The most important person at Tuesday night’s candidate forum for February’s city council district 24 special election was someone who didn’t attend.
City Council Candidate Moumita Ahmed was missing from the pool of candidates running to replace former City Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Electchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, Jamaica) present in the virtual forum held on Zoom on Tuesday night. But her absence and a controversy that revolved around an old tweet of hers that some called anti-Semitic and that circulated on Twitter over the weekend cast a shadow over the event.
The forum was hosted jointly by a handful of local Democratic clubs from the area and attended by multiple sitting lawmakers, district leaders, and even candidates for other city council districts. Nearly all of the introductory statements made by the hosts and many of the opening statements given by candidates condemned anit-Semitism and referred indirectly to Ahmed’s circulated tweet.
“I won’t name names but a candidate who’s running this special election just has tweet after tweet after tweet of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and frankly, anti-Semitic tweets, and it seems not to be remorseful about these statements,” Jeff Kohn, president of the JFK Regular Democratic Club and a co-host of the event, said in his opening remarks.
The controversy was the elephant in the room as candidates answered questions about policy and why they deserved to hold the open seat.
Ahmed wasn’t the only candidate missing, but she was the only candidate referred to multiple times as not being in attendance.
The tweet that drew all of this attention was from February 2015. It was a response to a tweet directed at Ahmed about boycotting Israel. It featured a baby cradling what appears to be a bomb draped with a red, black and white sash featuring the Star of David. The image features phrases such as “Please Boycott Israel,” and “Israel’s gift to the world.” The sender of the image, an account called @Palestineglobal, tweeted it at Ahmed’s account with one word, “please.” To which Ahmed responded with, “@Palestineglobal my every heartbeat is with the children of Palestine. <3.”
The tweet was resurfaced on Monday afternoon drawing ire on Twitter and prompting other candidates in the race to tweet responses in the thread condemning anti-Semitism.
“Boycotting Israel will not accomplish the hard work of helping the people of New York City. On the contrary, it disenfranchises our Jewish friends and neighbors. We’ve got a lot work to do here in the city and their voices are integral to this conversation,” wrote candidate Dilip Nath.
Even State Assemblymember Daniel Rosenthal, who is not running in the special election but who some speculate may run in the June primary, chimed in.
Ahmed responded to Rosenthal’s tweets, defending herself while acknowledging that the image she responded to all those years ago could be seen as anti-Semitic.
“I absolutely abhor antisemitism and have made that very clear through my years of community organizing in Queens. I can see that the image I replied to is disturbing and can fuel antisemitism. I am more than happy to clarify where I stand on this,” she wrote in a series of tweets. “My heart does beat for children everywhere: Palestinian children, Israeli children, and children right here in District 24, where 1 out of 14 children are homeless.”
She then said she’d be happy to meet in person to talk about issues of the district rather than tweet back and forth.
Ahmed did not respond to email requests for an interview or a comment for this story.
The vehement responses to the resurfaced tweet show the challenges facing Ahmed, a progressive candidate associated with but not endorsed by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America –– a political organization that has faced accusations of anti-Semitism –– running in a more conservative, highly Jewish district.
During the forum, one of the questions posed to the candidates was about an incident in August involving the NYC DSA endorsement questionnaire for city council candidates in the 2021 elections. On the questionnaire, city council candidates were asked, “Do you pledge not to travel to Israel if elected to City Council in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation?” They were also asked if they supported the controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement and if they did not, to explain why.
Lawmakers throughout the city condemned the question, calling it anti-Semitic, and the Jewish Caucus of the City Council released a statement saying that the question “had no place in our city.”
““No political organization should etch into its platform such blatant anti-Semitism as a pledge not to visit the Jewish state, and no candidate for public office should seek the support of an organization that does,” the statement said.
In Tuesday night’s forum, the candidates in the special election were asked if they had sought out the DSA’s endorsement, if they filled out that questionnaire and the question about Israel, and if they would they would be willing to share their questionnaire publicly.
Of the candidates in attendance –– Nath, Soma Syed, Deepti Sharma, James Gennaro and Neeta Jain –– only one, Syed, had sought their endorsement. The others said they were proud capitalists who condemned the question and never sought to associate with the DSA. One candidate hadn’t even heard of the incident at all.
Syed, however, said she had sought their endorsement but had second thoughts on some of their positions while going through the process.
“I am a capitalist, I love democracy. And so I’m happy that the endorsement process did not go far,” she said in the forum.
She did fill out the questionnaire, including the controversial question about Israel.
“I do not believe that boycotting or specifically pointing out a country is a good policy to promote democracy or human rights or anything,” she said.
She was then asked if she would make her questionnaire public.
“I will think about that,” she said.