Western Queens lawmakers display pro-Palestinian stance: divergence from borough-wide pols

Town hall meetin
Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani and State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez at a town hall meeting in Long Island City on Aug. 29, 2023, where they discussed a bill they introduced targeting nonprofits that fund Israeli settlements. About 200 people were in attendance
Photos by Paul Frangipane

Western Queens is known for being a progressive hub, with the majority of its elected officials being heavy critics of the Israeli government and calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, a Democratic Socialist who has represented Western Queens since 2021, has been a fierce critic of the Israeli government for years and a staunch supporter of the Palestinians.

His criticism of Israel has only heightened in recent times, with him condemning that nation’s response to the Oct 7 terrorist attacks, which saw Hamas kill about 1,100 Israelis— and take 240 hostages. He has been calling for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez–a Democratic Socialist who represents much of western Queens, parts of northern Brooklyn, and southern Manhattan– has long supported Palestinian rights and is an outspoken opponent of Israeli settlement activity.

For instance, she co-sponsored a controversial bill in May 2023 called “Not on Our Dime! Ending the New York Funding of Israeli Settler Violence Act,” which aims to ban non-profits from financially supporting Israeli settlement activity. Mamdani penned the bill and introduced it in the Assembly. The bill has not made it out of committee.

Both Mamdani and Gonzalez are running for office again this year. 

Mamdani no longer faces a Democratic primary since his initial challenger, Steven Beard—a critic of Mamdani’s stance on Israel—was unable to get the number of verified signatures to get on the ballot in the race to represent the 36th Assembly District. Meanwhile, Gonzalez faces a Democratic primary challenger, Konstantinos (Gus) Lambropoulus, for her 59th Senate District, who has taken a more nuanced stance on the issue—neither critical of Israel nor the Palestinians.

Mamdani said that his criticism of Israel did not hurt his candidacy, and he hasn’t been targeted by pro-Israel advocates for his stance, unlike other elected officials across the nation–such as U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the incumbent who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. He told QNS his stance has been embraced by residents in Western Queens.

“Astoria and Long Island City—like New York City, is incredibly diverse. Our neighborhood is a microcosm of our city, bringing together Little Egypt, a vibrant Greek community, a thriving Bengali one, and Queensbridge Houses—the largest public housing complex in the country—among others. My call for a ceasefire, for a free Palestine, is a call that I hear in each of these communities across our district.”

Western Queens electeds back pro-Palestinian protesters

Mamdani and Gonzalez have been vocal in recent weeks in their support of protesters advocating for a cease-fire. 

They, along with Western Queens Council Member Tiffany Cabán, backed the student protesters at Columbia, NYU, CUNY, Cornell, and across the state.

All three, along with other Democratic Socialists across the city, issued a joint statement earlier this month in solidarity with the students.  

“Despite great risks, these students are creating a roadmap for how people from a variety of backgrounds can come together in pursuit of justice,” the statement read. “Instead of disgracefully slandering them, our leaders should take to heart what they and so many others are demanding—an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Palestine and an end to the Israeli apartheid occupation.”

Constituent support

Mamdani noted that their views on Gaza have been embraced by Democrats throughout Western Queens.

He noted that this was evident in the presidential primary when many Democrats from Western Queens rejected Joe Biden for not calling for a ceasefire. Large numbers supported the ‘Vote Blank’ campaign, in which primary voters left their ballots blank instead of voting for Biden to protest his Israel policy.

For instance, in the Queens portion of New York’s 7th Congressional District, 29% of Democratic primary voters voted Blank, Mamdani said, citing figures first reported by City & State. U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez represents this area, which includes Ridgewood, Glendale, Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, and parts of Astoria. Velazquez was among the first congress members to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire last year.

Meanwhile, in the Queens neighborhoods of the 14th Congressional District, which covers parts of Astoria, Jackson Heights, Corona, and College Point, 23.9% of primary voters voted Blank, he noted. The district is represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently added her political support for the “Not on our Dime!” bill that Mamdani and Gonzalez introduced. 

Since taking office in 2019, Ocasio-Cortez has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli government, a viewpoint that is in stark contrast to that of her predecessor, Joseph Crowley, whom she ousted.

Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani in Washington last year calling for a cease fire in Gaza (photo: X)

Mamdani’s challenger

Mamdani initially faced a challenge from Beard, a pro-Israel candidate who criticized Mamdani’s “Not on our Dime!” bill and his other Israel policy positions– such as his backing of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

“I believe we must stand with Israel in their response to the October 7th terrorist attacks,” Beard said when he launched his campaign on Jan. 26. “Hamas’ actions on October 7, 2023, were the but-for and proximate cause of the ongoing violence in Gaza. I am heartbroken and disturbed by both the violence on October 7, 2023, and the continuous collateral damage sustained by the civilians of Gaza.”

Mamdani, however, brought Beard’s pro-Israel position to the attention of voters and took to social media with a video to promote his pro-Palestinian position. 

“Now, for months, we’ve known that right-wing billionaire-backed PACs have been looking to make an example out of me and any politics that seeks to extend humanity to Palestinians. And that they’re willing to spend buckets of money to do so,” he said on video.

Mamdani also criticized Beard for using the term collateral damage.

Beard said that Mamdani’s posting was ‘politics’ and merely an attempt to raise funds. He told QNS that he was not approached by big PACs or lobby groups because of his stance on Israel. He said some residents, however, did reach out to him in agreement that Israel had the right to defend itself since it didn’t start the latest conflict.

“I spoke with several Queens residents who care a lot about the Israel issue. They reached out, and I had conversations with them,” Beard said, noting that he believes the big PACs are more interested in the federal races and knew the district is progressive.

“I get the sense that they viewed this district as being to the left. I think they didn’t want to spend their resources on what they thought might be an uphill battle,” Beard said.

Furthermore, Beard said that he is not an absolutist when it comes to Israel. 

“I’m obviously pro-Israel, but I am concerned about the ongoing deaths in Gaza, too,” Beard said. He believed that his nuanced position also played a role in why he didn’t get help from large donors.

Beard failed to get on the ballot for the June primary. While he said that he generated about 650 signatures, 150 more than the 500 required, many were deemed invalid. The Board of Elections ruled that he didn’t get 500 valid signatures, which must come from registered Democrats who live in the district.

Why Mamdani has not been targeted

Mamdani said that he has not been targeted by pro-Israel supporters because his constituents agree with his stance.

“Pro-Israel advocates have left me alone because they know that my politics are the politics of this neighborhood, especially when it comes to the fight for Palestinian rights.”

He said that any candidate with a staunch pro-Israel position would struggle in the district.

“To contest an election based on this is to contest an election against the views of a vast majority of Astoria and Long Island City residents. These advocates made a choice knowing that spending their money here would essentially be setting their money on fire.”

State Sen. Kristen Gonzalez speaking at a town hall meeting in Long Island City on Aug. 29, 2023. She was critical of the Israeli government in terms of its policies pertaining to the PalestiniansPhoto by Paul Frangipane

Kristen Gonzalez

Gonzalez has been an outspoken advocate for Palestinians for years. Last year, prior to the Hamas attacks, she and Mamdani held a town hall meeting together in Long Island City to criticize the Israeli government.  The meeting, which was attended by more than 200 residents, was to discuss their “Not on Our Dime!” legislation. 

Gonzalez told the attendees that the passage of the bill would underscore New Yorkers’ solidarity with Palestinians.

“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 said that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza was a symptom of colonialism and capitalism.

While the Palestinian cause has taken hold among elected officials in western Queens—such as Mamdani, Gonzalez, Cabán, and Ocasio-Cortez—elected officials in other sections of Queens have not embraced it. Most heaped scorn on Mamdani and Gonzalez when they introduced the Not on Our Dime! bill last year, which failed to gain traction.

Many Queens Assemblymembers, along with other lawmakers across the state, wrote a scathing joint letter opposing the bill, saying that the bill would go nowhere.

“This bill is a ploy to demonize Jewish charities with connections to Israel,” the joint letter read, which was signed by 66 Assemblymembers, including Queens Assemblymembers Nily Rozic, David Weprin, Stacey Pheffer Amato, Andrew Hevesi, Ed Braunstein, Jenifer Rajkumar and Clyde Vanel. 

“Its purpose is to attack Jewish organizations that have wide-ranging missions from feeding the poor to providing emergency medical care for victims of terrorism to clothing orphans.”

The letter adds that the bill is divisive. “It was only introduced to antagonize pro-Israel New Yorkers and further sow divisions within the Democratic Party.”

The letter, however, was not signed by Assembly Member Juan Ardila, who represents the Western Queens districts of Ridgewood, Sunnyside and Woodside. He could not be reached for comment.

State Senate race

Gonzalez faces Lambropoulus in the state senate race. He is largely steering clear of the Israel-Gaza conflict and focusing on local issues.

Lambropoulus is a critic of city and state officials who focus on global issues.

“I think that our local politicians are focusing too much on international issues and not on local,” Lambropoulus said. “They’re not focused on safety. For instance, stores are being robbed. Where are they?”

He said that people are concerned about their disposable income shrinking and getting an affordable place to live.

“I’m not a Democratic Socialist. I’m a Democrat. I’m about common sense,” he said. 

In terms of the Israel issue, he is much more circumspect. “I have friends on both sides. And I’ve always believed that we have to coexist and love each other.”

Lambropoulus, however, said that Western Queens officials are inflaming the issue by taking sides and drawing excessive attention to it. 

“I think they need to be neutral. I think they are being divisive. We should bring people together.”



*This story was produced as part of the 2024 Elections Reporting Mentorship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.