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Debate: Is Cuomo’s Crackdown on BDS Unconstitutional McCarthyism or a Stand Against Anti-Semitism?

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued the first-ever executive order forcing state agencies to divest from any organizations aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS is an international campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights. However, its opponents say BDS is a thinly disguised anti-Semitic attempt to debilitate or even destroy Israel. Cuomo’s executive order forces state officials to make a list of businesses and groups who are engaged in activities targeting Israel. We speak to Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, and Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and the former president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In Israel, two Palestinian suspects opened fire on civilians in a restaurant in Tel Aviv Wednesday, killing four people. Police have identified the attackers as cousins from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In response, the Israeli military revoked permits for 83,000 Palestinians to visit Israel, and said it would send hundreds more troops to the West Bank.

We turn now to look at a growing debate here in New York state. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued the first-ever executive order forcing state agencies to divest from any organizations aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS is an international campaign to pressure Israel to comply with international law and respect Palestinian rights. However, its opponents say BDS is a thinly disguised anti-Semitic attempt to debilitate or even destroy Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Cuomo’s executive order forces state officials to make a list of businesses and groups that are engaged in activities targeting Israel. On Sunday, Cuomo announced the decision right before he marched in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: Today I’m going to sign an executive order that says, very clearly, we are against the BDS movement. And it’s very simple. If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you. If you divert revenues from Israel, New York will divert revenues from you. If you sanction Israel, New York will sanction you. Period. … We are against the BDS movement in every way. We are against companies that do it. We are against the promotion of it by companies and by entities. I am very proud to be the first governor in the United States of America to sign this executive order. And I encourage every—I encourage every governor in this country to sign such an executive order.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The New York Legislature had unsuccessfully tried to push through anti-boycott legislation for months, and Cuomo signed the executive order just days before the legislative session ended. Civil liberties groups and pro-Palestinian organizations have declared Cuomo’s order unconstitutional and a form of 21st century McCarthyism. Several other states have also moved to support Israel and prevent their governments and agencies from doing business with companies or individuals that endorse the boycott.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, we’re joined by Rebecca Vilkomerson, who is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her group is organizing a protest against Governor Cuomo today. And in Baltimore, Maryland, we’re joined by Robert Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, former president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Robert Freedman, your response to Governor Cuomo’s executive order, the first in the nation?

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Well, I think the governor did the right thing. I would have preferred it to go through the Legislature, if possible. But because of the goals of BDS, which are particularly ugly, I think it was something that had to be done. Let me just go over with you very quickly, Rebecca, if I could, what the goals are of the BDS movement. If you look at them, one is allegedly to end Israeli occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory. There, the Israelis—in 1948, there was a chance for a Palestinian state; Palestinians rejected it. Clinton parameters offered a peaceful solution for a Palestinian state and an end to occupation; the Palestinians rejected it. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered a peace plan; Arafat—Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, rejected it. So, the end to occupation is not just one-sided.

Secondly, they call for, quote, “full equality of Arab Palestinian citizens in Israel.” Certainly I support that, but according to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, there is equality. There are Arab judges. Fifteen percent of the student body in Israeli universities are Arab. Forty percent of Israeli doctors are Arab. So this is not apartheid South Africa. It’s a very, very different situation.

But the worst element to BDS, in my view, is their call for the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees. What that would mean—some 5 million refugees and their descendants—that’s the end of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, something recognized by the U.N. And this comes very close to being anti-Semitism. Indeed, Omar Barghouti, who is the father of the BDS movement, is all for a one-state solution, where the Arabs would be the majority. So, I have a real problem with that. Basically, it says that all other nations—the Germans, the French, the English—can have their own nation-state ethnically, but Jews cannot. And I think that’s the problem. Even worse, if you look at what the history of the refugee problem was, in 1938, the Germans moved into the—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to cut you off right there, because we want to get a direct response from Rebecca Vilkomerson to the executive order issued by—

ROBERT FREEDMAN: OK, I want to come back to these points.

AMY GOODMAN: —issued by Governor Cuomo. Rebecca?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Right. Well, first of all, I would remind Robert and everybody that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call is—has demands according to international law. They’re based on very simple demands: again, end to occupation, full rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and right of return for refugees. All those are inscribed in international law. The idea that demanding from Israel that it stop violating the human rights of Palestinians, and to use a tool, which has been used, you know, as a way to create change when governments are unwilling to do so, is something that is—and until those conditions end. It’s not against Israel forever. It’s not against Israel because it’s a Jewish state. It’s against Israel because—specifically because of its human rights abuses and its dispossession of Palestinians. So I think it’s very important to keep that in mind.

It’s not anti-Semitic. In fact, in my experience, in the experience of Jewish Voice for Peace, the Boycott National Committee, which is the representative of all the Palestinian organizations that have called globally for support for BDS, has—calls very much for universal human rights. That includes speaking out against anti-Semitism, against all forms of oppression and racism. And so, they apply those values equally. And so, we’re very proud and honored to be part of that movement fighting for human rights, fighting against Palestinian dispossession.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Rebecca, in terms of—were you surprised by this executive order by Governor Cuomo? And also, it seems that the impact of this will perhaps be greater in terms—in Europe, where the BDS movement has grown more rapidly than even here in the United States, because obviously in a multinational world that we live in, there’s a lot of European companies that do business in New York state.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: That’s an interesting point. We were surprised by the executive order, especially because, as you mentioned at the top of the segment, that actually there was bills going through the Legislature, and there’s four days from the end of the legislative session, and they were really stalled in committee because there was very strong opposition from over a hundred organizations around the state to these bills. And so it did feel like Governor Cuomo was trying to do an end run around the legislative process. And it’s clear that he’s trying to hold onto a consensus that doesn’t really exist anymore in the electorate. There’s growing support for BDS, partially because of all the ways that Israel is continuing to—more and more people recognize how Israel is continuously violating Palestinian human rights, and also because of the increasing right-wing nature of the Israeli government.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Glenn Greenwald, who wrote in The Intercept, “Beyond the McCarthyism and profound free speech threat, the stench of hypocrisy of Cuomo and Democrats is suffocating. Just over two months ago, Cuomo banned state officials from traveling to North Carolina in order to support the boycott against that American state in protest over its anti-transgender law.” Rebecca Vilkomerson, can you talk specifically about what this executive order would do?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah. I mean, one thing is that we don’t exactly know. It seems to cast a very broad net, and I think it’s very vague, it’s very disturbing. But what it basically says is that state agencies have to proactively go out and figure out—we don’t know exactly how—organizations and companies that are—not just who participate in the boycott, but who advocate for the boycott. So that seems like that could be—and it’s proactively creating this list, this blacklist, and saying that the state has to divest from those companies and organizations. And so, what that’s going to look like, we don’t exactly know. But I think that anyone, regardless of what they feel about BDS or Israel-Palestine as an issue, anyone who feels strongly about being able to, as residents of New York, speak out on any kind of human rights issue needs to be concerned about the state dictating what kinds of advocacy are available or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what happens to those states that do—those companies that do this?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: The state is instructed, from what I understand—and again, this is new—to divest from those organizations and companies, and also that they cannot do business within—with the state of New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Robert Freedman, were you surprised by the governor’s action here and now the possibility that other governors may follow suit? And I was particularly interested when the governor used the word “entities,” not just companies. So I assume that would mean a university, a church group that decides to participate in the BDS movement, as well, if they have contracts with the state of New York.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: It’s quite possible. I just would like to refer you to the statement of the American Association of University Professors of May 2013, which opposed the BDS movement. And let me quote it for you. “In view of the Association’s long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas, we oppose academic boycotts. On the same grounds, we recommend that other academic associations oppose academic boycotts.” Now, BDS is at the heart of the effort to academically boycott Israel. There’s no question about that. There have been attempts in a number of associations. The American Studies Association voted for the boycott. The American Anthropology Association just voted against the boycott. There’s very strong feelings on campuses about this. But if you believe in the free change of—exchange of ideas, then you cannot boycott universities. If you want change in Israel, the universities are the agents of change, and boycotting them is self-defeating. You cannot blame universities in a country for the actions of their government any more than you could blame American universities for the U.S. intervention in Iraq, invasion of Iraq in 2003. But that is what BDS is doing. And it opposes the free exchange of ideas. It’s self-defeating.

And to make matters worse, Israel, among 196 nations of the world, is picked out by itself for this kind of discrimination. You have what’s going on in Syria with 300,000 people dead, the Russians actively supporting it, the Chinese supporting it at the U.N. But do you hear anything about boycotts of Russian universities or exchanges between Russian universities and American universities, or Chinese universities and American universities? What about the crackdown on free expression in Turkey—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s get a response from—

ROBERT FREEDMAN: —where a number of universities—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s get a response from Rebecca Vilkomerson.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: —you know, you have this? Why is—

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to get a—we’re going to get a response from Rebecca.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Yeah, but answer the question: Why is Israel being singled out?

AMY GOODMAN: And also, if you can talk about companies that have been successfully boycotted?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yes, yes. So, I mean, I think this is a very old and, in my opinion, tired argument to say that Israel is being singled out. There’s all kinds of trouble in the world. There are all kinds of various different fights happening against all kinds of terrible things and struggles in front of the world. The U.S. actually is, of course, boycotting places like Syria and North Korea. But this is a response to a call by Palestinian civil society. The fact that this is not the only problem in the world does not mean it’s not one that needs to be responded to. And we have a way to respond to it, because we are responding to the Palestinian call and the request for solidarity in the face of these human rights violations. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is that we, as Americans, are certainly complicit in this ongoing oppression and abuse of human rights, because the United States government gives more money to Israel than any other country. And with our diplomatic, economic and military might, we are putting all of our weight behind the Israeli government. And without that support, I don’t think that Israel could continue to do what it does. So, as Americans, we really have an obligation to do what we can and use the tools that we can. And as Robert actually mentioned, I think BDS is the most effective tool, because we actually are having some victories. It’s the one thing that’s putting pressure on Israel, and I think it’s the reason we’re seeing things like this executive order, we’re seeing things like the tens of millions of dollars that are being invested in trying to stop the BDS movement, by people like Sheldon Adelson, by the Israeli government itself, because they see how effective it is, because it’s gaining ground on campus. And so, things like this executive order attempt to [inaudible]—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me ask Robert Freedman to respond to that particular issue, that given the amount of aid that the United States has been historically giving to Israel and enormous economic support that Israel receives from Americans who support that country, that there might be a particular reason why the BDS movement would arise here in this country as an alternative tactic or movement.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Well, we heard from Rebecca—and I’m quoting now—it was a “response to a call by Palestinian civil society.” The call was from Omar Barghouti, not particularly known as a democrat even in Palestinian society. And basically he calls—

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: I have to interrupt. I have to interrupt that.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: —openly for a one-state solution. Period.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: I’m sorry. I have—I need to interrupt that. That’s not correct. Over 170 Palestinian organizations, from a wide range of civil society—trade unions, root groups, union groups, Palestinian political parties—a broad spectrum of civil society have called for the boycott, divestment and sanctions.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: And who is the leader of that—who is the Palestinian leader of that movement?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: The Boycott National Committee.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Omar Barghouti. Do you deny that?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: The Boycott National Committee.

ROBERT FREEDMAN: Do you deny that Omar Barghouti is the leader of this?

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Omar Barghouti is one—Omar Barghouti is of the leaders of the Boycott National Committee, which is the group that—of those 170 wide-range organizations that have called for the boycott.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to hear about one successful boycott campaign you’ve launched.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: Yeah. Well, I think one incredibly successful campaign, most recently, has been against G4S, which of course is a company that’s involved in security around the world. And this is one of the ways that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement works so well, because it is global. So there have been campaigns in Europe, as you mentioned, Juan. There’s been campaigns here in the U.S. And just recently, G4S announced that it’s actually pulling out of Israel, because of—they haven’t said that it’s because of the pressure, but we believe it is because of the pressure that has been put on it and the contracts that they are losing because of their involvement in Israeli prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. We thank you both for discussing this, and of course we’ll continue to cover this issue.

REBECCA VILKOMERSON: May I just say, I would love it if folks could come to a demonstration today at 5:30 at the Governor’s Office in New York City. It’s at 3rd Avenue and 40th Street.

AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Vilkomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Robert Freedman, visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and former president of the Baltimore Hebrew University.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to the Stanford rape case and get the latest. Stay with us.

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