Recognizing the fight against BDS is a fight against anti-Semitism

“Zionism is Racism.”

That is the rant that I heard echoing through the New York City Council Chambers as I awaited my turn to testify on resolution 1058-2016 last Thursday morning. It was a loud, choreographed chorus of hate, led by supporters of BDS seeking to derail the resolution officially “condemning all efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel and the global movement to boycott, divest from the people of Israel.”

At that hearing, I had the privilege to testify on behalf of the 150,000 Wiesenthal Center families in the New York region, and to continue in our collective and ongoing battle against those who seek to forward this latest vehicle of cloaked anti-Semitic fervor.

Since the movement’s inception, the Simon Wiesenthal Center has stood on the front lines of the battle to defeat the global BDS movement. Last Sunday, America commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Back in 2001, just days before those terrorist onslaughts against our nation, my senior colleagues at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Dr. Shimon Samuels, witnessed another onslaught — this one against the Jewish people at the U.N.’s so-called World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. That was where hundreds of “human rights” NGOs launched the Israel = Apartheid distortions and set the stage for an international campaign to demonize and delegitimize the State of Israel and its Zionist supporters.

As each of us in Jewish communal leadership sought to testify publicly, we experienced what Israeli diplomats and other lovers of Zion have been confronted with — loud screeds seeking to stifle our voices. It is a chamber courtesy toward elected officials to allow them to open the hearing, so New York State Assembly member Charles Barron began by inveighing that “the State of Israel has violated every conceivable human right of the Palestinian people that you can conjure up in your mind…. They said sanctions will hurt, but apartheid kills. Occupation kills.”

Despite Committee Chair Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s best efforts at maintaining decorum, she did not meet with success. Pro-BDS advocates showed little appetite for any debate, preferring expulsion from the chamber for disrupting anti-BDS speakers while absurdly charging the resolution threatened their right of free speech.

We don’t need lectures on free speech. Every representative of the Jewish community sat in silence as such unrepentant BDS promoters as Linda Sarsour of the Arab Association of New York, Radhika Sainath of Palestine Legal, and others spoke uninterrupted. Upon listening to the canards and lies of those accusing Israel of targeting Palestinian children specifically — not accusing Hamas for using them as human shields — we allowed them to continue. Even when they demanded Palestinian right of return — a code term for Israel’s destruction — or when they unfurled a Palestinian flag, we still sat quietly, awaiting our opportunity to offer truth, not hate.

I told the City Council the truth: that BDS never has helped a single Palestinian. It isn’t designed to help a single Palestinian. It’s designed only to hurt Israelis. We showed how the BDS movement is attempting to shut down businesses where Palestinians and Jews work together and are paid equal wages, even when it means that hundreds of Palestinians on whose behalf the BDS supporters claim to advocate lose their jobs and ability to support their families.

We reminded all those in the chambers about the searing hypocrisy of activists who claim that their first amendment rights are endangered, even as their movement seeks to boycott Israeli institutions and silence Jewish voices from being heard.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is proud of a number of council members, people representing the largest concentration of Jews outside of the state of Israel, who turned the tide and made us confident that the truth will ultimately prevail. It was a day where political correctness and rhetorical flourishes were cast aside.

Councilman Barry Grodenchik of Queens suddenly asked a pro-BDS panel if they owned cell phones. As they looked quizzically at him he repeated the question, noting how this would be the easiest question they would be asked all day. As one BDS supporter stormed out, the councilman reminded everyone that it was Israel that developed cell phone technology. NO BDS supporter was seen leaving a cellphone at the podium.

Councilman Stephen Levin of Brooklyn directly queried if the BDS movement supports a two-state solution, which recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Members of the panel stumbled and stammered but would not utter those words, not even when Chairwoman Rosenthal demanded a simple yes or no.

Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman challenged Linda Sarsour and other BDS activists about why the movement attacks not only Israelis, but Jewish performers — like the singer Matisyahu, who was disinvited from a performance in Rototom Sunsplash Festival in Spain last year. Challenged by BDS advocates asking if he thought they were in fact anti-Semites for they way they protested the actions of the Jewish state, Lancman bluntly retorted that that he did in fact believe that they were anti-Semites. Not because of their alleged mission, he said, but because of their support for a movement that has inspired hate and abuse against Jewish students on campus around the country and that targets not just Israelis but all Jews. He believes they are anti-Semites because they supported and, in fact in many instances applauded, those people who stood up in the council chamber on that very afternoon, tripping over each other in a race to see who could call more harshly for the banning of Zionism, and thereby, in matter of fact, the destruction of Israel.

Last week’s hearing proved two things. First, the well-organized campaign of BDS lies will not disappear anytime soon. Second, we are not alone in the struggle to defeat it.

Each of us must join the struggle for Israel’s rights and our personal and communal dignity. We should hold our heads up high, knowing full well that we have right on our side.

I am the east regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, but I wear another hat as well. I also am an Englewood city council member. In the coming weeks, I will seek to forward a similar anti-BDS resolution in that municipal body — I hope I will do it with the help of my colleagues. Why? New York City Councilman Lancman’s response to Linda Sarsour provides both my motivation and the answer — because we must take a stand against that which is wrong. We must take a stand against the ideas that the BDS movement and its advocates stand for, and we must overpower their chant in the council chamber that “Zionism is Racism.”

Michael Cohen of Englewood is the Eastern Regional Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He represents his city’s second ward on Englewood’s City Council, and he belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah there.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.