In a speech at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on November 20, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he will launch an initiative to combat hate crimes and protect civil rights in the state, where several hate-related incidents have been recently reported. This plan includes the formation of a new hate crimes unit within the state police, legislation to increase protections for public school students from discrimination, and legal assistance for impoverished immigrants subject to deportation.
Governor Cuomo blamed these hate crimes on the “ugly political discourse” and “divisiveness” of the 2016 presidential election, mentioning that there were 437 incidents of intimidation reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center during the week after the election.
“The divisiveness must stop and New Yorkers will not be bystanders to injustice.”
His speech was filled with such uplifting rhetoric, and most of the church’s parishioners reacted to it with a standing ovation. One member however, was unconvinced and remained seated.
“Words are cheap,” Marian Reddick told the Wall Street Journal. “We need action.”
Ms. Reddick’s skepticism is well-placed. Listening to Governor Cuomo, one would think that he is a social-justice champion incapable of remaining silent as others face discrimination and harassment.
Yet this is the same Governor Cuomo who issued an executive order in June demanding that New York state agencies halt business with groups or companies that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He intentionally used his executive powers in order to bypass the legislative process and guarantee “immediate action” on BDS. Passing legislation “can often be a tedious affair,” he chuckled. Perhaps he learned this lesson from his father, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who ironically tried to pass legislation in 1985 proposing that New York boycott South Africa for its apartheid policies. This proposal was blocked.
Governor Cuomo described having a “heavy heart” from hearing about KKK fliers left on parked cars, swastika graffiti, and other incidents of “social poison” taking place in New York and elsewhere. Yet he does not seem to mind the social poison that Palestinians must endure while living under Israeli military occupation, as refugees, or as second-class citizens of the discriminatory Israeli state.
It is unlikely that Governor Cuomo has not heard of the violence that Israeli settlers routinely perpetrate against Palestinians, including “price tag” attacks on mosques, churches, and other property. Even their olive trees are not spared.
It is also unlikely that Governor Cuomo does not know about the racism that is intrinsic to the Israeli political system and widespread within its society. During the 2015 elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the right-wing government is in danger, and that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” The same Benjamin Netanyahu offered a salute to the governor for issuing the executive order against BDS. And yet, Governor Cuomo has the audacity to defend progressive values and speak out against divisiveness and “hateful attitudes.”
Governor Cuomo’s contradictory positions may seem illogical, but they are in fact quite rational. The governor is a Democrat and self-proclaimed progressive, but above all, he is a shrewd and ambitious career politician.
The timing and location of his announcements, along with the associated media spectacles, are carefully calculated and planned. It is no coincidence that he chose to unveil this civil rights initiative at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a 208 year-old predominantly African-American congregation that has significant influence within its community and beyond. As it happens, New York City is home to over two million African-Americans, the largest number among US cities, and this demographic is also a vital source of support for the Democrat party.
Governor Cuomo’s executive order against BDS was similarly choreographed. He delivered the announcement in a speech to the Harvard Club in Manhattan, where a group of local and national Jewish leaders were in attendance. After the speech, he marched in the “Celebrate Israel” parade, which is the largest show of support for Israel outside its borders.
His participation in such an event is not surprising, considering that New York State is home to about 1.75 million Jews, most of whom are likely strong supporters of Israel. Not only are most New York Jews registered Democrats, but American Jews in general tend to have higher turnout rates in elections, making them an ideal demographic for Governor Cuomo to appeal to. With these things in mind, it is clear why the governor would choose to become Israel’s political hitman in New York, despite the fact that Israel is incompatible with his so-called progressive values.
To put it more bluntly, Governor Cuomo is a political panderer of the first degree, which is one of the reasons why his positions on civil rights are so contradictory. In his charades at the Abyssinian Baptist Church and at the “Celebrate Israel” parade, it is likely that all Governor Cuomo could see were votes and dollar signs.
As governor of a major state such as New York, the U.S. presidency is a logical next step in Cuomo’s political career, and he will need all the electoral and financial support that he can secure.
Mohamed Mohamed is Finance, Grants, and Development Manager at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. The views expressed are his own.