by Zachary Aldridge
The man walked into the courtroom, wearing a fine wool suit, 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 rather be indicted in contempt of Congress than comply with the Committee and watch his First Amendment rights stripped from him. He and others were blacklisted for alleged communist affiliations in what is now recognized as one of the lowest points in American democratic history.
Though the Red Scare has since been packed away in history textbooks and museums, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has legalized 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 Sanction) movement. The order, which outstripped two anti-BDS bills stalled in the New York State legislature, requires the creation and publication of a list of companies and institutions that support BDS, a McCarthyite tactic of intimidating pro-Palestinian voices and silencing critical discourse around Israel.
The BDS movement represents a call from Palestinian civil society made in 2005 to pressure the State of Israel until it complies with international law and recognizes Palestinian human rights. Its demands of Israel are: 1) ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution #194.
Perhaps Cuomo hopes that BDS may go away, evaporate. Yet his executive order, a hurried and questionable bypass of the State legislature, instead underscores the momentum of BDS in New York. This is a sign that it’s working. With every piece of legislation and every summit on how to stop BDS, the movement notches another success. What’s more, it would be naïve to think that an executive order will have what it takes to stop a movement of resistance, one that continues to grow because of the increasingly repressive nature of the Israeli government. The threat of being ferreted out for supporting BDS will by no means restrain the movement or the activists, many of whom have endured far greater injuries in their work for Palestinian justice.
BDS has arisen out of the deep suffering that Palestinians have known for decades. College campuses have shown increasing support for BDS because senseless killing and human rights abuses, such as the nearly 300,000 people displaced in Gaza in the summer of 2014, horrify us and compel us to act. I was struck with that sense of horror when, in April, I stood at the Western Wall and a young man prayed next to me with an American-made AK-47 at his waist. The water tanks I saw on homes in Ramallah and the chilling vista of miles of walls, barbed wire and watchtowers illustrated to me a fraction of the struggle of Palestinians, people born on a blacklist. And what with the alarming rightward shift of the Israeli government, there does not appear to be any respite in sight for Palestinians, thus making BDS an even more enticing and necessary form of protest.
This executive order and the imminent threat to civil liberties it poses may be the test that shows who is willing to be silent and who is determined to be heard; who will join the ranks of pro-Palestinian activists and who will stand in their way. Already some are calling out to be added to the blacklist because, like Pete Seeger, they won’t be the ones remembered as “Un-American” or “anti-freedom” years from now.
Certainly every issue under the sun is debatable and every cause seeks to achieve its own end. As I read and hear anti-BDS rhetoric I am reminded that what is truth for one is falsehood to another; what is religion to one is heresy to another. Yet, despite the debates citizens and politicians have and despite the incalculable suffering that seems to be a prerequisite for a successful resistance movement, history does indeed arc toward justice. Although the consequences of being blacklisted cannot come close to the hardship millions of Palestinians have endured for the last century, it would be a quiet honor to have stood behind their call for justice now and in the face of all adversity to come.
Author Information: Zachary Aldridge is a rising sophomore in Columbia College and a member of Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voice for Peace and Columbia University Apartheid Divest.