At Heated Meeting, Burlington City Council Withdraws BDS Resolution | Off Message

At Heated Meeting, Burlington City Council Withdraws BDS Resolution


The scene at Monday's meeting - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • The scene at Monday's meeting
Long-simmering tensions in the Middle East spilled into Burlington’s City Hall on Monday night when city councilors debated a resolution that would have endorsed a movement to pressure Israel to end its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories.

But after hours of public comment on the issue, the resolution’s lead sponsor, Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7), said he would withdraw the measure and send it back to a council subcommittee for further consideration. His motion passed 6-5, with Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) absent for the vote.

Dieng's resolution — which was first considered last month by the council's Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging subcommittee — supported the global boycott, sanction and divest movement known as BDS. Palestinians see the controversial campaign as a fight for human rights, whereas Israelis interpret it as an effort to eliminate the Jewish state.

The resolution called for "justice and [a] peaceful end to Palestine and Israel conflict." After intense backlash, though, Dieng said he realized the resolution was one-sided and vilified Israel without recognizing the persecution of Jews.

"What can we do from our municipal standpoint to promote peace and justice? That's a question we all need to be asked," Dieng said as the clock neared midnight. "We must be a safe space."

Launched in 2005, the BDS movement calls on governments and corporations to stop doing business with Israel until it ends its military occupation of Arab lands, recognizes Palestinians as equals and allows Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The Burlington resolution parrots those demands, calling for “nonviolent pressure on Israel” and "solidarity with the Palestinian people."

BDS organizers were inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, which included boycotts to pressure the government.

Dozens of U.S. states have passed anti-BDS laws that prohibit government agencies and contractors from boycotting Israel. Such laws have been challenged by opponents who say they violate rights to free speech.

Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, a local advocacy group that helped write the Burlington resolution, started a BDS campaign 10 years ago, but, according to organizer Wafic Faour, “it didn’t go anywhere.” After a years-long effort, the group successfully pressured Ben & Jerry’s in July to stop selling ice cream in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

That decision, and an anti-BDS law, led the state of Arizona to sell off $93 million in bonds from Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry’s, just last week.
Justice for Palestine activists marched on Church Street - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Justice for Palestine activists marched on Church Street
The issue's divisiveness was on full display Monday. Before the meeting, about 100 pro-Palestinian activists marched down Church Street carrying Palestinian flags and signs bearing such slogans as “Exist, Resist, Return” and “U.S. Taxpayers Finance Apartheid.” In front of city hall, the demonstrators yelled over jeers from pro-Israel activists who called the BDS movement anti-Semitic.

The clash continued inside the council chamber when singing by Jewish members of the audience overlapped with the pro-Palestinian contingent's chants of “free, free Palestine!” When the slogan shifted to “Equal rights are human rights,” pro-Israel attendees responded, “Then tell Hamas!,” referring to the extremist Islamic group that maintains control of the Gaza Strip.

Pro-Palestine and pro-Israel advocates sat shoulder to shoulder in the crowded room. At one point, Burlington resident Mark Leopold asked to see a sign being held by progressive activist Albert Petrarca.

“Are we going to agree or disagree?” Leopold asked him. When he saw that Petrarca’s poster read, “BVT for BDS,” he said, “Oh, we’re going to disagree. But hopefully we can do it civilly.”

Other interactions were far less civil. As the two-hour public forum neared its end, Burlington school commissioner Jeff Wick, who was holding a Star of David sign, yelled at Asma Elhuni, the movement politics director for Rights & Democracy New Hampshire, after she'd gone over her speaking time limit.

“Check your privilege, girl!” Wick called, prompting another young woman to tap him on the shoulder. “Excuse me? Fuck you,” she said.
Activists at the meeting stand behind Burlington city officials, including Mayor Miro Weinberger, seated at rigtht - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Activists at the meeting stand behind Burlington city officials, including Mayor Miro Weinberger, seated at rigtht
Several rabbis attended and spoke during public comment in opposition of the measure. Some Jews in attendance chided the council for introducing the resolution during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Mayor Miro Weinberger, who is Jewish, made a similar argument in a statement released before Monday’s meeting.

“If instead, the City Council wants to pass a resolution that espouses the shared values of the Burlington community, including peace, security, and a positive economic environment for the region, then it should begin with a fresh effort,” he wrote. Weinberger didn't offer further comment Monday night.

Pro-Palestinian advocates said a progressive city such as Burlington needs to stand up for BDS. Faour, who is Palestinian, said Israel continually violates basic human rights protections, such as by building settlements in the West Bank.

"Every day, Palestinians [are] getting killed. Every day, Palestinian land [is] getting stolen. This is our daily life," he said, blaming U.S. military aid to Israel for perpetuating the crisis. "Burlington can do better."

Councilors were similarly divided. Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) said she couldn't support Dieng's motion to withdraw because it would allow the resolution to come back at another time for more debate. Paul wanted the matter settled Monday night, noting that she'd received 2,000 emails about the resolution, only 10 of which she said supported the measure.
Inside city hall during the meeting - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Inside city hall during the meeting
"I know that there are councilors who very much support this resolution, and I hope that tonight, after seeing what has gone on here, that you'll step back and really think about what you're promoting," she said, "because this is what happens when you bring people into a firestorm of controversy about something that they passionately care about. You don't need to do this."

Councilor Mark Barlow (I-North District) agreed, saying the city has other local matters to address, such as public safety and housing.

Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) seconded the sentiment, saying, "This resolution is not going to improve the situation in Israel. It can only bring pain. This needs to end tonight."

Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) supported Dieng's motion, adding that she favors further debate on the issue but only if it "will bring more good than hurt." She condemned the human rights violations being committed by Israel, but also recognized the Jewish community members who expressed fear of being targeted by anti-Semitic acts if the measure passed.

Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said he welcomes further debate on the topic.

"I think everyone at this table, on this council, everyone in this room ...  sincerely [want] to work towards justice, peace, toward self determination for all, and wanting to stand against the oppression," he said. "I do think that's our goal and that we can do a lot better."

Faour, for one, doesn't think the resolution needs fixing.

"Whatever they're going to change the language [to], we're not going to accept it," he told the crowd on upper Church Street before the meeting. "I ask you all to stick with us, stand with us. Whatever the resolution, we are victorious."

Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV: