and progressives alike say the proposed law is “a ploy to demonize” Jewish nonprofits.

Alex Kane and Mari Cohen
May 31, 2023

New York Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani speaks at the launch of his anti-settlement funding bill in Albany on May 16th.

Courtesy of Assemblymember Mamdani’s office

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On May 17th, New York State Democratic Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani introduced legislation that would prevent US charities registered in the state from sending funds to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The “Not on our dime!: Ending New York funding of Israeli settler violence” act, which has the backing of a number of progressive groups, would give the attorney general the authority to stop groups that fund settlements from registering as charities and deny them tax-exempt status. If an existing charity already funds settlements, the attorney general would have the power to dissolve it and sue for at least $1 million in damages. Private individuals impacted by settlement-funding groups—such as Palestinians being displaced by an organization funded by a New York charity—would also be able to sue for damages and seek a court order to shut them down.

Mamdani’s effort appears to align with longstanding party priorities. Democratic leaders have consistently opposed Israeli settlements because they make a two-state solution, the Democrats’ stated goal, all but impossible to achieve by slicing Palestinian territory in the West Bank into non-contiguous areas. State Department officials in the Obama administration said that the problem was worsened by US-based nonprofits that fund Israeli settlements. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US would ban its citizens from funding settlements if Israel did not take steps to end the occupation. (Ultimately, Clinton did not follow through on the threat.) More recently, seven progressive members of Congress urged the Treasury Department to investigate US organizations funding Israeli settlements and possibly revoke their tax-exempt status.

The “Not on our dime” bill builds on—and puts legal weight behind—Democrats’ continued opposition to settlements. But New York Democrats have vocally opposed it. About a week after the bill was introduced, 66 Democratic assemblymembers (the majority of the body) signed a letter that denounced the bill as “a ploy to demonize Jewish charities with connections to Israel” and “antagonize pro-Israel New Yorkers.” The letter’s signatories included not just mainstream Democrats but also a number of progressive legislators who typically hew to the party’s left on issues such as police brutality and labor rights. Twenty-seven of the signatories were recently endorsed for office by the Working Families Party (WFP), a progressive electoral group that emphasizes economic and social justice. Two signatories—Harvey Epstein, who represents parts of the east side of Manhattan, and Linda Rosenthal, who represents parts of the Upper West Side and central Manhattan—oppose the “Not on our dime” bill even though they were endorsed by The Jewish Vote, the electoral arm of the New York City-based progressive group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), which has backed the bill. (Neither Epstein nor Rosenthal responded to multiple requests for comment.) Two additional WFP-backed legislators—Alex Bores and Amanda Septimo, the latter of whom was also supported by The Jewish Vote—released separate statements opposing the “Not on our dime” bill even though they did not sign their fellow assemblymembers’ letter.

When asked why Democrats, including progressives, would oppose the bill, Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who has advised a wide array of New York Democrats, said that, in addition to concerns that the bill could fuel antisemitism, there was also an electoral calculus behind their stance. “Some of the legislators’ seats depend on Jewish voters,” particularly in certain areas of New York City, Sheinkopf said. “You vote on this legislation, you pass it—you’ll have a revolt in Brooklyn and portions of Queens . . . that could have a serious impact on the Democratic majority in the assembly and senate.”

If passed into law, the “Not on our dime” bill would target the network of New York nonprofits that send millions of tax-deductible dollars to Israeli groups in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which in turn use the money to expel Palestinians from their homes and entrench the settlement project. The coalition behind the bill—which includes progressive Jewish, Muslim American, and Palestinian rights organizations—has highlighted a handful of settler nonprofits that it says exemplify the problem. The Central Fund for Israel, for instance, currently sends $50 million yearly to various settler groups, including Regavim, an organization that advocates for the demolition of Palestinian villages. The group also funds Honenu, a group that provides legal services and financial assistance to those suspected or convicted of terrorism targeting Palestinians. Other New York charities funding settlements include Friends of Ir David, which raises money for Elad, an Israeli organization pushing to evict Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. According to the “Not on our dime” legislation, such organizations are helping commit war crimes by funding violations of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from sending its civilian population into occupied territory. “By allowing these organizations to continue operating as non-profits while funding ethnic cleansing and war crimes, New York State is subsidizing these atrocities,” Mamdani wrote in a tweet thread announcing the legislation.

The fact that this bill was introduced into the legislature at all is a testament to New York’s changing political landscape, in which a small but active new cohort of legislators affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are willing to test the state’s longstanding pro-Israel consensus. In addition to Mamdani, this group includes three DSA-backed assemblymembers who cosponsored the bill, as well as New York State Senator Jabari Brisport, who introduced a version of it in the state senate with the support of a DSA-backed colleague. (Two additional DSA-backed legislators—Assemblymember Emily Gallagher and Senator Julia Salazar—have not endorsed the legislation; neither returned requests for comment.) But these efforts are likely to be stymied by New York’s Democratic leadership, which has vowed not to let the bill come to a vote in either the assembly or the senate.

While the Democratic leadership’s opposition to the bill is unsurprising, given their ties to Jewish establishment groups and focus on maintaining a Democratic majority, Palestinian rights advocates say the progressive assemblymembers’ position is out of step with their stated worldview. “The core tenet of this bill is simple: New York should not be subsidizing funding for illegal settlements built on Palestinian land,” said Sumaya Awad, director of strategy and communications for Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian organization that is supporting the legislation. “Refusing to aid and abet war crimes is a progressive value. Those who call themselves progressives need to follow through.”

Jewish Currents reached out to 12 of New York’s progressive assemblymembers who have opposed the “Not on our dime” bill to clarify their positions on whether New York nonprofits should be allowed to fund settlements. While 10 declined or did not respond to interview requests, two lawmakers spoke to Jewish Currents about their reasons for opposing the bill. Amanda Septimo—an assemblymember supported by WFP and The Jewish Vote who represents portions of the Bronx—told Jewish Currents last week that she believes the bill singles Israel out. Septimo, who has tweeted that the bill is “harmful, one-sided,” and “divisive,” and “calls Israel’s sovereignty into question,” said that “[the bill] suggests that Israel is somehow different than other countries and doesn’t have the same power, authority, and space to make decisions about its border, its foreign policy, and its internal happenings.” When asked whether charities that send money to Israel’s settlements should have nonprofit status in New York, Septimo said that she’d be open to a broader discussion of how nonprofits spend money, but that “with this bill, I can’t even get to the substance of it, because of it starting with Israel.”

Septimo suggested that a better version of the bill would include reference to “Myanmar and Tibet and other places where we know that there are also policies that aren’t in line with US foreign policy goals.” In response, Mamdani told Jewish Currents that while his legislation could be replicated to apply to New York charities involved in alleged war crimes elsewhere, the state needs a bill focused on Israel because otherwise, the political sensitivity of Israel/Palestine discourages the enforcement of laws. “In New York state, the attorney general already has the right to investigate charities for wrongdoing,” he said. “[But] when it comes to [settlement-funding] nonprofits, there is no application of existing law. When it comes to Israel in this country, it is necessary to be explicit.”

Assemblymember MaryJane Shimsky, a WFP-endorsed progressive who represents parts of Westchester County, had a different complaint about the bill. She told Jewish Currents that while she signed onto the assemblymembers’ letter accusing the legislation of “demonizing” Jewish charities, her principal concern is that it doesn’t “make sense” for a state legislature to get involved in a foreign policy issue, which is something the federal government should take action on. “I am sympathetic to the idea that there are problems there that the current administration in Israel is probably making worse, but my opinions are not necessarily the best basis for foreign policy response,” said Shimsky.

But Mamdani said that because the bill concerns New York charity regulations, it’s relevant to Albany legislators. “Stating that our laws here in New York state have no interaction with that which occurs outside of the state is an ‘ignorance is bliss’ kind of mentality,” he said. “It is easier to wash your hands of this issue and say that this is out of our jurisdiction than it is to reckon with [New York’s] complicity [in funding settlements].” Mamdani also pointed out that Albany has involved itself in the politics of Israel/Palestine before—though typically in defense of Israel, such as when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a 2016 executive order requiring New York to divest money from any entity that supports the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel for abusing Palestinian human rights. In line with that order, the New York comptroller divested $111 million from Unilever—the firm that owns Ben & Jerry’s—in 2021, after the ice cream maker said it would no longer sell its products in West Bank settlements.

For some groups that oppose the occupation, the “Not on our dime” bill marks an exciting opportunity to break with New York’s history of pro-Israel policy and practice Palestine advocacy on a local level. “This is the first piece of legislation in Albany that actually tackles the question of how Palestine shows up as a local issue in New York,” said Audrey Sasson, executive director of JFREJ. But progressive lawmakers’ opposition to the bill highlights the challenges of doing pro-Palestine electoral advocacy. When asked how the group would handle the fact that some of its Jewish Vote endorsees opposed the bill, communications director Sophie Ellman-Golan said that JFREJ will continue supporting the bill while working closely with some of the bill’s opponents on other issues like fair pay for home health care workers. “We’re proud to work with them on the essential issue of the home care crisis,” she said, “and we are proud to support Zohran [Mamdani]’s bill.” The difficulty of getting even progressive endorsees on board with the bill speaks to the power of New York’s pro-Israel consensus. Eva Borgwadt, the political director of Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, said that opposition to “Not on our dime” shows that the right has successfully created a political climate in which “progressive legislators endorse right-wing, pro-settlement talking points.”

For Mamdani, progressive lawmakers’ opposition to the bill isn’t a surprise. “I’ve grown up seeing politicians that I’ve admired time and again draw an exception when it comes to Palestine,” he told Jewish Currents. “It’s an issue where people make decisions on the basis of political calculus.” Given the fierce backlash to the bill, Mamdani acknowledged that, for now, there is little chance of it being enacted into law. “When you have a piece of legislation that threatens to upend the way New York politics works, it will take a long time to win that legislation,” he said. “But the only way you get to the finish line is if you actually start.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.