City Council Passes Anti-BDS Resolution Amid Tense Debate Over Movement’s Legitimacy

New York politicians, led by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, held a rally decrying Donald Trump at City Hall today.

New York politicians, led by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, held a rally decrying Donald Trump at City Hall today.

The City Council passed a resolution today seeking to condemn a movement calling for a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, following a tense, racially-charged debate that saw Council members disagreeing over the movement’s objectives and rights.

The resolution, introduced by Councilman Andy Cohen in May, condemns all efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the people of Israel. 

The resolution says the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement—known as BDS—ignores the world’s “myriad despotic regimes,” that BDS movement leaders and supporters engage in “unacceptable anti-Semitic rhetoric” but that it believes both Israelis and Palestinians “have the right to live in safe and secure states, free from fear and violence, with mutual recognition.” 

The heated discussion saw Council members frequently surpassing the one-minute speaking time limit, and being told by Public Advocate Letitia James—who tried to cut members off when their time was up—to continue in general discussion.

Councilman David Greenfield, who is Jewish, stressed that the Council is not taking away people’s First Amendment rights. He says “those activists still have the right to be bigots, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” but that the Council would be “simply condemning anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity.”

“All we’re saying in the Council today is, for those of you who have the beliefs, we in the Council condemn you and your beliefs and your actions,” Greenfield said. 

But proponents of the BDS movement—which include civil rights attorneys, community groups and racial and social justice activists—say the resolution curtails freedom of speech in New York around what they say is Israel’s abuses of Palestinian rights. 

Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo pointed out that when Council members asked to have a resolution about Boko Haram, the militant anti-education group that kidnappped Nigerian schoolgirls, their request was denied.

She also said that she is where she is today because her ancestors “had the right to boycott” and blasted the manner in which the bill was introduced to the body. (She said there was “no thoughtful education in terms of conversations and opportunities to speak about the issue free of judgment.”)

“When I requested that resolution we drafted, I was told that we do not as a body intervene in international affairs,” Cumbo said. “I was angry and I was upset but I respected that the body decided that this was not the proper space in order to deal with international affairs.”

Councilwoman Inez Barron, who defended the BDS movement’s principles, also pointed out what she perceived to be hypocrisy. “We were told ‘no,'” Barron said. “So it’s interesting now for fear perhaps of being labeled anti-Semitic, that this gets to come to the floor.”

But Councilman Barry Grodenchik argued that the resolution is not hampering people’s First Amendment rights.

“This is an expression that we are expressing our First Amendment rights as elected officials in the city,” he said.

But even he admitted that the City Council’s practice of not hearing resolutions on international issues may need to be reversed.

“Perhaps it’s time we revisit the international, discussion on international issues here,” Grodenchik continued. “We are the most important city in the most important nation on earth. People look to us still they still see that lady standing…she’s standing for liberty and we have to stand up for liberty and justice.”

Councilman Stephen Levin, who co-sponsored the resolution, said that as someone who identifies as Jewish and believes in the state of Israel as a national home for Jews, he “was and am very conflicted about the City Council taking on perhaps the most intractable issue in the world.”

But he said the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 factored into his decision, he said, noting that he supports a two-state solution.

“I didn’t know then why it was so important, and so tragic, but in time I came to realize what Rabin’s assassination at the hands of a radical, anti-peace Jew has come to represent: it was a victory of hate over love, perpetual discord over peace,” Levin said.

In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order banning the state from contracting with entities that support boycotts and divestment campaigns. Mayor Bill de Blasio himself rejected the BDS movement last month and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is among the resolution’s supporters. 

Mark-Viverito rejected the premise that the resolution hurts free speech, noting that the movement is “philosophically against the right of Israel to exist.”

“That is not what we’re doing here,” she said.

At a hearing on the resolution last week by the City Council’s Committee on Contracts, officers kicked out opponents of the resolution who were shouting.

Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist, said Council members “have failed us” by voting for a resolution that violates First Amendment rights.

“The fact that members of the City Council decided to antagonize human rights activists when they should be focused on bringing New Yorkers together is irresponsible,” Sarsour said in a statement.