From Bethlehem to Brooklyn: How a Socialist Palestinian Reverend Became a Frontrunner in the New York City Council Race

Khader El-Yateem could become the first Palestinian ever elected to city council.

Photo Credit: Photo by Rob Bryan

When I first met Khader El-Yateem several weeks ago, the 48-year-old reverend was standing in front of a gas station on the corner of 4th Avenue and Senator Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He was wearing black slacks, a button-down gray shirt, a white clerical collar, and black Sketchers that he said would make climbing staircases less difficult. Joined by his young field manager Abdullah, El-Yateem was out canvassing door-to-door as part of a push to win votes in the upcoming 43rd district City Council race on September 12th. The candidate greeted me with a smile and a handshake, stooping his tall frame slightly in a manner that ironically called to mind one of his favorite targets: Mayor Bill De Blasio.

This is El-Yateem’s first run for political office, and if he wins he will be the first Palestinian and the first Arab-American ever elected to New York City Council. El-Yateem also happens to be a self-identified socialist whose run has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He aims to replace outgoing councilman Vincent Gentile, who is running for Brooklyn District Attorney now that his term is coming to an end. It is a race which, against all odds, El-Yateem has a decent chance of winning.

The reverend has served on Community Board 10 for the past 12 years and has vocally supported measures like the Right to Know Act (which mandates that NYPD officers identify themselves and obtain evidence of voluntary consent to a search), and movements like the Close Rikers campaign. A fixture in his community, he has the backing of many local small business owners as well as Palestinian activist Linda Sarsour.

As a socialist, El-Yateem finds himself on the leftmost end of a group of Democratic primary candidates that includes Gentile's Chief of Staff Justin Brannan along with Nancy Tong, Vincent Chirico, and Kevin Peter Carroll. On the Republican side he faces Liam McCabe, John Quaglione, and Bob Capano, who recently condemned El-Yateem as “a radical leftist who believes in the redistribution of wealth...his election to the New York City Council would be a slap in the face to all New Yorkers.” Capano is best known for his enthusiastic support of Donald Trump and his ownership of a Gristedes supermarket on the Upper East Side (the co-chair of Capano campaign is Gristedes CEO John Catsimatidis, the billionaire who lost the Republican mayoral primary to Joe Lhota in 2013).

I walked east with El-Yateem on 67th Street, passing houses with manicured lawns that wouldn't look out of place in the Long Island suburbs. To the left was a small park and, several blocks beyond that, the Belt Parkway. Turning onto Fifth Avenue, the reverend stopped outside a busy tire shop to talk to several weary-looking workers sitting on tires propped up on the sidewalk. “What's up? Tell your friends to go out and vote El-Yateem for city council.” The tire shop guys nodded approvingly.

He turned around to see a middle-aged man with a buzz cut and a teardrop tattoo sitting on a bench and reading the newspaper, a small towel draped around his neck and tucked into an oversized blue t-shirt. “How long have you been here?” the man asked. “22 years,” El-Yateem responded. “Yeah, you look familiar.” He gave him a pamphlet with his platform.

We continued across the street to the Beit Hanina Cultural Center, a neighborhood meeting place named after a small Palestinian village. El-Yateem introduced us to a half dozen of his most active supporters, mostly local small business owners, and sat down to discuss plans for upcoming outreach efforts. I tried to follow the conversation, which drifted back and forth between English and Arabic, as we drank black coffee with sugar out of small Dunkin Donuts cups in a small room decorated with bronze reliefs of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Mecca.

The Socialist Factor

Like fellow City Council candidate Jabari Brisport, El-Yateem has earned the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in America. Unlike Brisport, who is running on the Green Party line, El-Yateem is running as a Democrat. Despite great debate on the left on whether to abandon the Democratic Party completely, DSA has proven itself willing to back candidates both within and outside the party, hoping to undermine the credibility of the DNC’s leadership while possibly transforming the party from the inside.

“Democratic socialists understand we need to build people power to take on the billionaire class because no one will do it for us,” DSA National Director Maria Svart told me. “Right here in this community that means going door to door talking with folks about the issues that matter in our everyday lives and building independent political power.” DSA hopes to leverage its recent surge in membership to support local campaigns, which in turn can draw Democratic voters leftward and away from the neoliberal status quo.

What cuts to the core of El-Yateem’s appeal is his dedication to the most vulnerable Brooklynites: Muslims and Arabs facing bigotry; longtime Bay Ridge residents struggling to pay rent; opiate addicts with no treatment options (overdoses in the neighborhood have spiked sharply in the past few years). At one point during the course of our walk around the neighborhood, he stopped for several minutes to chat in Arabic with an old woman wearing a hijab and pushing a laundry cart. It turns out she lived outside the district; he talked to her for a couple more minutes regardless, waiting for Abdullah to inform her of her polling location  before politely excusing himself.

“Rev. El-Yateem has a record of good work in this district and he is the only candidate not taking real estate developer money,” says Svart. “We're helping build an alliance between Muslims who have been pushed into the shadows since 9-11 and working people of all races and ethnic backgrounds who want a better life for their children.”

Sam Lewis, co-chair of the Brooklyn DSA Electoral Working Group, says hundreds of DSA members have knocked on more than 15,000 doors for El-Yateem. “It's clear that New Yorkers are ready for a city council member accountable to working people, not the interests of developers and the ruling class,” says Lewis. “Democratic socialism is the future."  

El-Yateem’s Giuliani-esque Republican foe Bob Capano hopes otherwise. In a statement on his campaign website, Capano declared, “The fact that Democrat candidate Khadeer [sic] El Yateem [sic] is a member of, and is supported by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, an organization that is, ‘opposed to an economy organized for private profit’ is both radical and wrong!”

“Today, I call on Khadeer [sic] El-Yateem’s opponents for the Democrat nomination for City Council...to strongly denounce his socialist beliefs and call on him to drop out of the race immediately.” Capano’s diatrabe continued: “if Khadeer [sic] El-Yateem is so fond of socialism perhaps he should relocate to Cuba or Venezuela or a host of other countries that suffer under socialism’s ill conceived [sic] and unsustainable economic tenets.”

How Low Can a Punk Get?

The reverend’s biggest challenge is not Capano, however, but Vincent Gentile staffer Justin Brannan – an enormous, nearly hairless man who resembles a more chipper version of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden. Brannan has marketed himself as a scrappy rebel with a past life as a hardcore punk guitarist -- check out his tattoos! -- but the substance of his politics are a perfect embodiment of the Brooklyn status quo and the local Democratic party machine.

Once his rock touring days were over, Brannan rose through the ranks at the financial firm Bear Stearns during the period in which the company helped bring about the subprime mortgage crisis through its issuance of mortgage-backed securities. He went on to raise venture capital for Silicon Valley start-ups before eventually making the transition to politics when he was hired as Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for Gentile. Had Brannan been born into an earlier generation, he might have worked for Boss Tweed at Tammany Hall or Mayor Daley in Chicago. Today, he is a frontrunning Democrat in De Blasio’s New York.

Brannan proudly brandishes his ex-punk credentials to draw attention away from his more recent career in finance, and to add an exciting layer to the familiar drabness of his politics (the central issues of his platform includes better bus service and making sure small business owners and entrepreneurs “are not saddled with onerous fines for violations that don’t pose any risk to customers”). El-Yateem says Brannan also advised Gentile to vote against the 2013 Community Safety Act, which was meant to end discriminatory police profiling and establish independent oversight of the NYPD.

The carefully crafted rebel image Brannan likes to project of himself recalls Thomas Frank’s lacerating description of hardcore punk elder statesman Henry Rollins:

Our businessmen imagine themselves rebels, and our rebels sound more and more like ideologists of business. Henry Rollins, for example, the maker of loutish, overbearing music and composer of high-school-grade poetry, straddles both worlds unproblematically...Rollins is no more a threat to established power in America than was Dale Carnegie. And yet Rollins as king of the rebels - peerless and ultimate - is the message hammered home wherever photos of his growling visage appear.

Brannan's campaign reflects a strategy not uncommon among Democratic candidates - use some affiliation with underground or radical culture to paper over the same tired ideas of milquetoast liberalism.

El-Yateem is in many ways Brannan’s opposite – reverent and gentle in demeanor, with an air of earnestness that manages to come off as authentic. Born in Bethlehem in 1968, El-Yateem grew up under the omnipresent violence of Israeli occupation. At age 19, he was kidnapped from his home in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers and held without trial, a common occurrence for Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers brutalized him while keeping him in solitary confinement for 57 days. Brannan, on the other hand, grew up comfortably in middle-class Bay Ridge, where he attended Xaveverian Catholic High School and formed his first band Indecision in an attempt to imitate his favorite New York hardcore bands like Sick of it All. After his arrival in the US, El-Yateem earned a Masters of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and founded the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Brannan, meanwhile, spent his early adulthood on tour with hardcore bands like Indecision and later Most Precious Blood. El-Yateem met his Palestinian-American wife Grace when he was working at Bethlehem Bible College and she visited from the states as a nurse with the Operation Smile program. Brannan met his wife while working as a clerk for hedge fund managers at Bear Stearns – the two eventually married in the lobby of the disgraced bank’s midtown office building.

Perhaps the most crucial point of contrast between the two candidates is who supports them. El-Yateem adamantly refuses to take money from developers, while Brannan’s campaign received $2,750 (the maximum individual contribution) from Christopher Spring of Tahl Propp Equities, a developer that recently won a $161 million contract from the city for an affordable housing development in Harlem. But Tahl Propp is more predatory than its progressive brand might suggest. According to an article published several years ago, President and Co-Founder Joseph Tahl angered residents of his 900 or so Harlem apartments who complained that the company “refuses to make repairs…in some instances failing to provide heat and hot water.” They also accused him of “buying affordable properties and then pushing tenants out to raise the rents,” a common practice among New York City’s predatory landlords.

Brannan’s donor list reveals that a realtor a named Sal Raziano gave Brannan $2,000; Raziano is a realtor at Casandra Properties, a commercial real estate firm that brokered a $21.5 million dollar deal on a Staten Island office building two years ago - one of the borough’s most expensive sales ever. Another contributor is Anthony Constantinople of the powerful lobbying firm Constantinople & Vallone, which has fundraised for de Blasio and is currently under investigation for conflicts of interest and payroll discrepancies surrounding its Sports & Arts program at a Lower East Side public school (one of the firm’s clients is Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation, a nonprofit that in the last year alone has received nearly $2 million from the city). The firm’s other clients include the Trump Soho Hotel, TD Bank, and a Florida-based private prison company called GEO Group. Constantinople’s partner Peter Vallone was one of the main forces behind the implementation of “vacancy control,” a measure signed into law by Mayor Giuliani that undid existing affordable housing regulations by allowing landlords to charge market rate rents after tenants moved out of apartments that cost at least $2,000 a month.

The controversy around Brannan’s candidacy doesn't stop there. Several of El-Yateem’s supporters recently filed a complaint with the New York Campaign Finance Board accusing Brannan of not disclosing campaign expenses. He allegedly failed to alert election regulators that his boss Gentile’s campaign for Brooklyn DA paid the rent for Brannan’s campaign office and petitions. The complaints called on the board to deny Brannan money from the city’s matching funds program.

Confronting Brooklyn’s ultra-Zionist kingmaker

While we climb the stairs of a tenement to knock on the final doors of the night, El-Yateem relates a story about State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Zionist of the pro-settler variety and unapologetic member of the violent extremist Jewish Defense League. Despite his extremist background, or perhaps because of it, Hikind has become a legendary kingmaker in local Brooklyn politics who called the reverend anti-Semitic for supporting the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

“When Dov Hikind called me anti-Semitic I was really offended because I know him. When his mother passed away I went to his house and made a shiva call,” El-Yateem told me as he prepared to knock on the next door. “So I called him and said, ‘Dov, I don’t appreciate this kind of language. You know who I am and we are friends. I work in a Jewish hospital and the rabbis are my best friends. To be calling me anti-Semitic is not right. I want to come see you right now.’ So I went to his house. And in his house I sat with him and I said, ‘Listen Dov, I’m a person who believes in nonviolence, who believes in peace, and I don’t believe in carrying arms because it doesn’t achieve peace. Violence will only create violence. And I asked him blankly – I said, ‘Dov, do you have an alternative nonviolent solution?’ He said no. I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘There will never be peace over there.’ I said, ‘So you do not support non-violence against Israel? You would support violent solutions?’ He said, ‘No, no.’ I said, ‘Well then I’m going to support what I believe is right because you offer me no alternative.’”

What We All Want

Soon El-Yateem must return home, so I walk with him and Abdullah back to his car. He wants to make sure I know that he is not trying to complain about any candidate in particular, but wants to take aim at an establishment that hasn’t served the people of Bay Ridge as a whole. “We have so many people who have never been engaged or involved, so my grassroots campaign was really about organizing and mobilizing the entire community -- and this is not only the Arab or Muslim community, it's all the communities -- to encourage them to go out and vote.”

Much to the dismay of conservatives and centrists alike, Bernie Sanders is now the most popular politician in America. This fact is surely not lost on El-Yateem and his staff, who have been working out of a former falafel stand on 85th Street. Posted on the inside of the bathroom in the back of the tiny office is a big blue “Bernie for President” sign. Below the word “Bernie,” someone has scrawled “would have won” in black ink.

Though El-Yateem tends not to bring up socialism in conversation, it is clear that redistribution of wealth is central to his platform. He talks of developers whose properties push out residents by raising rents, immigrants left at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, and the ways in which common material interests -- affordable housing, quality public education, a living wage -- can bond neighbors from wildly disparate backgrounds.

What hangs in the balance on Tuesday is not just the fate of El-Yateem, or Brannan, or even of their constituents. The election is a microcosm of the widening division between the Democrats and the rising force of democratic socialism, a political philosophy that seeks to undo the ravages of capitalism and expand the notion of democracy into the economic realm. Khader El-Yateem and the community he represents offer a chance to put socialist theories of collective ownership and mass democratic participation into practice, and to do so with its own Bay Ridge flavor - internationalist yet unmistakably Brooklyn.

Rob Bryan is a journalist who has written for Jacobin and Mondoweiss among other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @robbryan86

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