When children at an Israeli-Palestinian school posed with Bill de Blasio in Jerusalem on Saturday, they likely did not realize that the New York mayor's visit, a chat with parents while their children toured an olive grove, was an attempt to change the script of a decades-old tradition.
"The pilgrimage to Israel is virtually required of New York City mayors, a high-profile opportunity to show solidarity with a large and influential Jewish constituency back home," the New York Times wrote in anticipation of Mr. de Blasio's three-day trip to Israel. The Mayor is scheduled to return to the United States this evening after speaking at an event organized by the American Jewish Congress.
The stated purpose of de Blasio's trip is to show "solidarity with the Israeli people," now caught in yet another spree of violence: eight Israelis have been killed by Palestinians this month in a spate of stabbing attacks. Eighteen suspects were killed, in addition to about 20 others killed in clashes with troops, but Palestinians allege that Israel's counter-measures have gone beyond self-defense.
In planning de Blasio's tour, which was arranged before the current crisis, his staff considered, but ultimately rejected, the idea of visiting the West Bank, according to the New York Times.
But even this simple visit to the Israeli-Palestinian school signaled that he was breaking ranks with his predecessors: Governor Andrew Cuomo turned down an invitation from the Palestinian ambassador to visit East Jerusalem in 2014, during a summer war that left over 2,000 Gazans and 73 Israelis dead, and former Mayors Michael Bloomberg, Rudolph Giuliani and Edward Koch were careful not to signal anything other than unqualified support for Israel.
De Blasio supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he has criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for taking a "huge step backwards for peace" when, during a re-election campaign, Mr. Netanyahu said the two-state solution wouldn't happen with him in charge — a comment he later downplayed.
The Mayor's schedule this weekend, including hospital visits with stabbing victims whom he told, "When you’re under attack, we feel under attack," hardly throws his support for Israelis into doubt. He strongly condemned attacks on Israeli civilians multiple times over the weekend, has built relationships with Jewish communities at home in New York, home to the world's second-largest Jewish population, and rushed to Paris to show solidarity after last winter's anti-Semitic attacks.
"Part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel," he told listeners at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in January 2014.
But de Blasio's willingness to listen to all sides may signal the changing calculus behind US support for Israel as a new generation of American Jews, and non-Jewish liberals, find their voices.
70 percent of Americans support Israel, according to Gallup, but a stark difference has emerged between Republicans and Democrats: 80 percent versus 48 percent, respectively.
Much has been made of young liberals' increasing willingness to challenge the Israeli government on its human rights record toward Palestinians, particularly as the international Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Movement gains momentum in an effort to punish Israel for its occupation of the West Bank.
Some student petitions have led to charges of anti-Semitism, leaving campuses wondering how to redraw the lines between criticism of the Israeli government, Israel itself, and Jewish people.
In both Israel and New York, however, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities continue to grow as a percentage of the Jewish population — a staunchly pro-Israel demographic. Yet the number of nonobservant Jews continues to climb, as well, and with it, criticisms of Netanyahu.
Little wonder that de Blasio's public remarks this weekend "deferred to black-and-white morals — radiating empathy and urging peace — rather than delve into the thousand shades of gray of Middle East policy," in the words of the Times' writer Michael M. Grynbaum.