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Another Divestment Struggle Opens Ahead of Somerville Senate Election

August 12, 2005
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A Boston suburb appears to prove the maxim that all politics is local, as the national issue of divestment from Israel edges its way into a local election campaign for a hotly contested state senate seat. Highly visible among the candidate signs filling Somerville’s Davis Square on Wednesday evening were dozens reading “No to Divestment. It’s wrong for Somerville.”

The signs were held by members of the Somerville Coalition for Middle East Peace, which opposes an initiative by the Somerville Divestment Project to place a nonbinding advisory question on the November city ballot asking voters to divest the city’s holdings in Israel Bonds and in companies doing business with the Israeli military.

The divestment group is pushing its cause for the second time in a year, having been rejected by city aldermen last December in a battle that attracted international media attention. The renewed effort comes as the issue is gaining ground on the national level among mainline Protestant churches.

Several Protestant churches have considered divestment over the past year. The most recent move came earlier this month when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) singled out four companies that supply Israel with military equipment and technology, as well as a financial institution that allegedly has remote ties to Palestinian terrorists.

David Elcott, the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who has been at the forefront of the Jewish community’s opposition to divestment efforts, says it’s important to distinguish among the positions and motivations of the various churches.

“I’m pushing for nuance,” Elcott explained. “It’s easy to just paint everyone with the same brush. There are those critical of Israel but still committed to its security.”

As examples, he cited the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, which he said are “struggling with how to address violence on all sides, describing their response as almost pacifist, and who are trying to exert economic leverage against companies who they see as profiting from violence.”

Such groups may be naive, he said, “but I can accept that the goal is not the destruction of Israel. It’s like disagreeing with Israeli policy.”

In contrast, he finds the language used by the Presbyterian Church and the Somerville Divestment Project — which see Israel’s presence in land the Palestinians demand for themselves as the root cause of regional violence — as “morally reprehensible, because it makes Israel’s self-defense a greater evil than terrorism and in the end would bring on the end of the Jewish homeland.”

Karl Gustafson, the pastor at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church in Somerville, considers such reactions overblown. He faults the media and some in the Jewish community for characterizing the church’s position as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Gustafson’s congregation has not officially taken a position on either the national or local divestment campaigns.

“I would assume most people would support the divestment strategy,” he said.

On the national level, he said, it’s an “interesting strategy to try to put some kind of pressure on ending the occupation so some kind of just peace can be worked out.” On the local level, however, he cited several reasons for his lack of enthusiasm for the Somerville Divestment Project.

Gustafson said he has had some informal conversations with members of Somerville’s Jewish community. He would like to see “some serious and passionate conversation among various religious communities about the occupation and the situation for Israel and Palestine,” he said.

At the local level, a legal tussle has developed between the city’s election commission and the Somerville Divestment Project over the legality of the petition form the group has been using.

According to the election commissioner, a divestment-project representative said the group won’t use petition forms designed by the city — which are intended to comply with legal requirements — but will continue to use its own form, which includes human-rights accusations against Israel.

But divestment opponents aren’t taking the legal glitch as a sign of weakness on the part of the anti-Israel campaign.

“It’s too early to tell, and we have to keep our eye on the ball,” said Alan Ronkin of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. “For these people, their goal is to drag Israel’s name through the mud and to delegitimize Israel. It will be up to the city’s legal department and the elections commission to decide whether their petition meets the criteria for appearing on the city ballot.”

Divestment opponents and campaign volunteers mingled ahead of Wednesday’s public debate among four Democratic candidates vying for a vacant state senate seat. All four candidates have stated their opposition to the divestment initiative, according to Adam Bovilsky, a member of the anti-divestment coalition, which is working closely with the JCRC.

“I’m here to support the rights of the Israeli people,” said Larry LaFlamme, a roofer and union member from Somerville. Holding one side of a large banner from the Jewish Labor Committee supporting Israel and opposing divestment, LaFlamme said that investing union retirement funds in Israel Bonds was good for labor and good for Israel.

A question about divestment was submitted by an audience member during the candidates’ debate, Bovilsky said. Under debate rules, only one candidate, Pat Jehlen, was allowed to respond.

Before the debate, Jehlen said she opposes the divestment initiative but supports a communitywide dialogue on the issue, a position she says is backed by members of a local synagogue.

“This initiative is bad and shouldn’t be on the ballot,” she replied at the debate, according to Bovilsky.

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