The New York Times
A Jewish Councilman Who Said ‘Palestine Does Not Exist’ Loses Seat on Immigration Committee
By Jeffery C. Mays
March 31, 2019
New York City, home to the largest Jewish population outside Israel, has often served as a proxy battleground for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mayors — dating back from Robert F. Wagner, who in 1957 barred a welcome for a Saudi king he deemed anti-Jewish, to Bill de Blasio, who in 2015 canceled a plan to meet Palestinians in the occupied West Bank— have been forced to confront the highly charged issue.
But as more Palestinian immigrants have settled in New York, the political calculus has grown slightly more complicated, as seen last week, when Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn councilman who represents the Orthodox Jewish community of Borough Park, took to Twitter on Wednesday to state that “Palestine does not exist.”
Palestine does not exist.
There, I said it again.
Also, Congresswoman Omar is an antisemite. Said that too.
Thanks for following me. https://t.co/apM565HoEV
— Kalman Yeger (@KalmanYeger) March 27, 2019
Mr. Yeger’s remarks came after Zainab Iqbal, a journalist for Bklyner, reported that Mr. Yeger had referred to “so-called Palestinians” in a tweet. He responded by calling Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota anti-Semitic. The councilman’s pronouncements led to a cascade of criticism calling his comments “hateful” and “Islamophobic,” and prompted demands for an apology and his removal from the City Council’s immigration committee.
The latest such call came from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said on Friday that if Mr. Yeger is “not going to apologize, he shouldn’t be on that committee.”
According to the United Nations, 137 states bilaterally recognize Palestine.
On Monday, the City Council’s leadership team met for more than an hour and decided to remove Mr. Yeger from the immigration committee, The New York Times has learned. There was “broad consensus” that Mr. Yeger’s views were inconsistent with the committee’s mission, participants said.
“I do not believe that someone who engages in the type of rhetoric we heard from Council Member Yeger belongs on the immigration committee, which is supposed to welcome and support immigrants in our city,” Corey Johnson, the Council’s speaker, said in a statement.
Mr. Yeger could not immediately be reached for comment Monday evening. He had been unapologetic about his comments during a news conference on Thursday. “There is no state by that name. There is no place by that name. That’s a fact. I didn’t make it up, I didn’t invent it,” Mr. Yeger said on Thursday.
When the news came out on Monday, Mr. Yeger, on Twitter, cited an editorial from The New York Daily News to defend his comments as free speech.
Linda Sarsour, a New York City-based Palestinian-American activist, applauded his removal from the Council committee.
“This sends a wider message that saying anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian things comes with consequences,” Ms. Sarsour said.
The dismissal came as a diverse coalition of Palestinian, Jewish, immigrant and civil rights groups announced it was planning a protest on City Hall’s steps later this week.
Mr. de Blasio agreed with the decision. “It’s important for people to understand that everyone is valued,” the mayor said in an interview on Monday with NY1’s Errol Louis.
Mr. Yeger is the second member of the City Council in recent memory to lose a committee assignment after making comments deemed unacceptable. The committee on for-hire vehicles was eliminated in February after its chairman, Ruben Diaz Sr., a councilman from the Bronx, said the “homosexual community” controlled the Council.
The City Council’s Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections will have to vote to remove Mr. Yeger from the committee and then two-thirds of all Council members will have to approve the removal at next week’s meeting. But the decision has broad support, according to Mr. Johnson.
“He is being removed from the Immigration Committee,” Mr. Johnson said in his statement.
Mr. Yeger’s earlier remarks led to a small protest by pro-Palestinian groups outside his office in Borough Park, which was met with a much larger counterprotest from Mr. Yeger’s supporters, including one incident where a protester asked a Muslim woman whether her young daughter had “any bombs on her to blow us up.”
Ms. Sarsour also found herself caught up in the controversy when her name was used to draw counterprotesters to Mr. Yeger’s office.
“This is a lot more complicated than a councilman makes a comment,” Ms. Sarsour said. “It’s on a deeper level and represents a bubbling up of longstanding conflicts around the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.”
Indeed, the city’s politics have frequently been roiled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In 1966, Mayor John V. Lindsay canceled a dinner for a Saudi king who said that any friends of Israel were his enemies. Mayor Abraham D. Beame rescinded giving Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, a key to the city after a United Nations committee labeled Zionism a form of racial discrimination.
Mayor Edward I. Koch had an argument at City Hall with the Austrian foreign minister in 1984 about whether the Palestine Liberation Organization served as the voice of Palestinian people. Mayor David N. Dinkins took criticism from his black constituents for not scheduling any meetings with Palestinians during a 1991 trip to Israel. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani expelled Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, from a concert for world leaders at Lincoln Center.
And in 2016, the City Council passed a resolution condemning the call for a boycott of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
The reaction to Mr. Yeger’s remarks suggests that things are changing.
Mr. Johnson had called Mr. Yeger’s remarks “dehumanizing” during a news conference on Thursday.
The mayor, who is considering a run for president, has come under criticism recently for speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, even as other declared Democratic presidential candidates declined to do so this year.
And some saw Mr. de Blasio’s initial response to Mr. Yeger’s comments as inadequate, especially given the strong criticism of Representative Omar’s remarks about Israel.
The mayor sought to fortify his comments on Friday during his weekly radio appearance on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC: “I made very clear that there has to be a Palestinian homeland,” said Mr. de Blasio, who went on to call Mr. Yeger’s comments “destructive and divisive.”
Dov Hikind, a former assemblyman from Brooklyn who helped organize the counterprotest outside of Mr. Yeger’s office, was disheartened by the criticism of Mr. Yeger.
“Progressive Democrats, liberals, have unfortunately moved away from the kind of support for Israel that we are used to,” said Mr. Hikind, who said he saw nothing wrong with Mr. Yeger’s remarks.
“Are there Palestinians? Yes, of course. Palestine doesn’t exist,” said Mr. Hikind. “It may exist in the future if the Israelis and Palestinians come to an agreement.
Mr. Hikind characterized the person who made the bomb remark to the young Muslim woman as an individual who said “terrible things,” but who did not represent the majority of counterprotesters.
Ms. Sarsour and Mr. Hikind do agree that the unequivocal political support for Israel that used to exist in New York among the city’s politicians is no more. The response to Mr. Yeger’s comments prove that, she said.
“It’s been a long time coming for elected officials to say anti-Palestinian things with any sort of consequences,” Ms. Sarsour said. “We are in a new era.”
Susan Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.