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Brooklyn Councilman To Be Kicked Off Immigration Committee For 'Dehumanizing' Statements On Palestine

Mayor de Blasio embracing Councilman Kalman Yeger at an event last month
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Mayor de Blasio embracing Councilman Kalman Yeger at an event last month Kalman Yeger/Twitter

Brooklyn Councilman Kalman Yeger will be removed from the body’s immigration committee amid widespread outrage over his repeated claim that "Palestine does not exist."

Speaker Corey Johnson announced the decision on Monday evening, following a closed-door meeting of the City Council's leadership that produced a "broad consensus," according to a council official. In a prepared statement, Johnson said the remarks were "dehumanizing to Palestinians and divisive, and have no place in New York City."

"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," Johnson added. "What he said is totally inappropriate, and sends the wrong message about our values."

Yeger, a Democrat who represents South Brooklyn neighborhoods including Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and Midwood, posted the anti-Palestine comments on Wednesday, in response to a tweet from Zainab Iqbal, a reporter for BKLYNER. Noting Yeger's aggressive attacks on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Iqbal pointed out that Yeger has a history of making incendiary comments about Palestinians and Palestine.

"Palestine does not exist," Yeger responded. "There, I said it again. Also, Congresswoman Omar is an antisemite. Said that too. Thanks for following me."

The tweet was immediately denounced by several local officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, and prompted a small protest outside Yeger's Borough Park office the following day. That group was met by hundreds of Yeger's supporters, a group largely composed of members of the ultra-Orthodox community and led by controversial former Assemblyman Dov Hikind. The confrontation grew ugly, with one counterprotester overheard asking a Muslim child whether she has "any bombs on her."

Iqbal, who was covering the protest, also said that a mob of counterprotesters surrounded her at one point and began peppering her with anti-Arabic accusations. "There was this fear in my stomach," she told Gothamist.

While the latest statement from Yeger received near-universal condemnation in the council, at least a few members have come to the Brooklyn councilman's defense: Republican Councilman Erich Ulrich framed Yeger's right to serve on the immigration committee as a free speech issue, while newly-elected Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a former councilmember, said last week that he didn't believe Yeger was a bigot, and cautioned against "knee-jerk reactions."

The decision to strip Yeger of his immigration post still has to go through Council's Committee on Rules, Privileges and Elections, and will then be voted on by the 51-member body. Earlier this year, the group voted to remove Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. from his committee post for making homophobic statements (comments that, like Yeger, he had been making for years).

Yeger, who has remained unapologetic about the comments, addressed the news on Monday by retweeting a Daily News editorial lambasting the "speech police."

"It’s unfortunate that political correctness takes precedence over objective fact," he wrote. "Of course, there are Palestinians. However, the fact remains there is no Palestinian state." A spokesperson for the councilmember did not respond to follow-up inquiries, including about his previous references to "so-called 'Palestinians.'"

According to Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian activist and frequent target of Yeger’s, the fact that he’s only facing consequences now for his long-held beliefs may be a sign of the city’s evolving views on the issue.

"He was irrelevant until he responded to a Brooklyn journalist which brought attention to his tweet," Sarsour told Gothamist. "Yeger has always held these views and now we are in a different political climate to be able to hold people like him accountable."

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