Aug. 30, 2023 By Michael Dorgan and Paul Frangipane
Assembly member Zohran Mamdani and state Senator Kristen Gonzalez hosted a town hall in Long Island City on Tuesday, Aug. 29, to discuss their legislation that aims to prohibit New York registered charities from funding Israeli organizations operating in the West Bank.
The event took place at CUNY School of Law, located at 2 Court Square W., where around 200 participants heard from a panel of speakers as to why they support the bill which is also known as the “Not on Our Dime!: Ending New York Funding of Israeli Settler Violence Act.”
The legislation, if passed, would give the New York state attorney general the power to dissolve groups funding settlements in the West Bank, an area of land on the west bank of the River Jordan which is bounded by Israel to the north, west and south. East Jerusalem is considered a part of the West Bank.
The bill would also give Palestinians harmed by such organizations the right to seek damages in American courts.
The settlement territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem were acquired by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments claim rights to the land.
The United Nations Security Council has stated that the settlements violate international law, while Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory and has built dozens of settlements there. A estimated 700,000 Jews reside in West Bank settlements.
Mamdani, who is sponsoring the legislation in the Assembly, said that New York state registered charities were sending $60 million a year to organizations operating in settlement areas, citing figures provided by the Jewish Voices for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
He charged that the settlements violate international law, and thus the charities are supporting illegal activity after the fact.
“When you are an elected official and you are presented with clear evidence of something that is illegal, it is incumbent upon you to act,” Mamdani said. “We are not just posturing, this is in our jurisdiction because we determine in New York state who gets to be registered as a charity and what gets to count as a charitable purpose.”
The bill calls for not-for-profit corporations to be prohibited from “aiding or abetting activity in support of illegal Israeli settlements in violation of the Geneva Conventions of 1949.”
Under the legislation, charities deemed to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions would be non-profits that assist with the transfer of Israeli civilians into settlements, acts of violence committed by Israeli citizens against Palestinians living in the settlements and the forced transfer or evictions of Palestinians from the settlements. Charities involved in the seizure or destruction of private Palestinian land would also be considered in violation, according to the bill.
‘A ploy to demonize Jewish charities’
But the legislation has been slammed by Israeli leaders and those within the Democratic Party, of which Mamdani and Gonzalez are members. In May, a majority of the Democratic Conference in the state Assembly, led by Queens Assembly Member Nily Rozic and former Assembly Member Daniel Rosenthal, previously penned a joint letter stating their opposition to the bill.
“This bill is a ploy to demonize Jewish charities with connections to Israel,” the joint letter reads. “It was only introduced to antagonize pro-Israel New Yorkers and further sow divisions within the Democratic Party.”
Michael Nussbaum, the president of the Queens Jewish Council, slammed Mamdani and Gonzalez for pushing the legislation, which he says will never be passed into law.
“As president of the Queens Council, I am opposed to people like Mamdani and Gonzalez who are members of the DSA, whose agenda is not to recognize the state of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East,” Nussbaum told the Queens Post/QNS. “And as both an American and a Jew, I think what they are proposing in Albany is an insult to people of goodwill and to the Jewish community.”
Nussbaum said that legislation shows that the lawmakers do not properly understand what is going on in the region.
“Anyone in the Jewish community will be happy to sit down and talk to them if they want to have an honest dialogue,” he said.
Some observers have also said the legislation’s language seems to mirror goals of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) movement, a Palestinian-led campaign to financially pressure Israel into ending the settlements and other alleged violations of international law. Groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, however, see the BDS movement as a direct threat to Israel’s existence.
‘A struggle for dignity for all’
State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez speaking at the town hall (Photo by Paul Frangipane)
Mamdani and Gonzalez were joined on the town hall panel of speakers by members of the Not on Our Dime! Coalition, a group advocating for the passage of the bill. The lawmakers are both members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which shares pro-Palestine views.
Tarek Ismail, a law professor at CUNY, and Elena Stein, the director of organizing strategy with the Jewish Voice for Peace, a California-based progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization, were also in attendance as was Diala Shamas, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a Manhattan-based nonprofit legal advocacy organization.
Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestine correspondent for The Nation magazine also attended. The event was co-moderated by Ismail and Stein.
Mamdani said at the town hall that he stands with people all around the world who he considers are living under occupation, and he said the situation in Palestine is no different.
“I do not care where it is, I do not care who is occupying, it is a simple politics of consistency and not one of convenience,” Mamdani said. “This cannot continue to happen on our watch, this cannot continue to happen on our dime. We are in one struggle and that is a struggle for dignity for all working people everywhere.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, said that the passage of the bill would underscore New Yorkers’ solidarity with Palestinians. She is co-sponsoring the bill in the state senate.
“As an elected official, we have a responsibility to fight for freedom, to push back against displacement, to say that in New York we can set the standard,” she said. “We can say that it should not be on our dime that we would fund what we have universally … admitted is a human rights violation.”
Gonzalez added that the situation in the West Bank was a symptom of colonialism and capitalism.
‘The bare minimum’
Shamas outlined to participants how the bill clarifies existing laws on the books banning charities from funding illegal activities abroad.
“So as a matter of law, this bill is frankly basic, it is uncontroversial, it is the bare minimum,” Shamas said. “This campaign should not exist; we shouldn’t have to have a bill that clarifies that war crimes are not charitable. We shouldn’t be thinking about ways to direct the attorney general to do her job. But unfortunately, this campaign is necessary and that is why we are here.”
El-Kurd said that organizations targeted by the bill facilitate the removal of Palestinians from the settlement territories.
“You have settlers who are funded by U.S. charities that come and take over our homes, take advantage of asymmetrical courts and their discriminatory laws, who collaborate with the Israeli government,” El-Kurd said.
“It is about time that something is done about them, this is not the ceiling of this bill, this is the floor, this is the bare minimum and everybody should support it.”
The event was followed by a Q&A session.