May 28, 2021 — Cambridge, MA
Tuesday evening, the Cambridge Massachusetts City Council (CCC) rejected a resolution known as Policy Order #109. The decision followed more than 7 ½ hours of impassioned public testimony, in which more than 300 people spoke, for and against the resolution. What they said put on full display the strategy guiding Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and its pernicious impact on public discourse and the well-being of Jews at home and abroad.
Policy Order #109 proposed to direct Cambridge’s City Manager to “review corporate contracts and identify any companies that are in violation of Cambridge’s policy on discrimination, including (but not limited to) Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Hewlett Packard Incorporated over their role in abetting apartheid in the Middle East.” The resolution was encouraged by several interest groups dedicated to demonization, isolation and eventual destruction of the State of Israel.
Testimony (starting at 1:09:13) given in support of the resolution accused Israel of conducting brutal massacres, promoting ethnic cleansing, maintaining a system of apartheid, undertaking forced sterilizations of people of color, advancing white supremacy, being a settler colonialist state, partnering in America’s imperial project, training American police to brutalize people of color and much more. Testimony that Israel is a democracy was mocked. Appeals that this is a complex conflict that should not be reduced to simple “truths,” were countered with the claim that there is nothing complicated about it. As one speaker put it, “There is only one question. Will you side with white supremacy or will you side with us?”
It appeared that in the minds of many of those who testified on behalf of Policy Order 109, Israel is among the worst places on earth – a repository of all the evils of nationhood. This is not to deny that some criticisms may have been honorably intended. It is to point out that the caricature of Israel created by the proponents of BDS was guided by a narrative that rests on gross distortions. The casualty was not only truth, but the capacity to discuss, understand and address painful realities.
It is true, for example, that Israeli missiles did tragically contribute to the death of several dozen Palestinian children. For proponents of Policy Order #109, this became clear evidence of Israeli brutality and moral depravity. It demonstrated the necessity for the people of Cambridge to boycott Israel and Hewlett Packard, a perceived abettor of Israeli perfidy. These conclusions, however, were based on a willful ignorance of the circumstances of many, if not all, of these tragic deaths.
Hamas, a terrorist organization that has ruled Gaza since 2007, deliberately placed strategic assets, including missile launchers and tunnels in places where civilian casualties were likely to result if Israel attacked these targets. To try to avoid this result, Israel did something that it had done in previous conflicts with Gaza that is unique in the annals of military history. It warned civilians of pending attacks, so that they could secure their safety. As a result, after 11 days of bombardments, the overwhelming majority of the people killed in Gaza were identified Hamas or Islamic Jihad terrorists. This does not mitigate the pain of those who have suffered grievous loss. It does suggest that rather than having been indifferent to human life, the Israeli military went to extraordinary lengths to minimize civilian casualties in a situation where its foe was using civilians as human shields.
To acknowledge this well-documented information, however, would be to interrupt the narrative that holds Israel as uniquely evil. This may explain why some of the supporters of Policy Order #109 so strenuously rejected the possibility that issues they referenced were, in fact, complicated. It may also help us understand why some speakers transformed a property dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem into proof of an Israeli program of ethnic cleansing. In fact, the Israeli government has had no part in that dispute, which has been active in the Israeli courts for several decades and concerns a disagreement between two private parties about a leasing arrangement.
This pattern of using anecdotal events, some true, others not, to draw broad conclusions about Israeli society and the policies that guide it pervaded much of the testimony in support of Policy Order #109. Fortunately, members of the City Council saw through these cynical presentations. Councilor Patricia Nolan stated it clearly. “This issue IS complex - and it’s very divisive. The original PO [policy order] as written does single out one country - and IS a proxy for BDS. I believe we can stand for justice and oppose BDS.” Councilor Marc McGovern urged a different approach, noting that, “There hasn’t been any attempt to build bridges. There hasn’t been any attempt to listen to the pain and positions of each side. This has turned into ‘Who can get more people to email or call in to public comment’ wins. It has torn this community apart ... It is the exact divisiveness that we see on the National level.”
We are grateful to Councilors Nolan and McGovern for their leadership. We are also grateful to Councilors Simmons, Toomey and Vice Mayor Mallon, who joined with Nolan and McGovern to support a substitute policy order (on page 69) that “affirms Israel’s right to exist and defend its citizens from attack” and creates a process for reviewing all contracts and purchases from “vendors or manufactures that are in violation of Cambridges policy on discrimination.” Finally, our appreciation to Mayor Siddiqui, who presided over two evenings of difficult conversation with care and a commitment to treating all parties with fairness and respect.
There is little doubt that the proponents of Policy Order #109 saw Cambridge as their first stop in a national effort. The repudiation of BDS by the Cambridge City Council was encouraged by more than 150 people who provided heartfelt and informed testimony and 250 additional people who signed a letter to express their concern about Policy Order #109 rather than compel Councilors to sit through an additional 4-5 hours of testimony. They made many cogent points, including:
- Urging that we listen to the pain and suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis and try to understand the situation rather than turn complex issues into bumper stickers.
- Noting that accusations that Israel is an apartheid society are absurd. Like other democracies, Israel has challenges, but extreme claims that are not grounded in fact undermine the possibility of constructive conversation and problem solving.
- Observing that leaders of the BDS movement have been open about their commitment to Israel’s destruction and the Cambridge City Council should not be a party to such an effort.
Many of the Jewish speakers spoke of their dismay at the sudden emergence of antisemitic attacks across the country. And some gave voice to a looming concern that the eagerness with which some speakers condemned Jews, or in this case the Jewish state, as uniquely evil felt all too much like characterizations that have led to anti-Jewish persecutions in past generations. Some even shared the worry that Cambridge may no longer be a safe place to be a Jew and that they may feel compelled to move.
For this and other reasons, the repudiation of Policy Order #109 took on an importance for many in the Jewish community and others mindful of what was at stake. AJC New England was grateful to work with colleagues from ADL New England, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the Israeli American Council, and StandWithUs to mobilize our community to speak out. People willingly responded to our appeal.
This was the second time a BDS proposal was defeated in Cambridge. This time, however, was different because the hearings laid bare the intentions of the proponents and the lengths to which they will go to advance them. It also underscored that many (not all) proponents of BDS have embraced a mindset and methods that elevate the danger posed by BDS. Finally, it demonstrated that a mobilized and informed community, armed with nothing more than information and determination, can prevail.