Why Would County Legislature Abridge Free Speech Rights?

Felice Gelman, WESPAC Middle East Committee

Why, in an era when progressives have doubled down on protest and on political engagement have the Democrats in our County Board of Legislators decided they must attack free speech and a global human rights campaign?  It’s what has been called “the Palestine exception to free speech.”  In other words, when it comes to Israel/Palestine, our political principles are suspended.

Democratic county legislators have been wrestling with efforts to vociferously condemn the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions directed against the Israeli government’s denial of basic humans rights – to the Palestinians under their military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, to the Palestinians who are citizens of Israel but decidedly second class citizens, and to the Palestinian diaspora – dispossessed from their homes and land in 1948 and 1967 and living all around the world. 

The campaign, generally just known as BDS, calls for a boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israeli companies benefitting from the military occupation, and academic and cultural boycott of institutions complicit in supporting the occupation.  It does not target individuals and, contrary to much propaganda, does not call for the end of the state of Israel.  It seeks an end to the military occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognition of the rights of dispossessed Palestinians to return to their property.

What does this have to do with the Westchester County Legislature you might ask? County Legislator Ken Jenkins can take the credit for having begun the controversy.  He proposed, in a resolution later withdrawn, that anyone doing business with Westchester County would have to sign a statement affirming that they did not support BDS.  In this resolution, many heard echoes of the McCarthyism of the 1950s when teachers, people doing business with the government and others were forced to sign statements that they were not and never had been members of the Communist Party.  It was a bit too much.  The Legislature is now considering a resolution  — sponsored by legislators Kaplowitz and Maisano — condemning the use of boycott as a tactic that “threatens the sovereignty and security of allies and trade partners”, strongly condemning the international BDS movement and claiming that BDS seeks to undermine Israel and malign the Jewish people.

Accusations of anti-Semitism should not to be tossed around lightly by our elected officials.  Anti-Semitism is a real problem – one that was given new momentum by the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept the support of well-known white nationalist anti-Semites. The boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign in support of Palestinian rights has the support of many American Jews and explicitly disavows anti-Semitism. It is a campaign directed against the repressive and colonialist policies of the Israeli government, not against the Jewish people.

Further, our Democratic legislators seem unaware of the crucial role that the non-violent tactic boycott has played in human rights struggles.  Did any of our legislators support the boycott of South Africa’s apartheid regime?  South Africa is and was an ally of the U.S. and the boycott was a major contributor to the end of apartheid and the liberation of the black majority of that country and made the US a better ally. 

Did any of our legislators more recently support the boycott of North Carolina – endorsed by Gov. Cuomo – that protested that state’s laws discriminating against transgender people? 

This is hardly the time for Democratic legislators to be trying to limit free speech and to limit political engagement. The Kaplowitz-Maisano resolution aims to  demonize BDS and levels false accusations against that campaign and its supporters The purpose is to chill dissent.  Resolutions like this undermine First Amendment protections. Further, they aim to stifle the open exchange of ideas that could indeed help resolve the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the age of Trump, our legislators should stand up and cherish political engagement, free speech and dissent.  It is what our democracy is made of.   This  very  undemocratic resolution should be defeated.