The Israeli-Palestinian conflict reached the shores of the Hudson Wednesday.
New York City lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to condemn the movement boycotting Israel, but not before a stormy debate in which even backers of the symbolic measure criticized Israeli policies.
The 40 to 4 vote rebuking the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement was spearheaded by Councilman Andy Cohen, a Bronx Democrat, and came after an emotionally charged deliberation by members of the City Council. There were six abstentions.
“We must take a stand as the home of the largest population of Jews outside the state of Israel and as a people who support the only true democracy in the Middle East, and the United States’ strongest ally in the region,” Cohen said.
Councilman Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat who leads the council’s Jewish Caucus, said the motion does not infringe on free-speech rights.
“You have the right to free speech, and that includes the most hateful forms of speech. You have the right to boycott anyone and anything you want,” Levine said. “But we also have the right, and actually an obligation, to denounce the kind of hateful attacks being leveled on people in this city who express any support for Israel.”
At least three legislators who represent Jewish areas voted against or abstained from the measure — Carlos Menchaca who represents parts of Boro Park, Jumaane Williams who has parts of Midwood and Laurie Cumbo of Crown Heights.
Menchaca formally voted against, saying it would muzzle the free speech rights of pro-Palestinian businesses while Williams and Cumbo, who called the motion, “divisive,” abstained. They protested that similar resolutions were not allowed for the abducted Nigerian girls or other international atrocities.
“I was angry and I was upset, but I respected that this was not the proper space in order to deal with international affairs,” said Cumbo. “As a black woman, the fact that I’m here as a city councilmember is because my ancestors and the people before them had the right to boycott.”
The other three to vote against were Rosie Mendez of Manhattan, and Inez Barron and Daneek Miller of Brooklyn.
The vote came a week after a heated hearing drew dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters. They interrupted the proceedings several times and were ejected from City Hall by security. At one point, Councilman David Greenfield was shouted down.
The resolution condemns “all efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the people of Israel.”
The law had originally announced the council’s support for the state legislature’s ban on doing business with companies that support the BDS movement. But the legislature failed to pass their bill and Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended up issuing an executive order with similar language. Council members opposed Cuomo’s order since it creates a list of businesses, which they called an unconstitutional “blacklist.”
Several lawmakers emphasized in their floor speeches or in statements that they were voting for the resolution but did not support Israel’s building in lands captured in 1967.
“I am forthrightly opposed to the Global BDS movement,” Councilman Brad Lander of Park Slope said in a statement. “…At the same time, I believe it is important to make clear that many of the same values that lead me to oppose BDS also lead me to oppose the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”
Greenfield slammed BDS supporters as racists for targeting the one democratic country in the Middle East and not others.
“You still have the right to be bigots,” Greenfield said. “Those activists still have the right that they so choose to be anti-Israel, and they still have the right that they so choose to be anti-Semitic. All we are saying at the City Council today is that to those of you who have those beliefs, we condemn you and your beliefs and your actions.”