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Divestment voted down

SOMERVILLE, Mass., Dec. 22 — After more than a month of debate, the city’s aldermen voted unanimously on Dec. 9, sending a clear message: “No” to divestment from Israel. Further, four alternative resolutions were then tabled by the alderman, ending divestment as an issue. As a result of the unanimous vote, the Somerville Board of Aldermen became the first municipal leaders in the country to reject a well-organized grassroots campaign — one that sought to divest the city’s investments from a $250,000 Israel Bond and from stock holdings in companies with sales to Israel’s military. The aldermen’s decisive vote was applauded by opponents of the resolution, who turned out in record numbers at the urging of Jewish organizations, creating a sea of waving blue anti-divestment placards in the crowded chambers. The vote — on a motion to accept the report of the aldermen’s legislative matters committee to reject the proposed divestment resolution — also triggered an immediate vocal and visible response from supporters of the resolution, who began showering the meeting with their red flyers and chanting “Free Palestine.” Alderman Denise Provost, controlled but visibly upset, called their behavior unseemly and directed the three police officers at the front of the chamber to escort the protesters out of the hearing. Their chants, which continued in the parking lot for a few minutes, could be heard in the hearing room on the second floor of city hall. “This, for us, is a grand-slam home run,” said Alan Ronkin, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, which coordinated the Jewish community’s effective response to the resolution. “This was a wonderful result,” agreed Rob Leikind, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, whose organization was part of the strategy-making coalition created only one month ago to defeat the divestment campaign. “It was a full discussion. Divestment is a bad idea for municipalities. People reasonably came to the conclusion that the proposal is unfair.” “I think this was a tremendous victory for the community, for Israel, for democracy. The board of aldermen deliberated, heard all the arguments and made a decision. I give them enormous credit for making the right decision,” said JCRC’s executive director, Nancy Kaufman, minutes after the meeting went into a brief recess following the vote. “They recognize these are tough issues, they allowed for a lot of input, they conducted themselves with decorum and dignity,” Kaufman said. “Tonight was particularly poignant because of how the other side behaved,” she continued. “When they walked out, it was pretty outrageous.” Mayor Joe Curtatone, who from the outset said he would veto the resolution, gave credit to the aldermen. “I didn’t want to see it placed on file. It’s important that it was voted down,” he told The Advocate in a phone conversation a few days after the meeting. “It’s polarizing the city and giving rise to ill will and rancor,” Aldermen Connolly said at the hearing, reflecting the views expressed by his colleagues that night. “I think when the board saw that the city was divided and there was no consensus, it ended up being voted down,” said Alderman Bill White. White, an attorney, attributed the vote to a number of factors. “Divisiveness was one,” he said. “There was a lack of consensus. The fact that it involved an issue that was largely symbolic, and part of it may have been that it singled out Israel.” White agrees with his colleagues who said the resolution took a significant amount of time, and it was time to put an end to it. “They didn’t want to spend months to come up with a compromise.” The board of directors of Congregation B’nai Brith of Somerville, the city’s largest synagogue, was also concerned with the divisive nature of the resolution among its members, according to its president, Lisa Andelman. The board encouraged its members to express their views to the aldermen and made tapes of the aldermen’s meetings available to its members. “There’s a wide spectrum of views in our community,” Andelman said. “We are the only synagogue in Somerville to meet the needs of the widest spectrum of Jews in the community, and the board was concerned about excluding a minority opinion.” While some members of the congregation spoke publicly in favor of the resolution, others were leading the opposition, and many spoke out against the resolution and submitted written testimony, identifying themselves as members of the congregation. “We won because we finally got focused,” said Charles Jacobs, president of the David Project, who attended the meeting. “What we faced in Somerville, what we face on college campuses, is a result of the failure of the Jewish community to make the case for Israel. For 15 years we’ve been debating between left and right, and we failed to be combatant in the ideological onslaught against Israel. Somerville is a hopeful sign. It’s changing.” “I was really proud of how people in Somerville, ordinary citizens, elected city and state leaders, reacted to the process,” said Steve Grossman, former AIPAC chairman, well-known for his political activism. Grossman, who has owned a business in Somerville for 35 years, is a member of that city’s business community. Looking at the historical perspective, Grossman compared this experience to the unsuccessful effort 15 years ago to isolate Israel in the platform of the Massachusetts State Democratic Party platform, which also required collaboration between many organizations. In Somerville, Grossman said, “All voices were heard. It was a pretty wonderful exercise in democracy. It was one of Somerville’s finest hours.”