Park Slope Councilman Brad Lander told The Jewish Week he will support a City Council resolution condemning the Israel boycott movement following a tumultuous hearing on the motion on Thursday.
In signing on to the symbolic measure, Lander became the second to last member of the Council's 14-member Jewish caucus to co-sponsor the bill. As of Friday afternoon, the remaining member, Councilman Stephen Levin, D-Williamsburg, had not added his name.
Levin, who represents the North Brooklyn waterfront, from Greenpoint to Boerum Hill, has a district that includes both heavily Orthodox Williamsburg and parts of the progressive bastion of brownstone Brooklyn.
“He’s in a unique position,” said one person familiar with the workings of the Jewish caucus who didn’t want to speak on the record due to the sensitivity of the topic. He said that the councilman, a member of the council’s progressive caucus, has been doing a lot of “soul searching.”
That was apparent at the hearing. While many council members used their authority to ask questions as a way to grandstand, courtroom-style, Levin used his time to ask several groups of pro-BDS speakers, to clarify whether, as the resolution asserts, the movement fails to support a two-state solution (aka Israel’s right to exist).
He sincerely seemed to want to know.
“I have a very quick question and I don’t mean to be naïve or coy or provocative in asking this,” he said to one group testifying against the resolution. “Does the BDS movement recognize … Israel’s right to exist?” Told that the movement doesn’t take political positions, he resorted to asking BDS supporters their personal opinions. (All but one of the handful questioned said no, some because Israel’s actions against Palestinians has caused the state to forfeit its right to exist, and some because in a true democracy, everyone, including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, should be able to vote, and the question of whether the state remains Jewish will be decided by a race of demographics). Levin did not return an email request for comment.
But grandstanding reigned, alongside some gems of irony. Two examples:
While protesting the resolution on grounds of free speech, pro-BDS activists shouted down those speaking in favor of the motion; secondly, there were the calls for abolishing the Jewish state followed by demands that “Jews go back to Israel.”
The nonbinding resolution, introduced by Councilman Andrew Cohen, D-Bronx, seeks to “condemn all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction its government and people.”
“The issue of the impact of BDS on Israel, and the implication for New York City residents are large,” said Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, chair of the contracts committee responsible for the resolution.
As of the morning of the hearing, a majority of councilmembers had signed onto proposal. But the fact that resolution has a near certainty of passing didn’t stop the meeting from becoming ugly.
“The intensity and vitriol that I witnessed at today’s hearing — it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” said Councilman Mark Levine, D-Northern Manhattan, who chairs the City Council’s Jewish Caucus.
While there have been anti-Israel demonstrations during hearings in the past, he said, “those might have played out over 20 minutes — this was a couple of hours of sustained disruptions.”
Members of the audience hissed, booed, and cheered, despite a request from the hearing’s chairwoman, Helen Rosenthal, D-Upper West Side, that people use hand motions — Occupy Wall Street-style — to express their support of a speaker.
When it got to the point — at about the two-hour mark — where audience members were springing up from their seats every few seconds to shout such phrases as, “Zionism is racism,” “Lies, lies, lies,” and “Free Palestine” in order to prevent people against the BDS movement from speaking, Rosenthal called in security officers and threatened to eject anyone who spoke out of turn.
“They’re not going to silence us,” said anti-BDS speaker Brooke Goldstein, moments before a pro-BDS protestor drowned her out, screaming “You’re a sick human being! You are disgusting! How dare you! … You’re a f***ing joke.”
JVP members hold a banner saying "Jews Say No!" at a pre-hearing protest outide City Hall. Renee Harari/JW
Goldstein, who directs the Lawfare Project, which fights BDS-efforts, told The Jewish Week that as the screaming protestor was being escorted out, she grabbed onto the straps of Goldstein’s purse, yanking her, as if in an attempt to drag her along or use her as a means to stay put).
Indeed, the one-at-a-time ejections became a moment for each pro-BDS protestors to have their say, and the process took nearly an hour.
One man raised both of his middle fingers to the committee and shouted, “You deserve it” as he was forced to leave.
Many of the people ejected from the hearing crowded the chamber’s glass doors, either trying to push past a physical wall of officers to get back in, or to prevent officers from pulling more people out.
“It was like watching a wrestling match, a WWE competition,” said Larry Spiewak, board chairman of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush. “People were getting thrown out and forcing their way back in. People were shouting 'You’re baby killers,'” said Spiewak, who left in disgust after about two hours of waiting to testify.
After the mass ejections, the disruptions subsided, but the insults — emanating from both sides —did not.
Councilman Rory Lancman, D-Hillcrest, called one group of pro-BDS speakers "anti-Semites," and Councilman David Greenfield, D-Borough Park, unleashed a tirade against Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, head of the anti-Zionist chasidic group Neturei Karta, calling him nothing but “the leader of this mentally unstable cult.”
“Who do you represent Mr. Weiss?” he said. “You don’t represent anyone in Williamsburg. You live in Monsey. … Do you represent anyone except for a handful of crazy people? … “Do not pretend to represent our community,” he continued as Rosenthal banged the gavel. “Who elected you? Who appointed you? Who made you a rabbi? You represent no one but yourself. … You’re nobody.”
BDS-supporters, many from the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, aimed their ire at Rosenthal, whom they accused of favoring anti-BDS speakers and calling the hearing a “sham,” lacking “any form of integrity."
But despite the moments of near mayhem, most speakers in the post-ejection half of the hearing were able to make their viewpoints heard.
“The BDS movement singles out the Jewish state, and only the Jewish state, in its so-called human rights advocacy,” Goldstein said in her testimony. “This is racism, pure and simple.”
BDS oponents argued that the movement’s real aim is to delegitimize, and ultimately destroy, the Jewish state. They asserted (although the resolution itself did not) that BDS is an inherently anti-Semitic, racist movement that encourages violent protests on campus, causing some Jewish students to leave their kipas, Israel-themed T-shirts and Star of David necklaces at home for fear of being harassed.
In response, Taher Herzallah, National Campus Coordinator at American Muslims for Palestine, said the Palestinians were focusing on Israel because that’s the country that is affecting their lives. Why, he asked, should Palestinians be expected to shoulder the burden of fighting for every oppressed group?
Palestine Legal's Radhika Sainath made the point this way: "When I spoke about Indian human rights, nobody said: ‘Why are you singling out India?’”
Linda Sarsour, who heads the Arab American Association of New York, coined a new verb: “Maybe in 20 years I’ll BDS some other country," she said.
The issue at hand is not whether Israel should be boycotted, but whether or not she, personally, has the right to advocate an Israel boycott, she added.
Read more at http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york/citys-progressive-pols-walking-bds-tightrope#j1l1LID5KcCcShMD.99
Asked about that point after the hearing, Rosenthal said that since the council was considering a nonbinding resolution, rather than a bill, all the council was doing is exercising its members own right to free speech.
Video: Renee Harari/JW
When the marathon meeting finally ended four-and-a half-hours after it began, several council members left disappointed.
"I think that even those of us who support the resolution were looking forward to having a [substantive] discussion," said Levine.
Rosenthal agreed. “I wanted a robust discussion, but, unfortunately, you know, with the distraction of those who wanted to distract — whose sole purpose was to distract — that doesn’t help their side."
Many people on that side, mostly Jewish Voice for Peace members, noted that they lived in areas that Levine represents. But Levine was unfazed.
“They do not represent the majority of opinion of the Jewish residents of my district,” he said, adding that he would have liked to hear the BDS advocates' viewpoints at the hearing in “a more respectful way.”
“We can get across all points of view without anyone feeling that they’re personally under siege,” he said, referring both to pro-BDS actions on college campuses as well as the tactics of the BDS supporters at Thursday’s hearing.
He added that the boycotts of academics and other nonpolitical Israelis made clear that the movement was aimed at more than just the Israeli government.
"It goes to extraordinary lengths to demonize an entire population,” he said. “This is a boycott aimed at an entire society so that anyone Israeli — anybody who expresses any affection for Israel — can be targeted. And to me that is profoundly unjust.”
Jewish Week editorial intern Renee Harari contributed reporting from City Hall.
Editor's Note: This story was revised on On Sept. 12 to reflect that it was Councilman Rory Lancman who called a group of pro-BDS speakers "anti-Semites," not Councilman David Greenfield and on Sept. 15 to correct the attribution of two quotes mistakenly attributed to Radhika Sainath. It was Taher Herzallah, National Campus Coordinator at American Muslims for Palestine, who asked why Palestinians should be expected to fight for every oppressed group and Linda Sarsour, head of the Arab American Association of New York, who said that maybe she would BDS some other country in the future. We regret the errors.