Middle East Eye / January 27, 2021
After accusing BDS of ‘unfair economic punishment’, Yang asserts his opposition is based on the movement’s ‘refusal to condemn violence’.
New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang has doubled-down on his criticism of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), despite requests for him to retract his controversial remarks.
Yang, who launched his mayoral bid earlier this month, was asked on the New York-based podcast The Brian Lehrer Show on Tuesday if he would clarify “or even retract” his comments that “compared the BDS movement to Nazi fascism”.
Yang had on Friday equated the BDS campaign to “fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses”.
The BDS campaign is a non-violent movement that encourages individuals, nations and organisations to censure Israel’s consistent violations of international law and human rights through various boycotts.
Yang, a former presidential candidate, refused to retract his comparison and instead accused the BDS campaign of being a movement sympathetic to violent resistance – a stance that is not backed by the official BDS campaign.
“I have deep respect for folks who are trying to call attention to and stop what they see as the oppression of the Palestinians in the Middle East,” Yang said.
“When I looked at the BDS movement, the thing that really, to me, made it so that it was difficult to not come out against it is that the BDS movement has refused to condemn violence against Israel, including groups that are regarded as terrorist groups by various government organisations – including our own,” he said. “And to me, if you’re not able to condemn violence then that’s a non-starter.
“While I recognise that there are many folks who have very legitimate grievances with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, if you can’t condemn those who would conduct violent actions against Israel – that’s just not appropriate,” Yang continued.
Brian Lehrer, the host of the podcast, pressed Yang on his explanation, pointing out that those involved in the BDS movement were specifically non-violent, by definition.
“Supporters of the BDS movement say it’s specifically economic and non-violent and it’s putting economic pressure on Israel, as the title of itself suggests – Boycott, Divest and Sanction,” Lehrer said. But Yang again stood firm.
“Well then to me they should have no trouble condemning those who would advocate violence against Israel – and then to me that would be a much better argument, but right now they refuse to do so,” he responded.
‘BDS denounces and fights racism’
Olivia Katbi Smith, the North America coordinator of the BDS Movement, rejected Yang’s argument, saying it was Israel, not the BDS campaign, which needed to denounce violence.
“Andrew Yang’s concerns about violence should be addressed not to the non-violent BDS movement for Palestinian rights, but to Israel, a settler-colonial, apartheid state, which has perpetrated systemic racial violence for seven decades against the indigenous Palestinian people,” Smith told Middle East Eye.
Last month, B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group, reiterated the BDS movement’s position when it declared Israel to be an “apartheid” state operating to advance “the supremacy of the Jews over the Palestinians”.
“Israel’s siege of two million Palestinians in Gaza, denying them clean water, a steady power supply, and other basic necessities, intentionally bringing them to the verge of starvation, is not just a most savage form of violence, but also a crime against humanity,” Smith said.
“In response to this system of injustice, and as part of the globalised Palestinian popular resistance, the anti-racist BDS movement has adopted a strictly non-violent resistance to contribute to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality.”
In Yang’s original statements, published as an op-ed in Forward, a Jewish American webzine, he made no mention of the BDS movement’s alleged acceptance of violence, but rather denounced it for singling out Israel “for unfair economic punishment”.
“Not only is BDS rooted in antisemitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses, it’s also a direct shot at New York City’s economy,” he wrote.
He went on to insinuate that BDS negatively affected New York’s “small businesses”, despite the movement not targeting Jewish-owned companies, nor any company – in the United States or elsewhere – that does not have links to Israel.
Following the publication of the op-ed, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar became embroiled in a Twitter spat with the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a pro-Israel advocacy group, over Yang’s assertions.
Responding to Yang’s op-ed, pro-Palestinian pundit and author Marc Lamont Hill had tweeted that the BDS movement “denounces and fights racism and oppression in all forms”, which DMFI then retweeted, commenting that “America’s BDS supporters are either ignorant of the movement’s positions or purposely misrepresenting them.”
“BDS is antisemitic. It opposes Israel’s existence in any borders,” DMFI continued. “People are entitled to express antisemitic views in this country, but aren’t entitled to evade the label.”
Omar, one of the only two members of Congress that openly supports the BDS movement, accused DMFI of posting “a lie”.
“BDS opposes Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights & dignity,” Omar tweeted. “People are entitled to express their views in this country and should support this nonviolent movement.”
Sheren Khalel is a Washington DC-based journalist who has previously worked throughout the Middle East, focusing on human rights, refugee issues and conflict