Freedom of Information Request Reveals Pro-Israel Lobbying Push Behind Gov. Cuomo's Disturbing BDS Blacklist

Emails obtained by AlterNet show extensive lobbying by the American Jewish Committee for legislation against the BDS movement.

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On December 2, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a blacklist of 13 institutions and companies that will be punished for their alleged support of the international movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The blacklist was the result of an executive order Cuomo issued last June that directed “state agencies and authorities” to “divest public funds” from any institution or company that the commissioner deems to support the BDS campaign. The order proclaimed that “the State of New York unequivocally rejects the BDS campaign and stands firmly with Israel.” 

BDS is a global grassroots movement that enlists civil society to pressure Israel into respecting Palestinian human rights according to international legal standards. 

Emails obtained by AlterNet through a Freedom of Information request reveal that Cuomo's executive order was the product of an aggressive lobbying campaign by the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organizations including the American Jewish Committee, or AJC. The emails show AJC lobbyists pressuring Cuomo's office into signing on to a national anti-BDS initiative and even offering the governor a platform to defend himself against a Jewish critic of the executive order.

The AJC's lobbying campaign began this May with a letter by its president, David Harris, addressed directly to Cuomo. Harris invited Cuomo to serve as co-chair of his group's newly minted "Governors United: 50 States Against BDS" initiative, and urged the governor to lead a session at AJC's Global Forum in Washington DC on June 7. 

According to a May 5 email, AJC's New York associate director Alex Bronzo spoke by phone to Cuomo's Special Assistant for Community Affairs David Lobl, urging him to join the "Governors United" group. He followed up that month by soliciting Cuomo's help in ushering through an anti-BDS bill, the "BDS Rejection Act," that was being debated in the state assembly. 

Lobl was receptive, responding to Bronzo and AJC NY Regional Director Michael Schmidt that "we should have a conversation on this on Monday at some point." The emails indicate that discussions took place largely on the phone, with Lobl acting as the governor's point man on the BDS issue. 

Emails also show that Cuomo's office was lobbied by Betty Cotton, a member of New York State's Commission on National and Community Service who also served as Vice President of the NY's AJC chapter. In pressuring Cuomo's staff to join the anti-BDS initiative, she stated that she was wearing her "AJC hat."

A June 2 email from Bronzo indicated that AJC had been informed in advance that Cuomo would announce his action against BDS that Sunday.

On June 5, just 48 hours before the AJC conference, Cuomo issued his executive order establishing the state's anti-BDS blacklist. In a tweet published that day, Cuomo declared: “If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you.”

Before the "BDS Rejection Act' could come to a vote in the NY State Assembly, Cuomo had ratified the contentious bill through an action that required nothing more than his own signature.

Two days later, Bronzo informed Lobl, "In the coming hours and days the governor may receive notes of thanks for his principled leadership on combating BDS."

Scott Richman, the host of an AJC-sponsored radio show that broadcasts in Westchester, NY, reached out to Lobl on June 12. Richman said he was alarmed by an op-ed published in the New York Timesby the progressive Jewish activist Daniel Sieradski slamming Cuomo's "anti-free speech move on BDS." Richman beseeched Lobl to deliver Cuomo, promising him a chance to respond to Sieradski's "attack." In the end, however, Cuomo did not appear.

AlterNet has uploaded the full series of exchanges between AJC and Cuomo's office here.

A nationwide attack on Palestine solidarity activism

Cuomo's executive order followed failed attempts in the New York legislature to pass anti-BDS legislation and is one of numerous political efforts nationwide to criminalize and stigmatize individuals and institutions participating in the nonviolent movement. In 2005, Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call for a global BDS campaign until Israel “complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.” The international effort uses tactics similar to those levied to topple apartheid in South Africa.

Cuomo’s executive order was widely denounced in June by human rights organizations as a McCarthyite tactic to undermine free speech and criminalize legitimate protest. "Governor Cuomo has decided that his moral compass points in the direction of Joseph McCarthy rather than Rosa Parks,” said Katherine Franke, chair of the board of directors for the Center for Constitutional Rights and Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, immediately following the executive order. Yet, the law also attracted powerful supporters, including the newly-minted minority leader, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who reportedly told journalists in June, “I think what the governor has done is an excellent idea.”

RoAnn M. Destito, the commissioner of the Office of General Services who was nominated by Cuomo, on Friday released a list of 13 “Institutions or Companies Determined to Participate In Boycott, Divestment, or Sanctions Activity Targeting Israel,” immediately provoking concerns over civil rights violations. “Governor Cuomo’s Blacklist of institutions that support non-violent boycotts for justice for Palestinians is a stain on the State of New York,” said Palestine Legal and Center for Constitutional Rights in a joint statement. “As the Supreme Court has made clear, the U.S. Constitution protects participation in political boycotts as a form of expression. Boycotts have been used throughout U.S. history―from the Boston Tea Party, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the anti-South African Apartheid movement―to challenge injustice and promote social change.”

"As the country prepares for the inauguration of a president who has expressed contempt for the First Amendment and political dissent," the groups continued, "guardians of our democratic values must protect the basic First Amendment principles that enable social activism to challenge injustice wherever it occurs."

Update: AlterNet requested an interview from the office of Governor Cuomo and the American Jewish Committee but has not received a reply.

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Max Blumenthal is the award-winning author of Goliath, Republican Gomorrah, and The 51 Day War. He is also the co-host of the podcast, Moderate Rebels. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.

Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.