City’s Progressive Pols Walking The BDS Tightrope
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City’s Progressive Pols Walking The BDS Tightrope

On eve of vote on Israel boycott measure, liberal council members taking heat from both sides.

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

On the eve of the City Council’s vote on a resolution condemning BDS, pro-Israel council members were on pins and needles, not about whether or not the bill would pass — 34 out of the body’s 51 members have signed-on as cosponsors — but about what the nine still-uncommitted members of the council’s progressive caucus would do.

“All progressives at this point are feeling it from both sides,” said a source with close knowledge of the progressive caucus’ behind-the-scenes discussions, who wished to remain anonymous in order to speak frankly. “A significant portion of the lefty base has now become critical of Israel, and for those who are on the more progressive side of Democratic politics, they’re hearing from activists on this issue,” he said.

Over the weekend, Councilman Brad Lander, D-Park Slope, signed on to the symbolic measure, becoming the second to last member of the Council’s 14-member Jewish caucus to cosponsor the bill. The remaining member, Stephen Levin, D-Williamsburg, is still engaged in some heavy soul searching.

That was apparent at a public hearing on the resolution held last week. While many council members used their authority to ask questions as a way to grandstand, courtroom-style, Levin used his time to ask several groups of pro-BDS speakers to clarify whether, as the resolution asserts, the movement fails to support a two-state solution (aka Israel’s right to exist).

He sincerely seemed to want to know.

“I have a very quick question and I don’t mean to be naïve or coy or provocative in asking this,” he said before asking one group testifying against the resolution about the issue. Told that the movement doesn’t take political positions, he resorted to asking BDS supporters their personal opinions. (All but one of the handful questioned said no, some because Israel’s actions against Palestinians has caused the state to forfeit its right to exist, and some because in a true democracy, everyone, including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, should be able to vote, and the question of whether the state remains Jewish will be decided by a race of demographics). As of Tuesday night, Levin was still weighing the options, a spokesman said.

The nonbinding resolution, introduced by Councilman Andrew Cohen, D-Bronx, seeks to “condemn all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction its government and people.”

“The issue of the impact of BDS on Israel, and the implication for New York City residents are large,” said Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, D-Upper West Side, chair of the contracts committee, where the resolution was originally introduced.

The resolution was introduced in May as one in support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order banning agencies under his control from divesting from companies and organizations aligned with the BDS movement. Over the summer it was revised to a general condemnation of BDS that didn’t call for boycotts of specific companies.

It was taking the “blacklisting” element out of the resolution that allowed Lander and several other councilmembers to sign on.

But the fact that resolution had a near-certainty of passing didn’t stop last week’s hearing from becoming one of the city council’s most notorious hate-fests.

“The intensity and vitriol that I witnessed at today’s hearing — it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Levine after the hearing concluded.

Members of the audience hissed, booed and cheered, despite Rosenthal’s request for people to use hand motions — Occupy Wall Street-style — to express their support of a speaker.

When it got to the point — at about the two-hour mark — where audience members were springing up from their seats every few seconds to shout such phrases as “Zionism is racism,” “Lies, lies, lies” and “Free Palestine” in order to prevent people against the BDS movement from speaking, Rosenthal called in security officers and threatened to eject anyone who spoke out of turn.

“They’re not going to silence us,” said anti-BDS speaker Brooke Goldstein, moments before a pro-BDS protestor drowned her out, screaming, “You’re a sick human being! You are disgusting! How dare you! … You’re a f***ing joke.”

While being pulled out, one man raised both of his middle fingers to the committee and shouted “You deserve it!” as he was forced to leave.

Many of the people ejected from the hearing crowded the chamber’s glass doors, either trying to push past a physical wall of officers to get back in, or to prevent officers from pulling more people out.

“It was like watching a wrestling match, a WWE competition,” said Larry Spiewak, board chairman of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush. “People were getting thrown out and forcing their way back in. People were shouting ‘You’re baby killers,’” said Spiewak, who left in disgust after about two hours of waiting to testify.

After the mass ejections, the disruptions subsided but the insults — emanating from both sides — did not.

Councilman Rory Lancman, D-Hillcrest, called one group of pro-BDS speakers “anti-Semites,” and Councilman David Greenfield, D-Borough Park, unleashed a tirade against Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, head of the anti-Zionist chasidic group Neturei Karta.

“Who do you represent Mr. Weiss?” he said. “Do you represent anyone except for a handful of crazy people?” he continued as Rosenthal banged the gavel. “Who elected you? Who appointed you? Who made you a rabbi? You represent no one but yourself. … You’re nobody.”

BDS supporters, many from the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, aimed their ire at Rosenthal, whom they accused of favoring anti-BDS speakers, calling the hearing a “sham,” lacking “any form of integrity.”

But despite the moments of near-mayhem, most speakers in the post-ejection half of the hearing were able to make their viewpoints heard.

BDS opponents argued that the movement’s real aim is to delegitimize, and ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. They asserted (although the resolution itself did not) that BDS is an inherently anti-Semitic, racist movement that encourages violent protests on campus, causing some Jewish students to leave their kipas, Israel-themed T-shirts and Star of David necklaces at home for fear of being harassed.

In response, Taher Herzallah, National Campus Coordinator at American Muslims for Palestine, said the Palestinians were focusing on Israel because that’s the country that is affecting their lives. Why, he asked, should Palestinians be expected to shoulder the burden of fighting for every oppressed group?

Palestine Legal's Radhika Sainath made the point this way: "When I spoke about Indian human rights, nobody said: ‘Why are you singling out India?’”

Linda Sarsour, who heads the Arab American Association of New York, coined a new verb. “Maybe in 20 years I’ll BDS some other country," she said.

The issue at hand is not whether Israel should be boycotted, but whether or not she, personally, has the right to advocate an Israel boycott, she added.

Asked about that point after the hearing, Rosenthal said the council also had a right to free speech.

When the marathon meeting finally ended four-and-a half hours after it began, several councilmembers left disappointed.

“I think that even those of us who support the resolution were looking forward to having a [substantive] discussion,” said Councilman Mark Levine, D-Northern Manhattan, who chairs the Council’s Jewish caucus. “We can get across all points of view without anyone feeling that they’re personally under siege.”

One of those people is Councilman Ritchie Torres, D-Bronx, who faced intensive backlash for going on the council’s delegation to Israel last year.

“I was a Bernie delegate, the only Bronx member of the progressive caucus, a supporter of Black Lives Matter, the co-chair of the Black, Latino and Asian caucus,” he said, “but I’ve had a number of self-proclaimed progressives who sympathize with the BDS movement question my bona fides as a person of color, I’ve had my bona fides as a gay man questioned and then my bona fides as a progressive.

“As far as I’m concerned I see no contradiction at all. It’s consistent with who I am. I’m supporting a country founded upon liberal democratic values. If the progressive movement does not exist for the advance of liberal democratic values, then what is it for?”

Jewish Week editorial intern Renee Harari contributed reporting from City Hall.

Editor's Note: In "City’s Progressive Pols Walking The BDS Tightrope" in last week's issue, two quotes were mistakenly attributed to Palestine Legal's Radhika Sainath. It was Taher Herzallah, National Campus Coordinator at American Muslims for Palestine, who asked why Palestinians should be expected to fight for every oppressed group and Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, who said, “Maybe in 20 years I’ll BDS some other country." We regret the errors.

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