This story originally appeared in Jacobin on May 22, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
A group of New York legislators recently put forth a bill that would ensure the state government can’t use public money to fund human rights abuses that have been found illegal under international law. The idea seems straightforward — why would government dollars be used to fund illegal activities?
In a sensible world, the principles set out in “Not on Our Dime,” a New York State Assembly bill, introduced by socialist assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mamdani and cosponsored by fellow socialist assemblymembers Sarahana Shrestha, Phara Souffrant Forrest, and Marcela Mitaynes, would be anodyne and barely need saying. The legislation prohibits nonprofit organizations from supporting the illegal activities of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, including violence by Israelis against Palestinians, forced eviction of Palestinians from the area, and destruction or expropriation of Palestinian homes or lands.
“We don’t want our hard-earned money to kill anyone or wreck their homes” should be a statement of the obvious, particularly in a state as progressive as New York. But the bill’s introduction was met with immediate denunciation by establishment Democrats in the assembly, who called it “a ploy to demonize Jewish charities with connections to Israel . . . only introduced to antagonize pro-Israel New Yorkers and further sow divisions within the Democratic Party.” Senate and Assembly leadership said firmly that they would never allow the bill to pass.
Some went further. Stacey Pheffer Amato, a Queens assemblymember like Mamdani, said the bill was “purely antisemitic . . . propaganda that fuels a campaign of hate against Jewish people.”
The bill originated when a coalition of groups, including Jewish Voice for Peace and Center for Constitutional Rights, brought to Mamdani’s attention some $60 million a year given to nonprofit organizations registered in New York state but extensively engaged in settlement activity that violates the Geneva Convention.
The New York nonprofits targeted by the bill includes the Central Fund of Israel, the largest US-based nonprofit engaged in funneling money to help settlers violently displace Palestinians. Mamdani’s bill, he says, aims to make sure that “New York State does not keep subsidizing war crimes.”
The Israeli settlement activities supported by these New York “charities” not only violate the Geneva Convention but also US policy, which has been to condemn Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. (The State Department determined their illegality in 1978, though many in the US government have been more circumspect.) Condemnation of a crime, however, rings hollow if we’re allowing our own money to subsidize that crime. If we don’t pass “Not on Our Dime,” Mamdani says, “we are complicit” in Israeli violations of international law.
Nonprofit organizations, even when they don’t get money directly from the government — and many do — are important for the state to regulate, because donations to them are tax-deductible, which means they are heavily subsidized by the government (and therefore by all of us), despite the misleading term “nongovernmental organization.”
Contrary to the Assembly Democrats’ statement, this bill is not about “Israel,” but about that country’s war crimes and New York’s role in them. The critics, Mamdani said, are attempting to distract from war crimes by making this about “Israel.” But it is specifically about New York organizations funding human rights violations, as Mamdani said in an interview and elsewhere.
“This is a bill about what New Yorkers are doing,” agrees Diala Shamas, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who calls the legislation “exciting.”
Legally, Shamas says, it’s “uncontroversial,” explaining, “It’s already illegal to aid and abet war crimes, but it’s important to name when New York money is complicit, that this issue matters and that these lives matter.” The bill also provides a remedy and a process for victims to collect damages from these charities.
The idea animating the Democrats’ backlash is that Israel must never be criticized. That’s a hard-line stance that has been losing popularity in the United States. The Israeli government and its supporters are increasingly alarmed about that and are spending heavily to fight the American left.
That means that even progressives who shy away from Israel as a “divisive” issue or feel it’s not a top priority compared to domestic problems need to be involved in these fights.
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have shown that it’s possible to electorally prevail even after criticizing Israel and drawing the ire of zealous defenders of Israel, a sign of the changing times. The socialist New York assembly members will likely do the same.
So far, more than fifteen hundred New Yorkers have contacted their representatives through a website to ask that they support the “Not on Our Dime” bill. Mamdani said on Friday that “it’s been a rough week in Albany” but believes his constituents are backing him. “If you were to ask an ordinary New Yorker,” Mamdani says, whether our state should allow charities responsible for “expelling Palestinians from their homes, I’m quite sure they would say no.”