This Sunday marked the 49th anniversary of the 1967 war, when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem began. It was on this day, as the occupation entered its 50th year, that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to cast his lot firmly in support of perpetual occupation.
He did so by issuing an executive order that will blacklist organizations for their political views—specifically, entities that advocate or practice boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel because of its denial of fundamental Palestinian rights. The order requires all state agencies and funds to divest from any organization that supports BDS. It is the sort of thing that invokes McCarthyism and makes you wonder if the governor will move next to establish a House Un-Israeli Activities Committee.
Cuomo would do well to remember that unlike Israel—where there is no Constitution guaranteeing the equal rights of people regardless of race, creed, or opinion—we do have a Constitution in the United States, and this order flies in the face of its First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.
The global movement for Palestinian rights has responded to the call of Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest from and sanction the State of Israel until it complies with international law and respects the human rights of Palestinians. These tactics are nonviolent and follow in the tradition of many other social-justice movements. From the Montgomery bus boycott of the civil rights era to the divestment movement against apartheid in South Africa, BDS tactics have a rich history of propelling social change in this country and beyond. Now Governor Cuomo wants the State of New York to oppose such efforts.
Beyond the constitutional concerns, including the chilling effect on free speech and legitimate political advocacy, this order highlights the governor’s blatant hypocrisy. It was earlier this year when he, along with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, banned non-essential employee travel to North Carolina because of that state’s anti-LGBT law. It seems Governor Cuomo is a BDS proponent when the rights being defended are not those of Palestinians. And he isn’t alone in this double standard; others who supported the use of BDS tactics in the civil rights struggle or who support it today to advance LGBT rights or fossil-fuel divestment now oppose the use of such tactics to advance Palestinian rights. Why are the human rights of Palestinians less worthy of defense than the rights of others?
The governor’s actions are also counterproductive. For years, the international community, in particular the United States, has called on Palestinians to abandon violence. Now, as a nonviolent movement sparked by Palestinian civil society gains steam, leaders like Cuomo are telling Palestinians that nonviolent resistance to abusive and discriminatory Israeli policies is also illegitimate. Distilled, the message to Palestinians is clear: No resistance to the denial of your human rights is legitimate, because you have no legitimate claim to human rights. It is a fundamentally racist message. Cuomo, and others in his position, should know that Palestinians and their supporters around the world will never submit to this implied inferiority. Attempts to close off avenues of nonviolent resistance will only create incentives for violent alternatives.
In his announcement on Sunday, Governor Cuomo suggested that nonviolent BDS activism for Palestinian rights is tantamount to armed resistance, claiming that it is “in many ways more frightening” than Hamas’s use of tunnels. This disturbing attempt to smear nonviolent activists could encourage violence against them, and is unbecoming of leaders in an ostensibly liberal society.
While Cuomo’s attack on the movement for Palestinian rights is wrongheaded and immoral, it is also a sign of just how much the movement has grown and how much its opponents are willing to destroy the values they claim to uphold to attack it. The executive order started out as a bill in the New York State Legislature, which stalled after a public outcry exposed its suppression of free speech. Cuomo—perhaps pushed by pro-Israel groups fearful of the optics of such legislation not passing in New York—decided he didn’t want to wait for the legislative process to play out, and acted on his own. This underscores the extent to which right-wing efforts in support of Israeli apartheid have lost the American grassroots, who are increasingly less likely to accept the legitimacy of a system that denies millions of people basic rights. Perhaps the pro-apartheid camp can circumvent the will of Americans and buy themselves some more time in defense of the indefensible, but ultimately freedom, justice, and equality will come to Israel-Palestine. It’s a matter of time—the arc of the moral universe is already bending toward justice.
So if Governor Cuomo wants to create a list of those nonviolently demanding accountability for Israel’s denial of basic Palestinian rights, please sign me up. One day, when the system of imposed inequality ends in Israel-Palestine, this resistance to it will be looked back on as a badge of honor. I, along with an ever-growing number of Americans, want to be counted among those who stood on the right side of history.