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Boycotts, Now and Then: an Open Letter on BDS to the City Council of New York

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Like the religion of my youth and the country of my birth, I just don’t know the City of my life any more. Several days ago in what can only be described as a one sided political prisoner exchange, a quid pro quo of suffering, the craven New York City Council held a session to “debate” a proposed resolution on how best to convert constitutionally protected BDS speech and activity into per se anti-Semitism… a perverse leap of faith similar to the sinister shroud of supremacy worn by the Reichstag supporters of the 30’s at a time when today’s Palestinians, were yesteryear’s Jews.

In announcing that the peaceful and pure political speech of BDS was not constitutionally protected and now most unwelcome in New York City, the resolution’s sponsor inadvertently became the movements best salesman by correctly describing it as an international effort “to boycott, divest from and sanction the people of Israel (including) its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions.”

Yes, Councilman Cohen (no relation), BDS is precisely about delegitimizing Israel, a pariah state that has flaunted international law since its very inception by embracing apartheid, occupation and ethnic cleansing as so much an essential and proud way of life for millions of illegal immigrants and so-called settlers. And yes, Mr. Cohen, right again, by design, BDS does indeed go well beyond simply “protesting… government policies” by targeting “…all facets of Israeli society.” That’s the aim. To send a loud unmistakable message to the people of Israel that silence is complicity and that to remain complicit is to invite the collective political, economic and social discomfort that should, indeed, must come with blind support of a government that targets and tortures millions of Palestinians for no reason other than their heritage, religion and historical right to a nation whose theft began in 1948 and continues on day by day by day.

Although I was not present, witnesses describe an angry hate filled session; a public meeting filled with spit and Islamaphobic taunts coming from the largely vetted Zionist audience egged on, all the while, by their pet councilmen and women. To the pro Israeli, anti First Amendment bloc, the mere mention of any support of BDS triggered the all too familiar and convenient chorus of “anti-Semite”… even the half dozen or so rabbis who attended to voice their support for BDS and opposition to the Council’s attempt to stifle dissent were not spared J’accuse. It mattered not that the air was heavy with principle and calls for justice and a powerful example of protected participatory government at its best- it was anti-Semitic. It always is… whenever people dare to challenge Israel or its official narrative packaged and sold like none other.

Not long after it began, police moved in to clear the public session of its BDS supporters, those daring enough to display pro Palestinian placards or flags; those foolish enough to believe that a City Council meeting was about dialogue and debate and not just a politically staged event to provide “participatory” cover for a decision long ago rubberstamped through a well placed political contribution or bargained for exchange.

My city is one that relishes debate… the good, the bad, the ugly, the true and the false. We thrive on disagreement and diversity. It’s what makes us great… different than everywhere else in this country, if not the world. It’s not a city of racial or religious orthodoxy. It’s not a city that welcomes purity of any sort, let alone that of thought or speech. Yet today’s jejune City Council has started us down that precise slippery slope deigning to become censors of what it is that we are free to say and feel, what it is we can and cannot do in ensuring that our peaceful voice is heard.

To say that I am embarrassed for most of these 51 lost souls who oversee and represent 51 different districts within our five boroughs and which, interestingly enough, has a Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus comprised of twenty-five of the fifty-one members… but one away from the majority… is to describe New York as simply a City with a lot of people.

In New York, the City Council (which oversees the fourth-largest governmental budget in the United States, just behind that of the federal government, California and New York State) is supposed to provide the checks and balances of our local government. By design it wears many hats, not least of which is to represent the heart and soul of its millions of constituents; New Yorkers who see themselves as very much a part of a vibrant and opinionated political, artistic and social community both local and international. Just hop in a cab and listen to a driver rave on at his radio while he follows a breaking news story some seven thousand miles away that has nothing to do with his shift, or his life, but has him engaged as if it were unfolding right then and there before him

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the most recent private sale of a public trust, today’s City Council is not one which understands let alone respects its own history… an electoral journey often fueled by fierce independence and determined integrity in the pursuit of justice within, not just the narrow confines of our five boroughs, but our world as a whole. Was it so long ago that an earlier City Council unanimously passed anti-apartheid legislation kick-starting a national movement intended to, and which ultimately did, break the back of apartheid South Africa. Like today’s BDS effort, the 1985 City Council bill was supported by a broad coalition of unions, activists and academics. Like today’s BDS effort, it targeted all facets of South African society including not just its academic, cultural, and civil society institutions, but individual South African citizens as well, in its challenge to long-term institutional segregation that had resisted most forms of international criticism until the disinvestment campaign came along. Sound familiar?

Indeed, in proposing the legislation, Upper West Sider Ruth Messinger explained, “We’re going to cut off all loan monies for South Africa from New York Banks. The city has finally begun to realize the extraordinary leverage it has with its funds. It’s only a beginning.”

A year earlier, then Mayor Koch created a panel to measure possible responses New York City could take to pressure the South African government… and the panel recommended withdrawing municipal employee pension funds from companies doing business there. While others city and state governments undertook similar measures, the $665 million pension investment withheld by New York was by far the largest American fund to disinvest as political/economic pressure directed at a regime no more repressive than that of Israel since the occupation of Palestine began nearly 70 years ago.

On other occasions the City Council has moved to make its voice heard on matters far from the East River that rubbed up against well-settled international norms and laws. Thus, in 1997, the City Council, with the support of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, passed a measure that called for New York City to withdraw deposits and investments from banks that did business with some 16 countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Egypt, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, Morocco, Nigeria, North Korea, Sudan and Vietnam for alleged religious persecution of minorities. The bill would make more than one-third of the world’s business population off-limits to the city, and cause tremendous economic and social hardship to more than a half a billion citizens of the world because of the conduct of their respective governments. In supporting the bill City Councilman Thomas Dunne, a Manhattan Democrat, called it a moral issue for the city.

“Just like in South Africa and in Northern Ireland, New York City can stand as a leader in the battle for human rights around the world,” Dunne said. “As an international city, New York has a responsibility that’s far beyond the borders of our five boroughs.”

Historically, the City Council has often moved to ensure the widest possible reach of human rights be it for its own citizens, those in other states or abroad. Often its resolutions have been groundbreaking and not at all popular for the times. Thus, on February 16, 1951, at the height of Jim Crowe, the New York City Council passed a bill prohibiting discrimination against African Americans in city-assisted housing projects. The bill was directed mainly at the Stuyvesant Town housing project. One month later, the Brown-Issacs Bill became law in New York City, making racial discrimination in public housing developments a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine and prison term for the owner of any housing development constructed with public assistance found to discriminate on account of race, color, or nationality. Stuyvesant Town, long a symbol of discrimination, was barred from using race as criterion in tenant selection.

Years later, the City Council was to pass Human Rights Law Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. Under its current form the NYCHRL protects New Yorkers against actual or perceived discrimination based on sixteen categories. Categories include race, color, creed, ages, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, partnership status, any lawful source of income, status as a victim of domestic violence, status as a victim of sex offenses, stalking or lawful occupation.

From this code and our collective commitment to diversity and justice, New York City has seen a wide range of powerful political protests and statements in support of the right of individuals to chart their own course in pursuit of personal rights and beliefs that do not interfere with those of others who call this City home. So, too, Title 8 has been quick to serve as the legislative impetus to challenge abhorrent practices, even private ones, which would reduce the rights of our citizenry on the basis of their minority status, whatever they might be.

For example, in its most recent application, Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council called for a city-wide boycott of Chick-fil-A, a private business owned by a devoutly Christian family whose owner had announced that he believed marriage is just between a man and a woman and that any other union offended core standards of decency. In supporting the boycott, Councilman Dromm, who founded the Queens Lesbian and Gay Pride Committee and organized the first Queens LGBT Pride Parade and Festival, noted that the restaurant supports groups that impart “…a strong anti-LGBT message by forcing their employees and volunteers to adhere to a policy that prohibits same-sex love… it is outrageous that Chick-fil-A is quietly spreading its message of hate by funding these type organizations.”

Last year Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced that because the council is “committed to celebrating and respecting the diversity” of the city it would not have an official presence at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of rules that prevent gay and lesbian groups from identifying themselves while marching.

In 2015 the City Council honored Ethel Rosenberg on what would have been her 100th birthday for “demonstrating great bravery” in leading a 1935 strike against the National New York Packing and Supply Co., where she worked as a clerk. At the height of Cold War hysteria Ms. Rosenberg was executed for treason having been convicted with her husband for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

In 2007 a group of primarily African American New York City Council members called for a resolution to “express profound regret” for the city’s role in chattel slavery. The New York City Council members who introduced the resolution wanted the city to apologize for its role in sustaining and benefiting from the slave trade where 12 million Africans were physically coerced into a life of bondage in the Americas. This comes in light of various attempts made by lawmakers to absolve the country of its associations with slavery.

And in 1994 in an outpouring of love led by City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi and Mayor Giuliani, IRA leader Gerry Adams, once imprisoned and denounced by the British as a Northern Irish terrorist, received multiple awards and praise from city officials. Describing Adams as a “civil rights activist,” Giuliani specifically cited the “North’s suffering under an outside occupation force.” Where have we heard this phrase before?

In New York, City Council boycotts have not been limited to human rights abuses abroad but have targeted a wide range of domestic activity, often defying popular political sensibilities and the voting allure of the day. Thus, in 1978 the City Council supported a nation-wide citizen’s boycott directed at the Southern based textile giant J.P. Stevens for labor law violations. In proving the apple can in fact fall very far from the tree, then Governor-elect Mario Cuomo declared “…to shun the products of J.P. Stevens as you would shun the fruit of an unholy tree.”

In 2011, a different Council passed a resolution calling for a boycott of the state of Arizona and all of its businesses and tourism including U.S. Airways (based in Tempe), the Diamondbacks ballclub and the Grand Canyon in reaction to a law that allowed police officers the right to ask residents to provide immigration documentation. In noting that the Council had “…concerns about how the boycott can hurt working-class people,” Councilman Ydanis Rodriquez of Washington Heights nevertheless compared it to the 1980s anti-apartheid boycotts against South Africa, concluding “…we believe that…it is necessary.”

We are a city of dissidents, of creative free spirits and thinkers, of independent women and men who do not suffer fools lightly. New Yorkers have made it a calling standing up to the petty popular, and the passing fancy. We have survived draft and race riots and an unprecedented attack of terror in lower Manhattan which took the lives of thousands. We’ve given comfort to runaway slaves and refuge to those in flight from injustice at home and abroad alike. We’ve embraced, indeed welcomed, thoughts very much taboo elsewhere. We are a City with streets and boulevards that honor fallen free thinkers and movements; those who scoffed at tyranny and, by doing so, often paid for their acts of defiance and courage with their all.

To drive through the five boroughs we call home is a passageway of dramatic history and sacrifice. Where but New York do you find the names Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, King, Robeson, Tubman, Juan Pablo Duarte, Mother Hale, Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Gleason, El Grito de Lares and Toussaint Louverture intersecting corners named for the Young Lords, Buffalo Soldiers and Abolitionist Place.

Given our clear and long history of commitment to the unpopular voice, and the difficult battle, what is there that drove this most recent effort by some in the City Council to sully the name and tradition of its predecessor councils? It’s far too easy and “nuanced” to blame the corrupting political influence of AIPAC or the blind obedience to Israel shown almost uniformly by our City’s Jewish politicians. No, it’s more basic and tawdry than that. This resolution was very much government at its worst; business as usual, a quid pro quo, an exchange of votes with one caucus currying favor with another driven not by principle, but mere patronage.

Indeed, in supporting the resolution, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s said all the right things its Zionist sponsors wanted to hear. Calling BDS a “…harmful, exclusionary campaign aimed at undermining the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States,” the speaker delivered on a promise she had made to the Jewish caucus last year. The reality of it is, she could care less about either the BDS movement or Israel. Informed sources at City Hall report that this was a simple, bargained for, exchange with Viverito delivering the power of her position and her caucus in exchange for Jewish council members supporting her earlier resolution that President Obama commute the sentence of legendary Puerto Rican Independista, Oscar Lopez Rivera now unjustly serving his 35th year of imprisonment of a 55 year sentence following his conviction for seditious conspiracy as a leader of the FALN.

The irony of the Speakers cheap political ploy is that Rivera himself would, like Mandela, reject any deal that required of him that he sacrifice his principles and his support of others engaged in armed struggle, let alone peaceful protest, to obtain his own liberty. Like Mandela who when offered his freedom after 17 years of imprisonment if only he renounced violence but instead walked back to his cell to do 10 more, Rivera years ago refused to accept President Clinton’s commutation offer which would have required of him to renounce the use of “terrorism” to obtain independence for the Caribbean commonwealth.

So Madame Speaker, the next time you pass the Statue of Liberty remember it sits as a beacon of hope, equality and justice in the East River of New York, the capital of the free and fierce world, and not the Jordan River which runs red with the blood of Palestinian civilians trapped by the bondage of apartheid and occupation. BDS.

Stanley L. Cohen is lawyer and activist in New York City.

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