New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a decree on Sunday ordering state agencies to divest from companies and institutions that adhere to the boycott, divest and sanctions movement.
Welcoming the move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted, “I salute you, Governor Cuomo.”
But civil liberties defenders have described the order as an attack on free speech rights that are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Speaking to state and local legislators and Israel lobby activists at the Harvard Club in Manhattan, Cuomo said, “If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you. If you divert revenues from Israel, New York will divert revenues from you. If you sanction Israel, New York will sanction you. Period.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, kicked off the signing ceremony.
Ido Aharoni, the consul general of Israel in New York, introduced Cuomo, saying he was “the only governor that came to Israel during the summer of 2014” – the period of Israel’s assault on Gaza that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians including at least 550 children.
New York was already one of several states considering legislation that would blacklist companies, organizations and even individuals who support or participate in BDS.
But Cuomo boasted that he is the first governor to circumvent the “tedious” legislative process with an executive order.
Cuomo urged other governors to follow suit.
“Whenever the government creates a blacklist based on political views it raises serious First Amendment concerns and this is no exception,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Governor Cuomo’s measure is illegitimate and an obvious pander,” Baher Azmy, legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said. “Procedurally, he sought to avoid any transparent debate about the centuries-old validity of boycott as a means of protest in this country.”
In California, an anti-BDS law that was originally drafted by state legislator Richard Bloom to ban state business with companies involved in boycotting Israel, was gutted in committee.
The final bill, which passed the house earlier this month and now must be approved by the senate, no longer mentions Israel and does not require the state to end contracts with businesses boycotting Israel.
Now the bill simply orders the attorney general to draw up a list of companies that are “engaged in discriminatory business practices in furtherance of a boycott of any sovereign nation or peoples recognized by the government of the United States.”
It also instructs the attorney general to assess the constitutionality of prohibiting a company on the list from entering into a contract with a public entity.
Bloom told The Jewish Journal that the changes “took the whole meaning away from the bill, stripped out all references to Israel and all of the important operative language.”
Cuomo’s resort to an executive order may also be because efforts to advance stiff anti-BDS measures are facing obstacles in the New York legislature.
The group emphasized that boycotts are a constitutionally-protected form of speech.
“The State of New York may not punish businesses, organizations and other entities because of their speech and political views,” Palestine Legal said.
According to the executive order, the state’s Office of General Services will compile a list of “institutions and companies” participating in “boycott, divestment or sanctions activity targeting Israel.”
Accused entities will have three months to challenge their inclusion and can only be removed from the list once they prove they have ended their involvement.
It is unclear how the state will determine if a firm’s divestment from a company linked to Israel or its human rights abuses is a political boycott.
The Financial Times said G4S was “extracting itself from reputationally damaging work.”
While the company denied any political motivations, insisting the move was purely for “commercial reasons,” G4S was still added to Illinois’ list of firms to be excluded from that state’s public pension fund.
Alphonso David, counsel to the New York governor, told The New York Times that Cuomo’s executive order is not meant to discourage debate over Israel.
“It’s one thing to say I want to engage in political speech,” he said. “It’s another thing to say I’m going to sanction you or penalize you for engaging in commercial activity.”
But Cuomo’s motivation for signing the decree can scarcely be seen as anything other than political.
At a separate event in Manhattan on Sunday, Democratic senator Chuck Schumer applauded Cuomo’s executive order and said he was “looking at introducing a federal law to do the same thing, because one state is one thing, but to do it in the whole country would be much better.”
Cuomo recalled that during his 2014 visit, the Israeli army escorted him into tunnels that stretched from Gaza into present-day Israel, that Palestinian fighters used to attack Israeli military targets.
“As frightening as those tunnels are,” Cuomo said on Sunday, “this BDS movement is in many ways more frightening.”
“What they’re saying is they don’t want to make a physical attack, they want to make an economic attack,” the governor added. “And it’s not just radicals: they’re going to mainstream businesses across the world to generate a corporate enemy for Israel and we cannot allow that to happen.”
Cuomo, a Democrat, also made an apparent barb at presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders, saying “I am surprised and saddened” that there are now “aspects of the Democratic party that are being critical of Israel as being disproportionate in its response.”
Sanders, though still supportive of Israel, has been more critical of its assault on Gaza than any major US politician.
“If we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders has said.
But after lamenting the criticisms of Israel’s actions, Cuomo said, “I still think the Democratic party and the leadership of the Democratic party and the candidates of the Democratic are far and away stronger supporters of Israel than any other party.”
It is a telling sign that Cuomo and so many other officials feel that coercive laws and executive orders are now required to keep support for Israel from crumbling.