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Boston debate over Israel divestment

BOSTON, Nov. 11 — Six thousand miles from the Gaza Strip, the strife between Israelis and Palestinians reverberated in the stately Somerville City Hall chambers a few miles from downtown Boston. The scene was a packed, emotionally charged hearing on a resolution to divest the city’s retirement fund of its holdings in Israel Bonds, based on a controversial measure submitted with 1,170 signatures by the Somerville Divestment Project. As reported in The Advocate, the resolution had nearly been adopted by the aldermen without debate at an Oct. 28 meeting. More than 200 people crowded into the Nov. 8 hearing before the Legislative Matters Committee — which routinely decides questions such as local linkage fees. Opponents of the measure, who organized a response through a quickly put-together coalition of Somerville residents in and out of the Jewish community, represented a wide swath of political and religious views. Some were veteran political activists; others were new to the city. They were joined by dignitaries, local and state elected officials and labor leaders, including carpenters, pipe fitters and iron workers representing the Jewish Labor Committee. Divergent in background, they were united in calling the proposed measure one-sided and unfair, singling out Israel among the world’s nations for human rights violations. Ken Brociner, one of the key organizers against the resolution, told the aldermen that while he is a strong critic of the current government of Israel, he opposes the resolution, which is an attempt to delegitimize the nation of Israel, he said. As an invited dignitary, Meir Shlomo, Israel’s consul general to New England, was the evening’s first speaker. His remarks, like those of all the speakers, were limited to the two-minute rule imposed by Alderman Tom Taylor, chair of the committee. Shlomo addressed factual inaccuracies in the resolution, and noted that in the last few years, more than 1,000 Israelis were the tragic victims of terrorist attacks by Palestinians. Speaking with just some handwritten notes — and with remarkable openness uncharacteristic of diplomats, Shlomo acknowledged that the Israeli government has made some mistakes in its relations with Palestinians. “There is no difference between the loss of any life, Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim, or Jew,” Shlomo said. “It is a tragedy for humanity.” Shlomo insisted that United Nations resolution 242 is the cornerstone of Israeli policy, contrary to the accusations made by the Somerville Divestment Project in their petition to the Somerville Board. Rather than divest in Israel, Shlomo urged the aldermen to invest in the future by inviting Israeli and Palestinian children to Somerville to learn about coexistence. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said he opposed the nonbinding resolution, saying he would veto the resolution if it were approved by the aldermen. The city’s retirement board, which is a separate entity from the city, holds a $250,000 State of Israel Bond that matures in March 2005, according to Lucy Warsh, the public information officer for the mayor’s office. It is part of the retirement board’s $135 million portfolio. Renewal of the bond will be reviewed as part of normal procedures at that time, she said. The resolution also calls for divestment from corporations such as Caterpillar, United Technologies and other companies that “manufacture military equipment used in Israel’s illegal military occupation.” Written testimony will be accepted until Dec. 1 and the committee will take up the resolution at its regular meeting on Dec. 7. Committee Chair Taylor said he expects that their recommendation will be considered by the full board at the aldermen’s meeting on Dec. 9. Organized labor turned out in force, in strong opposition to the resolution. David Borrus of the pile drivers local union No. 56, a representative to the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, read a statement submitted by the Jewish Labor Committee: “We recognize and appreciate the need for a lasting and just peace agreement which is fair to both Israelis and Palestinians. But the resolution proposal before you is a one-sided document which heaps blame upon Israel alone. It is implicitly a divisive document which will only create more bitterness, both in the Middle East and between the groups in this room tonight.” Somerville seventh-grader Theo Rich, the youngest speaker, called the resolution “ridiculous,” and expressed concern that it could encourage divisiveness and anti-Semitism among kids. Divisiveness was apparent even among Jewish speakers, some of whom supported the resolution. While many opponents who spoke identified themselves as members of Somerville’s Congregation B’nai Brith, others supported the resolution as a way to put pressure on Israeli government policy, they said. Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli human rights lawyer who has appeared before the Israeli Supreme Court, asked the aldermen to support the resolution, “For the sake of saving my country from the immoral and self-destructive policies of the Israeli government.” State Rep. Tim Toomey, who stayed for the full hearing that lasted nearly three hours, also spoke against the resolution. “It puts the entire blame on Israel,” Toomey later told The Advocate. “It does nothing to find a peaceful resolution.” State Sen. Jarrett Barrios, whose district includes parts of Somerville, submitted a statement in opposition. “To label Israel as deserving of divestment without doing so to scores of others who have far more blatantly violated human rights provisions is both unfair and unproductive.” “It’s good news and bad news,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the day after the hearing. She said she was impressed that they were able to mobilize so much opposition in such a short time, and that this group included not just Jewish community leaders but several church leaders. “The bad news is that we’ve got an energetic opposition,” Kaufman continued. “It’s particularly sad that there were so many Jews” in favor of divestment. “I was deeply troubled that they think divestment will solve the problem.” Contacted after the hearing at his office in Washington, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who was at one time a member of Somerville’s Board of Aldermen, said he sees the resolution as an overreaction to differences of opinion and thinks it’s unnecessary for Somerville to have a position on foreign policy. He hopes that the resolution doesn’t pass, although he has not spoken with the aldermen on this issue, as he tries to stay out of telling local elected officials how to conduct their business.