In an earlier era, the decision by a governor of New York to sign an executive order that is considered pro-Israel in nature wouldn’t be worthy of much notice. Irrespective of the fact that support for Israel is a just cause to which the vast majority of Americans have always been sympathetic, such gestures are what is expected of politicians. That is especially true in a state like New York, where the Jewish vote is substantial enough to make it something anyone in elective office should care about. But what might have been business as usual even just a few years ago is by no means routine for a Democrat in 2016.
By signing an executive order banning state agencies from doing business with entities that support the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement against Israel, Governor Andrew Cuomo was actually taking a somewhat controversial stand. With the left wing of his party drifting farther and farther away from a position of support for Israel, a trend accelerated by the success of the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy, Cuomo was to some extent sticking his neck out. That it came in the same week as an anti-BDS bill was eviscerated by Democrats in the California legislature, and following the failure of the Democrat-dominated New York State Assembly to pass a similar measure to his order, illustrates just how stark the divide in his party has become.
Cuomo’s executive order requires a state agency to set up a list of groups and businesses engaged in boycott activity against Israel. After it is compiled, all state agencies and departments as well as authorities; commissions and public benefit corporations will be required to divest themselves of any company on the list. As such, the order recognizes that BDS is not merely an expression of an opinion about the conflict in the Middle East but an act of illegal discrimination that seeks to aid an economic war against the one Jewish state on the planet. Far from involving the state in foreign policy or having it take a side in a debate about where Israel’s borders should be drawn, such anti-BDS rules recognize that this movement is a public expression of anti-Semitic hate because it singles out the Jewish state in this manner.
Some of Cuomo’s critics may see the move as high-handed in that he was acting in a similar manner to President Obama’s decisions to issue executive orders on immigration when Congress rejected legislation he favored. But unlike that attempt to legislate a change in existing laws, Cuomo’s executive order can be said to be within the vast powers of the state’s executive branch since it is merely a policy change to be implemented by agencies under his control in accordance with existing anti-discrimination principles. Unlike Obama’s orders, this order overturns no established law. Nor does it compel law enforcement not to enforce statutes that are on the books.
The fact that an anti-BDS law is stalled in the Democratic-controlled New York Assembly is a turn of events that shows the ability of the party’s ascendant left wing to thwart the intentions of more centrist members. It is also an indication that the pro-Israel consensus that once prevailed in Cuomo’s party is out the window. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have said they oppose boycotts of Israel. But the clash of the two over criticisms of the Jewish state and the stated desire of Sanders and his backers to change the Democratic Party platform this year from one that is overtly pro-Israel to one that is “evenhanded” and more sympathetic to the Palestinians is one issue on which the differences between the two camps are substantive.
It also helps explain what happened in the California legislature when an anti-BDS bill was effectively stripped of its content to the point where pro-Israel supporters of the legislation have now abandoned it. After passing through three Democratic-controlled committees, the bill was neutered and no longer even mentions boycotts of Israel. Other legislatures, including those of Florida, Indiana, and South Carolina have passed such legislation. But it is hardly surprising that two places where the left is strongest — California and New York — haven’t followed suit despite the sizable and influential pro-Israel constituencies in both states.
Opponents of anti-BDS bills claim they repress free speech. But while there is nothing illegal about expressing an opinion about the Middle East or even being an anti-Zionist, those who participate in campaigns are engaged in advocacy of a form of discrimination. There is no way to defend isolating only Israel without practicing forms of bias that are already illegal under state and federal laws. Nor is it possible to separate BDS from more overt forms of anti-Semitic hate speech that almost always goes hand in hand with pro-BDS campaigns, especially on college campuses. As Cuomo correctly framed the argument for his order, this is a matter of opposing intolerance.
But the willingness of so many Democrats to oppose anti-BDS legislation and, as we’ve seen with the Sanders campaign, engage in wild exaggerations and attacks on Israel that exceed even the propaganda put out by Hamas illustrates the growing divide among Democrats. Sanders’ appointment of anti-Israel extremists James Zogby and Cornel West as his designated champions on the platform committee was a shot fired over the bow of mainstream pro-Israel Democrats. Given the collapse of Democratic opposition to President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal last year, the confidence of the anti-Israel faction within the party is understandable. But while it is by no means certain how the platform battle will play out at their Philadelphia convention, Cuomo’s order is a model for what other governors should do on this issue. It’s also an indication that pro-Israel Democrats are not yet beaten even if they seem on the run on the national stage. Whether Cuomo’s view or those of the leftists that are gaining influence in the party with Sanders’s rise ultimately prevails is a question that should trouble those supporters of Israel who have always supported the Democrats.