Pro-Israel activists who are battling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territory emphasize the freedom and democracy of Israeli society and juxtapose it to the intolerance of the BDS movement. With his new anti-BDS bill, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made it that much harder for activists to take the moral high ground.
The measure couldn’t find its way through the state legislature, so Cuomo took to Twitter and announced that he would issue an executive order banning the state from doing business with groups that boycott Israel.
Cuomo’s fierce advocacy for Israel is unsurprising. He has an eye on the White House and, as a well known Democrat with a host of conservative views, a fierce anti-BDS position works well to get the support of establishment Democrats who fear the leftward shift in the party marked by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Indeed Israel was Cuomo’s first choice of foreign destination as governor, signaling that the interests of Israel were deeply tied his state.
But if Cuomo’s maverick stance on BDS has any effect, it would be to move the anti-BDS movement into illiberal territory. This is not new territory for Cuomo, whose tenure has included advocacy for fracking (although he did finally give in due to environmentalist pressure), privatizing public education, demanding punishing monetary concessions from state worker unions, using New York City’s public university funding as a political football against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and fighting New York City’s universal pre-K program.
Perhaps worse for the pro-Israel activists than having their bill imposed on a state legislature that didn’t want it, is being associated with Cuomo himself. In a scandal-plagued state, his team is the focus of a federal investigation, which may not put him behind bars but could leave his legacy and ambitions in tatters. His abrupt shuttering of the anti-corruption task force he had set up whipped up such discontent from liberals that it forced a strong primary challenge from law professor Zephyr Teachout and helped the candidacy of Green Party candidate and left-wing Teamster member Howie Hawkins.
Throw into the mix his oft-displayed contempt for de Blasio and the cost of this anti-BDS bill gets ever higher. Regardless of one’s feelings about the Big Apple mayor, Cuomo’s behavior is testament to a personal immaturity that would rather short change nine million of his own citizens in one of the world’s most important cities than let go of a petty feud.
Whether StandWithUs or ZOA like it or not, this petty tyranny has become the political face of anti-BDS. It seems that this how far this movement has to go, how defensive it has to get to oppose people who are so angry at Israel’s right-wing militarism that they’d take their frustration out by forgoing a Sodastream. And that’s particularly sad, because even as a non-Zionist, I’m open to hearing criticisms of BDS as a tactic. Pro-Palestine academic Norman Finkelstein has caused a stir being critical of the movement, and Noam Chomsky has come out against cultural boycotts.
We should definitely be having debates about the substance of a desired outcome for the territories and the strategies to best arrive at them. But if one’s course of action is to get an unlikable political hack to bypass the legislature to outlaw a thought crime, it makes the anti-BDS movement seem desperate and contradicts its claims to be a defender of democracy and openness.
In a way, this will still be a win for the pro-Israel side, since, at least in New York, it is so political risky to advocate for Palestinian rights that finding a way to undo this order seems futile. But it is in its own way a defeat. It’s a sighing resignation that rather than confront the issues within Israel that have human rights activists concerned, anti-BDS allies threw all aspects of liberal democracy to the wind to just silence their voices. It may work. It may silence those voices, and may allow the Israeli right to keep its hold not just on official power but over what can and can’t be said about the country. But even in New York State it’s another hole in the already leaky vessel of liberal democracy being steered by moderate Zionists and defenders of Israel.