Queens DA Candidate Has a Free Speech Blind Spot

Rory Lancman, campaigning to be the borough’s top cop, thinks BDS should be illegal.

Sam Adler-Bell
May 22, 2019
Councilman and Queens DA candidate Rory Lancman.
Photo: New York City Council website

LONG-SERVING Queens District Attorney Richard Brown died earlier this month at 86. Brown, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, announced in January 2019 that he would not seek an eighth term as the borough’s top cop. Eulogized by Governor Andrew Cuomo as a “giant” of the legal community, Brown will also be remembered as a fierce opponent of moves toward prosecutorial restraint and accountability embraced by other DAs in New York City and across the country. In a sign of the extraordinary success of movements like Black Lives Matter, six of the seven candidates vying to replace Brown in a June 25th primary have positioned themselves as reformers committed to leniency, fairness, and accountability.

One of them is Queens City Councilman Rory Lancman. Of the declared candidates, only public defender Tiffany Cabán has a more progressive platform than Lancman. (A coalition of NYC public defenders called 5 Boro Defenders rated Cabán and Lancman A- and B+ respectively). Lancman promises to stop prosecuting low-level offenses, create a wrongful conviction unit, and end cash bail. But unlike Cabán, a newcomer to politics, Lancman has multiple election victories under his belt and a campaign war chest to show for it. Despite its energy, including an endorsement from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Cabán campaign has struggled with internal strife and with fundraising for a borough-wide race.

Lancman’s platform, and his record on the council, have earned him support from criminal justice reform advocates like Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was choked to death by the NYPD in Staten Island in 2014, and Valerie Bell, whose 23-year-old son Sean was killed by the NYPD in Queens on the eve of his wedding in 2006. “Rory has the courage to do what’s right in the face of opposition,” reads Carr’s endorsement.

But Lancman’s career as a legislator has another distinguishing feature: fierce advocacy for Israel and against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—which seeks to use economic pressure to change Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

As a Councilman, Lancman, who is Jewish, backed Cuomo’s controversial June 2016 executive order prohibiting state funding for businesses or institutions that support BDS, and later that year, helped shepherd a resolution denouncing BDS through the City Council. He has referred to BDS supporters as antisemites and has publicly quarreled with pro-Palestine activists like Linda Sarsour, seeking to prevent her from speaking at a graduation ceremony for the City University of New York’s School of Public Health in 2017.

In a phone interview, Lancman reiterated his belief that BDS is both antisemitic and unlawful.

“The BDS movement is the yellow star of our time,” Lancman said, referring to the identifying badges Jews were forced to wear in Hitler’s Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. “There’s no way to have a BDS movement that isn’t antisemitic. There’s no way to single out a people for economic, diplomatic, cultural, and social strangulation without it being a targeted attack on those people.”

Like many BDS opponents, Lancman insists that BDS is already illegal under existing state law. “Boycotts that target people of a particular faith or nationality are illegal in New York and justifiably so,” Lancman said. This view relies on the idea that BDS targets a protected class, Jews, and is therefore a violation of civil rights law. This logic has been rejected by leading First Amendment scholars and multiple courts. After all, the BDS movement does not target Jews but the state of Israel, a multiethnic nation, and its impetus is to protest the government’s human rights abuses. In the past, similar boycotts of countries like South Africa or Sudan have drawn attention to abusive state policies and have been straightforwardly straightforwardly protected by the First Amendment.

“Any suggestion that boycotts intended to protest actions of the Israeli government and influence public policy are illegal in New York misrepresents the meaning of state anti-discrimination laws and threatens to chill protected speech under the First Amendment,” New York Civil Liberties Union Policy Director Lee Rowland told me. “Political boycotts designed to bring about social change are constitutionally protected speech just like leafleting or protesting.”

Lancman’s extreme position on BDS suggests his support for civil liberties may only extend to those with whom he agrees.

Lancman says he would not use his role as DA to further punish or criminalize BDS. “The penalties for violating the city or state law against discriminatory boycotts are civil penalties,” he said. “There’s no criminal sanction for engaging in BDS activity.” Asked if there should be, he replied, “I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Still, Lancman’s unapologetic pro-Israel and anti-BDS record has earned him support in his bid for DA from some elements of the Jewish community in Queens. A link at the bottom of his endorsement page leads to a separate statement signed by 26 Jewish leaders, rabbis, business owners, philanthropists, and advocates in Queens. The endorsement praises Lancman for ensuring funding for yeshivas under the city’s Universal Pre-K program and for working closely with groups like the Shalom Task Force, which supports domestic violence victims in orthodox communities. It also lauds Lancman for ensuring passage of the City Council’s “historic resolution opposing the BDS movement” and for pushing to expel Kuwait Airways from JFK Airport after it refused to sell tickets to Israeli passengers.

“We do not agree with all of Rory’s views and positions, including some criminal justice issues,” reads the statement, “But we know that Rory is uniquely prepared to be a District Attorney who will keep all of Queens safe, including our community.”

Two of Lancman’s endorsers, Howard Kohn and Steven S. Orlow, are former board members of the One Israel Fund, which finances settlement construction and private security services in the occupied West Bank. Lancman also received a $5,000 donation from Teddy Pollack, the president of the Hebron Fund, which provides generous support for a notorious right-wing Jewish settlement in Hebron, whose inhabitants have been accused of human rights abuses against their Palestinian neighbors.

As American Jews reel from two recent antisemitic shooting sprees six months apart, and as a much-needed national conversation about Jewish safety is perverted by conservative politicians who would exploit our pain to vilify the only two Muslim women in Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the case of Lancman is instructive. Lancman believes that BDS supporters are motivated by the same antisemitism that has fueled a spike of violence against Jews worldwide. “It’s all one big pot of antisemitic thought and animus,” Lancman said. “In some cases, it manifests itself as violence against Jews, in other cases, the desecration of Jewish property, and in other cases, as singling out Jews for economic, social, and cultural stigmatization.” For Lancman, combating BDS and combating the rise of right-wing antisemitic violence are one and the same project.

IT’S VERY SIMPLE, if you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you,” Cuomo said on June 5th, 2016, “If you divert revenues from Israel, New York will divert revenues from you. If you sanction Israel, New York will sanction you.”

Moments later, with Lancman at his side, the governor signed a first-of-its-kind executive order prohibiting state funding for businesses or institutions that support BDS.

The order created a blacklist of BDS-supporting entities from which the state would divest. In his remarks, Cuomo lamented that some Democrats had begun to question the US’s “natural relationship with Israel” and to criticize the proportionality of Israel’s responses to attacks by Palestinian forces. “How can you have a disproportionate response, with an enemy who is obsessed and single-minded?” Cuomo asked, “By definition you can’t be disproportionate.” The governor’s opposition to BDS is longstanding; during a 2014 visit to Israel, at the tail end of a war in which the IDF killed over a thousand Palestinian civilians in response to Hamas digging tunnels out of Gaza, Cuomo said, “As radical and obsessive is the mindset that built those tunnels, this BDS movement is in many ways more frightening.”

The executive order was met with swift backlash from advocates of Palestinian human rights and the First Amendment. “[The] government can’t penalize people or entities on the basis of their free expression,” wrote Simon McCormack of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “and political boycotts are a form of free expression.” Palestine Legal, which defends the rights of US-based Palestinian solidarity activists, called it “a blatantly unconstitutional attack on freedom of speech . . . reminiscent of McCarthyism.”

But Lancman scoffed at these concerns. “I think it’s deliciously hilarious that people who are blacklisting Israel and Israel supporters and silencing them are complaining that this order does that to them,” he told the Queens Chronicle. “Hopefully they’ll have a moment of reflection and realize that what they’re doing is immoral.”

Recognizing state legislatures as potentially more friendly territory than college campuses, evangelical Christian and Jewish pro-Israel organizations in the US have refocused their efforts in recent years on passing state-level anti-boycott laws in the vein of Cuomo’s executive order. Since 2016, 27 states have passed legislation or issued executive orders suppressing the BDS movement. Groups like AIPAC and the Jewish Federation have often had a hand in drafting these bills.

But even within mainstream Jewish organizations, the strategy of suppressing BDS by legislation has critics. In the past two years, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has vigorously supported anti-BDS legislation at federal and state levels. But internal memos obtained last year by the Forward show dissent within the ranks of ADL staffers. A summer 2016 internal memo reads: “Simply put, ADL does not believe that anti-BDS legislation is a strategic way to combat the BDS movement or defend Israel and is ultimately harmful to the Jewish community.” Anti-BDS laws, another memo states, divert “community resources to an ineffective, unworkable, and unconstitutional endeavor instead of investing in more effective multi-layered strategies.”

Sagiv Galai, a Mizrahi Jew raised in Israel, testified against the City Council’s 2016 resolution condemning BDS—and was questioned by Lancman and his colleagues. In the written testimony Galai submitted to the council, Galai encouraged its members to ask themselves “whom this resolution is for.”

“As a New Yorker, as a Jew and as an Israeli I say ‘no thank you,’” Galai wrote.

For Galai, a member of the pro-BDS activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, the purpose of the anti-BDS resolution was clear: to suppress activism and perpetuate the idea that Israel is above reproach. Growing up in a military family on an exclusively Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Galai told me he was taught to repeat a “morbid aphorism”—the only good Arab is a dead Arab. Galai’s family moved from Israel to Queens when he was 12, and later to Long Island. He attended Bard College, where he studied histories of colonization and began to see reflections of his own childhood in those narratives. “I learned about forced disappearances, state violence, land grabs, indigenous genocide, and then someone said ‘settlements,’ and it clicked!” He came to see his childhood ideas about Arabs, his fears and aspirations as products of an ideology which justifies “apartheid in Israel,” and he joined a BDS campaign on campus.

During the hearing, Lancman repeatedly accused pro-BDS witnesses of antisemitism. “I’m not asking you to accept that I think that you’re antisemites, which I do,” Lancman said in a heated exchange with Linda Sarsour.

“It felt like he was trying to un-Jew us,” Galai recalled. “I mean, I grew up in Israel. I speak fluent Hebrew. My brother went to yeshiva in Queens. I’ve got my credentials.” He sees antisemitism charges against Jewish anti-Zionists as “a way to undercut the work we’re doing as Jews, avowing Jewish values—fighting for justice and recognizing the humanity of the other.”

When I asked about Jewish supporters of BDS, Lancman said, “I’ve never viewed it as my prerogative or responsibility to evaluate any person’s Jewishness. The BDS movement is an antisemitic movement, and how someone who is Jewish reconciles their support for an antisemitic movement with their Jewishness is their business.”

Jewish leaders like Lancman, Galai says, perpetuate the idea that anti-BDS legislation is the main way to support Jews. “He legitimizes the idea that this is what our community gets as a nod,” instead of rooting out antisemitism raging on the right.

In this way, anti-BDS posturing may provide cover not just for the crimes of Netanyahu’s government, but those of our own right-wing politicians.

This month, Donald Trump’s newly appointed antisemitism envoy Elan Carr, formerly an anti-gang prosecutor in Los Angeles, indicated that his office would primarily concern itself with combating BDS, which he says is antisemitic and “dedicated to strangling the Jewish state out of existence.”

“We are going to focus relentlessly on eradicating this false distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism,” Carr told reporters. Twenty-four hours later, Palestinian activist and BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti was prevented from boarding a flight from Tel Aviv to the US, despite holding a US visa.

In response to apparent restrictions on Barghouti’s travel, ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi said in a statement, “The Trump administration should not decide which ideas Americans can and cannot hear directly from speakers.”

LANCMAN, to his credit, doesn’t minimize the threat of right-wing and white nationalist antisemitism. “Sitting on the committee that oversees the police department, we have been pushing the NYPD to take the rise of white supremacy seriously,” he said. “I was one of the first elected officials to express shock and outrage that the police department didn’t make any arrests after the Proud Boys went on a rampage after their leader spoke at the Metropolitan Republican Club.” (Amid criticism, the NYPD eventually made a handful arrests—of both Proud Boys and antifa activists.)

Lancman also said he was “deeply unsatisfied” by a confidential briefing on the white supremacist threat held by the NYPD in the aftermath of the Proud Boy incident. “We’re going to proactively investigate the white supremacist movement here in Queens.”

He has also promised to take hate crimes more seriously in the borough: “We have a real problem [in New York City], and in Queens in particular, with an unwillingness on the part of the police and the DAs to charge hate crimes as hate crimes.” That, he said, would change.

And Lancman isn’t deluded about the complicity of those in Washington. Islamophobia, antisemitism, and all other xenophobia, Lancman told me, are all “part of the same vile brew. And the prime stirrer and mixer of that brew is our Republican president.”

Lancman believes that even well-intentioned BDS supporters, like Galai, are useful idiots for a global movement to, in his words, “deny Jews the opportunity to participate fully in the economic, civic, and cultural life of the nations in which they live.”

But as Trump pounds the drum against BDS while refusing to unequivocally condemn white supremacist violence; and while Netanyahu scaremongers about the threat of boycotts while making alliances with antisemitic fascists in Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and Israel itself, the picture Lancman paints—of a monolithic and mutually reinforcing antisemitism of left and right—blurs.

Lancman won’t use his power as DA to arrest BDS activists, but his disregard for their civil liberties—their constitutional right to engage in a political boycott—should give pause to anyone looking to elect a progressive top cop in Queens.

Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. He co-hosts the Dissent podcast Know Your Enemy.