The Town of North Hempstead may have a foreign policy problem. Same for Nassau County and the state of New York.
How is that possible, you might ask? How could governments focused on local services become entangled in international issues?
Let’s start with the immediate problem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking to put together a coalition ahead of an upcoming election, recently struck an agreement with a racist anti-Arab party whose ideology was likened by one influential rabbi in Israel to Nazism.
The leaders of the party, Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, have a long history of expressing support for violence against Palestinians, the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Territories and a ban on intermarriage or sex between Jews and Arabs, according to a New York Times report.
The party’s leaders also call themselves disciples of Meir Kahane, the Brooklyn-born anti-Arab militant whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel and declared a terrorist group by the United States.
Leaders of two of the largest American Jewish lobbying groups in late February said Otzma Yehudit could conceivably gain enough votes to enter the next Knesset and become part of the governing coalition.
A few days later, Israel’s attorney general recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
But what does this have to do with the Town of North Hempstead, Nassau County and the state of New York?
Well, two years ago, in April 2017, the Town of North Hempstead approved legislation that prohibited the town from contracting with companies that participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
A year earlier, the Nassau County Legislature approved a bill prohibiting companies from doing business with the county if they have boycotted or divested from Israeli businesses or supported sanctions against Israel.
Around the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order with similar intent.
The BDS movement is a global campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until the country meets what the campaign describes as Israel’s “obligations under international law,” defined as withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and “respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.’
The town, county and governor agreed with opponents of the BDS movement in rejecting the charge that Israel was an apartheid state and in calling the BDS movement an anti-Semitic attack aimed at Israel’s existence.
The New York Civil Liberties Union opposed the county and town legislation, saying it violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it targeted political speech.
In the case of North Hempstead, others complained that the town council had no business sticking its nose into foreign relations. We think they have a point.
For starters, if local governments are going to get involved in making foreign policy, which issues and what countries are they going to target?
Why Israel in this instance and not Saudi Arabia, which ordered the murder of a Washington Post columnist and treats its women as second-class citizens?
Or China, which has sent 1 million Muslims to internment camps?
Or Russia, which invaded Ukraine and attacked our election system?
Or North Korea, where the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has the worst human rights record in the world, including the beating and torture of an American college student that resulted in his death?
We’d hate to think that our local officials were more interested in appealing to voters than addressing an international problem.
Even if an argument can be made for a particular policy, what happens when, as they say, the facts on the ground change?
In the case of Israel, what happens if the coalition that Netanyahu has put together wins a majority in the Knesset?
The New York Times editorial board wrote that if a newly formed party incorporated Otzma Yehudi, “they would most likely be filled by co-founders of a group implicated in a 2014 arson attack on a school for Jewish and Arab children in Jerusalem. These legislators could be joined by an admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the Kahane follower who massacred 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron in 1994, and an avowed homophobe who favors a shoot-to-kill approach to Palestinian stone-throwers.”
North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth said during the heated debate two years ago that the legislation was directed against “organizations engaged in discriminatory behavior, whether towards Israel or any other country or organization.”
Does this mean that the Town of North Hempstead will revisit the BDS legislation if the ultra-rightwing party that includes Otzma Yehudi wins enough votes to enter the next Knesset and becomes part of the governing coalition?
If not, will the Town of North Hempstead council members find another way to express their opposition to the presence of Otzma Yehudit in the Israeli parliament – as have leaders of American Jewish groups across the political spectrum?
It is true that even if Otzma Yehudi members became part of the governing coalition they would still remain a small minority of the electorate.
But then again does anyone believe that every member of the BDS movement is anti-Semitic?
These are the knotty problems that are normally handled at the national level.
But the town and the county have now set a precedent in this case and others to add their opinions to international issues and, in this case, their legislation. And that brings responsibilities.
It’s possible Netanyahu’s coalition will fail in the upcoming election. It is also possible that Otzma Yehudit will not gain a place in a governing coalition even if Netanyahu’s coalition prevails.
Otherwise, we may get a chance to get a really good look at the diplomatic skills of town and county officials. As well as their sense of fairness.