Trending Now in Albany: Boycotts

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The man walked into the courtroom wearing a fine suit. He was handsome and poised. It was August 18, 1955 and the man, Pete Seeger, was testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, asserting that he would not comply with the Committee and have his First Amendment rights stripped from him. We all know how this story ended; Seeger, who was one of scores of activists and artists who were blacklisted for alleged communist affiliations, was indicted for being in contempt of Congress in what is now recognized as one of the lowest and most fearful points in American democratic history.
Though the Red Scare has since been packed away in history textbooks, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has mandated something disturbingly similar: an executive order that forces state entities to divest from businesses and organizations linked to boycotts of Israel and the larger BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The order requires the creation and publication of a list of companies and institutions that support BDS, a tactic of intimidating pro-Palestinian voices and silencing critical discourse around Israel reminiscent of McCarthyism.
The BDS movement represents a call in 2005 from Palestinian civil society to pressure the State of Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands taken in 1967, recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens, and respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution #194.

This executive order represents probably the most public display of anti-BDS policy in the U.S. to date and highlights increasing attention from public officials toward boycotts more generally. One need look no further than two prior executive orders issued by the Governor himself: the first a travel restriction to North Carolina in protest of the state’s anti-transgender legislation and the second a travel restriction of state employees to Mississippi, also in opposition to anti-LGBTQ+ laws enacted there. Recognizing the power of boycotts only when it is convenient to his interests not only exposes Cuomo’s hypocrisy, but also illustrates just how much momentum is behind anti-BDS efforts in state politics.

VIDEO: NY Governor Signs Executive Order Against BDS Movement

Further evidence of this wave of boycott-busting is legislation passed by the New York State Senate on June 15, the day before the end of session, which would prohibit state funds from being awarded to student groups at schools in the SUNY, CUNY, and community college systems that are deemed to be targeting allied nations.
Indeed college campuses are viewed as ground zero for the “fight against BDS” by politicians, allied progressive groups and college administrators alike. On my own campus, student divestment campaigns were recently presented with a new obstacle by the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), the board responsible for “[advising] the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University’s endowment.” After student group Columbia Divest for Climate Justice held an eight-day sit-in outside the President’s office in mid-April to demand full divestment from fossil fuels the ACSRI eliminated the mandatory in-person student presentation that had previously been a component of the divestment process and failed to publicly announce this change, signaling a shift toward less transparency. Since the University has not indicated any firm steps to divest from fossil fuels, but instead responded by making divestment campaigns harder for student groups, Columbia University Apartheid Divest, a pro-BDS student coalition, fears a less productive discourse between students and the ACSRI when it presents its divestment proposal in the coming academic year. If the administration can ignore an activist group demanding climate justice, then a student-led BDS campaign may be all but stillborn.
Boycotts, however, remain one of the strongest forms of protest available given the relative ease with which any and all people can participate. The versatility and popular appeal of boycotts derive from their nature as truly nonviolent strategies that have proven impactful time and time again. What’s more, the essence of a boycott is actively not doing something, so the tug-of-war between opposing sides almost always arcs in favor of the boycott because mere acknowledgement is a victory. Mounting attacks on our freedoms only mean BDS is advancing.
And these threats will not discourage activists either. Like Pete Seeger, those who oppose these tactics of suppression will not be the ones remembered as “Un-American” or “anti-freedom.” In time, BDS will also be recognized for the place it holds beside America’s proudest demonstrations of freedom and progress.
Editor’s noteTikkun has not taken a stand on BDS of Israel, though it has supported BDS against companies doing business from the West Bank settlements or making products or services explicitly for the West Bank settlers. In our last issue on Israel we had people on all sides of the BDS question, and will revisit it again in 2017.
Zachary Aldridge is a rising sophomore in Columbia College and a member of Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace and Columbia University Apartheid Divest. A somewhat similar version of this post first appeared on re:claim.