Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York embarked Wednesday on an impromptu trip to Israel that she acknowledged would have no geopolitical impact on an escalating war 5,700 miles away from the state she leads.
The point of her whirlwind excursion to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Ms. Hochul said, would be purely and powerfully symbolic, a bold gesture of support by the leader of a state that is home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel.
“There is a deep, direct connection between New York State and Israel that has always been there, a bond steeled over decades,” the governor, a Democrat, said in an interview at Kennedy Airport shortly before boarding a 10-hour commercial flight. “And it’s easy to go when the sun is shining and everything is fine.”
“The community feels, in Israel and in New York, that my going during these times will be the most significant symbol of their importance to us than anything else we could do,” she said.
Trips to Israel are nothing new for New York leaders, who routinely pay visits to make political statements aimed at Jewish New Yorkers. But the timing of Ms. Hochul’s visit — her first international trip since taking office in 2021 — is anything but routine.
The governor landed in Tel Aviv on Wednesday afternoon just as Israel was amassing troops outside Gaza, roughly a week after Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, killed over 1,400 Israelis in terror attacks that have profoundly shaken the country and drawn comparisons to 9/11.
Ms. Hochul’s presence — overlapping with President Biden’s trip there — may create an additional security headache for a country that already has too many.
But during her 30-hour “solidarity mission,” Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, is not currently scheduled to join the president. She was to meet with diplomats and local officials, and also console Israeli families that were displaced or impacted by the attacks. She is being accompanied by an entourage of state police officers and a clutch of top aides, including her press secretary, policy director and director of Jewish affairs, all of whom are Jewish.
Former Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, said Ms. Hochul’s trip would help cement her positioning as an unflinching supporter of Israel, and that her role as a stateside governor with no sway over foreign policy was “not to be a negotiator, but to be a sympathizer.”
“I think there’s a rampant fear that Israel isn’t going to get the support that it deserves,” Mr. Paterson said in an interview. “And Governor Hochul hasn’t allowed herself to be portrayed as in any way being hesitant about her support.”
Yet Ms. Hochul’s visit comes at a sensitive moment for Democrats at home.
Democrats largely united in horror after Hamas’s deadly raid, mourning the Israeli dead while condemning the militant group in grave terms. But as Israeli counterstrikes accumulate and with a ground incursion into Gaza likely imminent, cracks appear to be surfacing once more within the party nationally and in New York over what comes next.
While Ms. Hochul and moderate Democrats affirm Israel’s right to defend itself on its own terms, progressive and far-left officials have urgently begun calling for a cease-fire and de-escalation of hostilities. Some of the loudest voices — including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — come from New York.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was among a dozen Democrats to endorse a nonbinding House resolution urging the Biden administration to push for a cease-fire and to prioritize civilian lives. Two other New York House members, Nydia Velázquez and Jamaal Bowman, have also signed on. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Bowman have also declined to sign onto another competing resolution supported by the vast majority of both parties in Congress condemning the Hamas attack and reaffirming Israel’s right to fight back.
Some left-wing lawmakers like Assemblyman Zohran Mamdani, a democratic socialist from Queens who has also vocally supported a cease-fire, have cast Ms. Hochul’s trip as a ringing endorsement of Israel’s deadly strikes in Gaza. He called the trip “disgusting.”
“The killing of civilians should concern us all,” he said. “Yet for some reason, the deaths of Palestinians does not provoke the same outrage for the governor or, in her case, any outrage at all.”
Like other Democratic officials, Ms. Hochul has sometimes struggled to straddle the complicated line between forcefully defending Israel’s response and recognizing the high numbers of Palestinian casualties. Shortly before her trip, she held a media briefing where she addressed the explosion at a hospital in Gaza that left hundreds dead.
“We want to make sure that we acknowledge Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas,” she said. “We also must make sure that civilians get humanitarian aid and lament the loss of any life of innocent civilians.”
After some critics suggested her comments were insensitive, her press team released a new statement mourning the loss of lives at the hospital, with the governor saying that she awaited “further information from the White House on the cause of this explosion.”
In the airport interview on Tuesday, Ms. Hochul echoed Mr. Biden’s calls for more humanitarian aid for Gaza and stressed the need to limit civilian casualties.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization; they only understand strength,” the governor said. “That does not mean that I’m not full of compassion for the innocent civilians who have lost their lives and are in harm’s way right now in Gaza. It’s not one or the other.”
The governor’s first visit to Israel — previously scheduled trips had been derailed by blizzards and wildfire smoke in New York — is expected to be mutually beneficial.
Ms. Hochul, a daughter of Catholic activists who said she traces her connection to Jewish culture back to interfaith gatherings her parents organized growing up, will get to send a strident signal to Jewish New Yorkers that she is on their side.
For the Israeli government, the special visit by a top-ranking American official, however symbolic, could help buttress the notion that an incursion into Gaza had international support.
“They understand the importance of having the most important governor in one of the most important Jewish communities in the country standing with their people,” said Steve Israel, a former Democratic congressman from Long Island, who is Jewish. “This is as big a bully pulpit as you’re going to get other than the White House.”
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from New York.