The New Orleans city council unanimously voted to rescind a resolution it passed just two weeks ago, following heavy pressure from pro-Israel Jewish communal organizations and right-wing lawmakers.
Dozens of civic and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, had urged city leaders to uphold the resolution that called on the city to start screening investments and contracts and to divest from corporations that profit from human rights abuses.
It was drafted by members of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, who had been working on it for a year with city leaders and community groups.
But Israel lobby groups sharply criticized the resolution, claiming it singled out Israel and should be rescinded.
In fact, the resolution did not mention Israel’s long record of human rights violations, nor specific protections for Palestinians.
But because it encouraged divestment from companies that profit from human rights abuses, it could have been used to advance the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.
“When the city council first passed the resolution, it was a win for all freedom struggles, including immigrant rights, environmental justice, Palestinian rights and those working to end mass incarceration and police brutality,” the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, which endorsed the resolution, stated.
“We are outraged that the City Council reversed their decision. Why are they willing to throw all of our human rights out the window simply to protect Israel?”
New Orleans’ outgoing Mayor Mitchell Landrieu asserted on 12 January that the resolution was passed “without adequate review and debate,” adding that he had “no plans to change the contracting or investment policy of the city.”
According to local media, other council members claimed they had no idea the resolution “would be promoted as a victory for a movement that critics say is trying to marginalize Israel.”
During a livestreamed council meeting on Thursday, human rights supporters demanded that city leaders uphold the resolution.
However, council member Jason Williams called the resolution “flawed” and held a vote to rescind it, which passed without dissent.
Immediately after the resolution was adopted on 11 January, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans and other pro-Israel groups began pressuring city leaders to toss the resolution.
Jewish Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow claimed its passage was unfair and “involved a topic that has regrettably brought New Orleans some very negative publicity.”
Tellingly, the Jewish Federation conceded that it “fully supports the values of human rights expressed in the resolution” but was opposing it simply because it feared that it could be applied to Israel.
Under pressure, city leaders attempted to distance themselves from members of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee after facing a backlash from Israel lobby groups.
Days after the resolution had initially passed, Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell was asked by a local television station what she knew about the group behind the resolution. Cantrell replied only that she saw students at the council meeting.
But according to Max Geller of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Cantrell had met with his group – and that was how her office came to work with the activists to draft the resolution.
“It’s disappointing she’s not standing by her base that’s been working with her on this for over a year and pretending like she doesn’t know us,” Geller told The Times-Picayune.
Council member Williams told local media that he had never met with Geller about the resolution.
But Geller said he had explained to Williams about the history of the BDS movement and its roots in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
Geller pointed out that Williams had made reference to the anti-apartheid movement when he backed the resolution at the city council.
“The Israel lobby showed its true colors today,” Geller told The Electronic Intifada. “They were willing to torpedo a human rights bill because they grew so scared of Palestinians having human rights.”
Leading up to Thursday’s council meeting, human rights defenders encouraged city leaders to not to cave in.
Amnesty International USA called the resolution “a positive step for the city in guaranteeing that public funds are not used to support or facilitate the suffering of others through violations of not only the city’s values, but also of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
In a letter, 20 local and national organizations commended city leaders for “wielding financial influence to encourage ethical business practices in human rights and the environment.”
Meanwhile, Bill Cassidy, a Republican US senator from Louisiana, used the resolution to drum up campaign contributions, claiming that when it had passed, “anti-Semites around the nation rejoiced.”
“As your senator, I will always stand with Israel and work to protect Jewish-Americans from the harm that BDS causes, this I promise you,” Cassidy assured his donors in a fundraising email.
Alan Clemmons, a Republican member of South Carolina’s state legislature, smeared the BDS campaign as “rooted in Jew hate” and – without irony – encouraged a boycott of New Orleans if the resolution stood.
Clemmons, a self-described Christian Zionist, is so extreme in his views that he has previously attacked even Zionist organizations that oppose BDS for not being pro-Israel enough.
Last year at an Israel lobby gathering he accused a member of J Street, a young man wearing a Jewish skullcap, of belonging to an “anti-Semitic organization.”
“BDS will continue to grow”
Despite the setback, human rights advocates say they won’t compromise their values.
“The Palestine exception demonstrated by the city council today – that Palestinian rights are not considered human rights – illustrates exactly why boycotts, divestment and sanctions to achieve our freedom, justice, and equality are necessary,” said Tabitha Mustafa of the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee.
Geller noted that it wasn’t just the Palestinian community in New Orleans that was thwarted by the repeal, but dozens of social justice groups as well.
“Everyone is angry, and everyone will continue to build together to isolate white supremacy and Israeli apartheid,” he said.
“For New Orleans, BDS is a local issue and it will continue to grow in the face of this temporary setback.”