Rev. Khader El-Yateem is the first to describe his identity as “complex.” He’s Arab American, Palestinian, a Lutheran minister, a socialist, and a father of four.
And it’s that multifaceted background—coupled with more than two decades of organizing and building bridges across communities in South Brooklyn—that El-Yateem, 48, says makes him the best person to represent New York City’s 43rd City Council district, which includes the Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst neighborhoods of southwest Brooklyn. Historically, the district was home to Irish and Italian residents, but it’s now home to one of the country’s largest Arab American communities.
El-Yateem was born and raised in Bethlehem, which is part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. When he was studying to become a Lutheran pastor, Israeli forces came to his home to arrest him, yanking him out of bed in the middle of the night, imprisoning him in solitary confinement, and torturing him for almost two months. When he arrived in Brooklyn more than 20 years ago, he founded the Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge.
Winning the race, which starts with a crowded five-candidate Democratic primary on September 12, would make El-Yateem the first Arab American and Palestinian ever elected to the New York City Council. El-Yateem spoke with Splinter about being the target of racist attacks and death threats, how socialism is selling in the neighborhood made famous by Saturday Night Fever, and what it’s like to go to war with New York City’s Democratic party machine.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve called South Brooklyn home since 1995. How have you seen your neighborhood change in that time, both for good and for ill?
I love this community because it has the feel of small town USA. The people who live here are very diverse and civically engaged.
It’s a desired neighborhood, so a lot of people are moving in. We have issues like illegal home conversions, where developers buy up two-family homes and subdivide them for eight families to live there illegally—they target new immigrants in particular.
The other issue that I’ve seen change for the worse is illegal drugs. Our kids are literally dying in our streets from overdoses. This is becoming an epidemic in our neighborhood, as it is in our whole country.
When did you know you wanted to be a minister, and how did growing up in Palestine inform your faith and your politics?
I decided in the last year of high school that I wanted to go into the ministry. I was born and raised in Palestine, so I was born and raised under Israeli occupation. I saw the pain and suffering of my people and I felt one way I can help and serve is through the church. That was the only organization where I could help and be effective in bringing a message of hope and peace and reconciliation in the midst of chaos, where people are hurting every day, where they’re scared and living in fear.
In my second year of my theological education at Bethlehem Bible College, Israeli soldiers came to our house at 3 a.m. and picked me up out of bed. I was never told why I was being arrested, where I was being taken, what was happening with me.
I was held in solitary confinement for 57 days, being questioned, tortured, going through a horrifying experience. And after 57 days, I was told that I was being released.
When I came out of prison, I needed to make a choice: Do I become a violent person who takes revenge, or do I become a person who’s committed to nonviolence, who seeks understanding and dialogue so we can achieve justice and peace? I committed my whole life to supporting nonviolent solutions. I wanted to understand why the Israelis are doing this to the Palestinians. Even though I was a victim, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the victimizer so I could just understand, just to try to have some insight into why this is happening.
Just last year the City Council passed a resolution condemning the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, a movement you strongly support. How will you navigate that political climate if elected?
I think the whole Democratic establishment is so afraid and worried about my election. I’ve seen people from the establishment who are enemies, who hate each other, who haven’t talked in years coming together to unite against me.
When I met with the progressive caucus for endorsement, I told them that as a City Council member, it’s only about local issues: about garbage, the streets, funding for our schools, our neighborhoods, fighting for better transportation. City Council had no business to be engaged in international politics or policy. They asked me how I would vote on BDS. I said, ‘I would abstain, because it’s not my job or your job, and what you guys did was wrong.’ But I’m not going to City Council to fight about Israel and Palestine, I’m going to fight for my district and my community.
When you’re out campaigning in the district, do you hear from a lot of voters who are frustrated with their elected Democrats?
The frustration is overwhelming. I knock on doors and people scream at me when I tell them I’m running as a Democrat, saying, ‘Go away! I’m sick and tired of the Democratic Party and I’m not voting for Democrats anymore.’
So I say, ‘I’m like you, I’m very frustrated like you, that’s why I’m running.’ I’m the only candidate in this race who’s from outside the establishment, who’s never been an elected official or been on an elected official’s payroll. So when people hear this, I get their attention. We’ve been able to register just over 600 new voters in this district, and we have many Republicans we were able to switch to the Democratic Party.
You identify as a socialist and you’ve been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America but you’re running as a Democrat. Can you walk me through that decision?
My identity is very complex. I look at social media and saw someone say, ‘Oh, he cannot be an Arab and Lutheran. Something doesn’t sound right there, he sounds dangerous.’ [Laughs]
So because I have this very complex identity, it will allow me to represent everybody. I am an Arab, I am an American, I am Palestinian, I am a Christian, I am Lutheran, I’m an immigrant, and I’m a socialist.
When I decided to run for City Council, I wanted to run on the Democratic ticket because I have been a Democrat since the day I became a U.S. citizen. I’d never had citizenship or the chance to vote before in my life. So becoming an American citizen and registering with a party was kind of a born again moment. I felt running on the Democratic ticket will allow me to reform the Democratic Party from within.
Do you find that when you’re out there talking with voters that socialism isn’t such a scary word anymore?
Some people are concerned that I’m running on a socialist platform. But the majority of people have been fantastic. When people think about our district, they think about the $5–6 million homes, the BMWs and the Maseratis. They don’t think about the hardworking families who have to struggle to put food on their tables to feed their families, who have to work two jobs just to make ends meet. We have families in our district where 75% of their salary goes only to pay for rent.
My campaign is about every single person in this neighborhood. It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, straight, gay, rich, poor—it’s about giving everyone a voice. That’s why I’m running.
I wanted to talk about what I’d characterize as racist attacks on you in this race. One of your Republican opponents, Bob Capano, went out of his way to call you a “Palestinian cleric” and a “radical leftist.” On your side of the primary, there were campaign fliers supporting one of your opponents, Justin Brannan, that some interpreted as reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality that framed you as an “other” in your own neighborhood. Did you ever imagine the level of vitriol that you and your family would be targeted with when you entered the race?
I don’t want to use the race card in this race, but unfortunately they’re using it against me. They’re attacking me on my identity, on my faith, on my culture.
I can understand it from the Republicans, especially from Bob Capano, who called me a leftist radical cleric, because the implication is, in the American mind, cleric means Muslim, which means bad, which means terrorist. There’s nothing wrong with being Muslim, and my biggest supporters in this campaign are Muslim—I’ll say that very clearly.
I also see on social media what people are writing. Someone said they want to come and put my head in a vise. Somebody called my house with a blocked ID, screaming on the phone, threatening to come and kill all of us. I have children at home. My 15-year-old daughter is frightened, because she reads all these comments online. I’m very concerned for my family’s safety.
Unfortunately, when it comes from Democrats who call themselves progressive, it hurts more. These are people that are supposed to be fighting to end racial profiling and end hate and racism in our country, but here they are using it against me.
[The campaign for Justin Brannan, who is the former chief of staff for outgoing Councilman Vincent Gentile and likely El-Yateem’s biggest competitor in the primary, strenuously denied any allegations that it has engaged in “dog whistle politics” during the race. In a statement to Splinter, campaign spokesman Jon Greenfield said: “We forcefully reject our opponent’s assertions about our campaign literature, and have gone so far as to amend our message to avoid even the hint of anything but inclusivity and tolerance.”]
Bay Ridge is a super diverse community that, even though it’s still more than 50% white, is also home to a really vibrant and growing community of Arab and Chinese Americans. Do think tensions between those communities have gotten worse in this current political climate? And how do you hope to unite the district with you campaign?
The largest two communities that are growing in our district are the Arab/Muslim and Chinese communities. It seems like if anything goes wrong in the district, we’re always blamed for everything. So I think we need to stop blaming each other and start working with each other.
It’s about engaging and involving every community. When I’m elected to City Council, I’ll also make sure my staff is very diverse, and include every major ethnicity in my district. I will not sit in my office and blame people. I will go out and organize with them, engage with them, and empower them so they can run candidates from their own communities.
My campaign is not about building my political career, it’s about preparing the next generation and preparing to pass the torch to them so they can continue the political revolution in the area.