The governor of the state of New York recently made headlines for signing an executive order that sought to stifle the global campaign to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The order will prohibit any New York state agency or authority from complying with the BDS campaign’s goal to support a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. BDS advocates various types of economic sanctions against Israel until it ends the occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.
The governor will also require the state to end investments in any business entities that comply with the BDS campaign out of public pressure, moral objections, market considerations, or any other reason. For example, if Caterpillar finally decided it had to stop selling bulldozers to the Israeli military because they are used to destroy Palestinian homes, the order would now require New York to pull any public funds out of the United States company. Andrew Cuomo’s order prioritises Israel’s unsustainable occupation over the American peoples’ freedom of association and American firms’ economic vitality, all for the crime of socially responsible business decisions.
Governor Cuomo issued this exceptional directive after the NY state legislature refused to pass such a bill in response to pro-Israel activists’ efforts. State lawmakers opposed the inclusion of a blacklist that would catalogue United States companies and others engaged in BDS activities. Cuomo took no such exception and disparaged the legislative process as “tedious” for bearing such concerns.
The previous failure of an anti-BDS bill to gain legislative support did not stop the governor from claiming to speak for the state as a whole in declaring “If you boycott Israel, New York state will boycott you.”
An alarming component of the new policy is that the state government will publish a list to “identify institutions and companies ... that engage in boycotts, divestment or sanctions activity targeting Israel, either directly or through a parent or subsidiary”. In the US, there is a distaste for official lists that name political dissenters. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups are concerned that creating such a list will intimidate and silence activists.
This order is corrosive to the spirit of the US constitution’s protections of free speech and association. It is an awkward, even reactionary, contravention of what the American forefathers aimed to protect as much as possible: The sort of critical, political speech in which BDS activists undertake. The governor’s use of state power to intimidate activists who desire to change an unjust situation and to preemptively decide the answer to a question better resolved through lengthy debate is just the sort of malevolent government abuse the first amendment was meant to preclude.
Yet, despite their potential chilling effect, the governor’s moves are unlikely to stem the rising tide of BDS as a movement seeking to make progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The conditions that gave rise to the campaign are unaddressed by Cuomo’s measures. As long as they persist, international opprobrium will as well.
Modelled on the international movement to sanction Apartheid South Africa, BDS had its foundation in a 2005 call by Palestinian civil society organisations that saw few other options for ending Israel’s occupation, which included colony expansion into Palestinian territory and a segregationist system of rule that discriminated against Palestinians. BDS sought to beckon international solidarity, the same transnational nonviolent support that ended South Africa’s system of racial discrimination.
Advocates of Palestinian independence cite the United Nation’s multiple resolutions opposing Israeli expansion and military rule in occupied Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank. They are recalled as a litany of numbered measures — 194, 242, 338, 425 and so on. Yet, these resolutions have failed to produce much improvement as the US-led peace process lumbered on since 1993 and is functionally defunct now. This failure gave way to BDS’s emergence and popularity.
The failure of the US-led peace process took a major toll on Palestinian’s economic and social livelihood, while it left them even further from any just solution. Palestinian self-determination was kept in a holding pattern while Israel laboured away to alter the facts on the ground. It accelerated colony construction in the areas under question, taking land while bargaining over a deal. Restoration or restitution for the millions of Palestinian refugees forced out were no closer to fruition after more than a decade of process. It appeared made to only delay its promise of a lasting peace, as the chief broker, the US, consistently intervened in the side of the stronger party, Israel.
As the US-led peace process continued to flounder, Palestinians watched as Israel continued to infringe on their rights and livelihood, and made its administrative regime even more complex to accommodate the hapless and non-representative Palestinian National Authority.
For the authors of the 2005 call, BDS was a means to make good on international law standards and the mounting view that Israel, as the historic conqueror, must make compromises in the name of peace. Israel was unwilling to make any significant gestures towards the prerequisite justice needed to end the conflict. It was more interested in perpetuating its illegal, immoral and widely condemned colony project.
Due to this record of failure by the most powerful governments and international institutions for solving the conflict, the early BDS campaigners sought to mobilise “people of conscience in the international community”. Governments have rarely shown political courage, acted principally, or made tough political decisions contrary to powerful political actors in conflict situations. Members of civil society, the 2005 declaration states, have therefore “historically shouldered the moral responsibility to fight injustice”.
Not only is BDS an alternative to the chronic inadequacy of governments and international organisations, but it is also a distinctly non-violent brand of resistance with political objectives reflecting the expectations of a real solution addressing Palestine’s historical grievances. The original signatories included teachers groups, unions, educators associations, disability services and health care providers. They are not fighters, but are peaceful groups that hoped to use international pressure to relieve the immense pressure put on them and civilians through military rule, exclusions and inequality.
Yet, Cuomo has equated BDS, an explicitly non-violent strategy, with actual warfare, calling it “a new brand of warfare”. In his Washington Post oped, he stated that BDS is much more “frightening” than plots to “murder” Israelis and “destroy the Jewish state”. There is only one way to make sense of such a ridiculous statement. To trample so cravenly on free speech values, it is necessary to rely on hyperbolic and malicious assessments painting BDS as violent and destructive.
Cuomo’s characterisation ignores the political and legal nature of the 2005 call’s stated goals — which do not necessarily rule out Jewish or Israeli citizenship in the holy land. First, it seeks to end the military occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands, as well as dismantle the wall surrounding and running within the West Bank’s territory. Second, it desires full equal rights for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel. Lastly, it calls for adhering to UN resolution 194 in “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes”. These could be accomplished by several political arrangements radically different than the currently doomed model of Israeli dominance of the shared country.
BDS is seen as a threat because it implicitly brings out the contradiction of the Israeli government’s simultaneous desire to be both democratic, a model of legality and moral governance, and to be a state designed to privilege one religious group in a religiously pluralistic land. This can only be sustained by violence and systematic discrimination, which is why a rights-based response based on legal equality is deemed a threat to the current power structure. Maintaining it, as Cuomo is willing to sacrifice American principles for, is dooming the region to perpetual conflict.
Will Youmans is an assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.