The Somerville Board of Aldermen recently found itself embroiled in a controversy with implications that extended far beyond city limits to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Somerville Divestment Project (SDP) goal, according to its Web site, is to “pressure [Somerville] to withdraw its money from companies that help Israel commit extensive and ongoing human rights violations,” drafted a resolution to forbid Somerville investments in Israeli bonds and companies that supplied military and defense services to the country.
The City of Somerville, according to the Boston Globe, has $250,000 invested in Israeli bonds, and “1.2 million dollars in U.S. companies that supply weapons to Israel’s military.”
The text of the resolution is unequivocal: “The Board of Aldermen of the City of Somerville urges all investors in the city to divest from companies involved with Israel’s human rights violations and from Israel Bonds.” It proceeds to name several companies, including the construction equipment supplier, Caterpillar, General Electric and the aircraft company Boeing, which the SDP specifically wish excluded from Somerville investment.
Although a preliminary hearing in October was not well publicized, by the time of the board meeting on Nov. 8 several citizens and organizations had learned of the efforts to pass the resolution, sparking intense debates. The meeting aroused “high passions,” according to the Globe, and drew about 300 concerned citizens, according to Mark Horan, media relations officer for Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.
University Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Jeffrey Summit said that both Tufts Hillel and Friends of Israel were opposed to the efforts in Somerville, as they found the approach to be one-sided.
“It puts the total blame on the situation with Israel and the Palestinians on the Israelis, and it has no focus on a mutual way of bringing people together in peace,” Summit said. “To say that a city pension fund should stop all its dealings with Israel is not looking at the crux of this issue.”
Summit attended the hearings in Somerville with a few students involved in Friends of Israel, to join “the voices of people who were speaking.”
After six weeks of discussions, testimony from Curtatone, and a Dec. 7 recommendation from the Legistlative Matters Committee, the Board of Aldermen voted 10 to 1 against the resolution on Dec. 9, which “effectively killed it,” according to Horan.
“Divestment is a thinly veiled attempt to de-legitimize Israel and its right to exist in safe borders,” said a spokeswoman on behalf of the coalition that opposed the resolution. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, many of those involved wished to remain anonymous.
Tom Wallace, the former Media Coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a group which labels itself as a “campaign against the Israeli occupation of Palestine,” disagreed.
“Like many other American cities…Somerville is directly, albeit unwittingly, contributing to the oppression, dispossession, humiliation and overall suffering of the Palestinian people,” Wallace wrote in his article, entitled “Somerville Divestment Failure is Bittersweet.” The article first appeared on Dec. 20, in The Electronic Intifada, an online publication dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The proposal to consider the resolution drew support from several members of the Board of Aldermen, according to Horan. Curtatone, however, immediately said that he voted against it.
“I thought it was completely off base, and more divisive than anything,” he said. “We were being too one sided and narrow on the issue.” Curtatone added that he has “no doubt in his mind that [both sides] want peace,” and that it is an issue for which all parties are concerned, but concludes that neither he nor the Board of Aldermen have the expertise to address the issue.
After the October hearing in which, according to the Globe, 1,170 people signed a petition in favor of the resolution, several Somerville citizens against the resolution turned to organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) for support and aid.
“We worked with people who work to promote peaceful coexistence,” said a spokeswoman from the JCRC. “Our role was to get them connected so that they could most effectively do their job,” she said, adding that the Somerville Board of Aldermen needed to hear that the SDP was “not reflective of their home constituency.”
According to the spokeswoman, the aldermen’s role was supposed to be focused on such local issues as public education, safety, affordable housing, in Somerville - not international relations.
In his article, Wallace contended that the opinion promoted by the JCRC “veiled” the issue and kept it from being thoroughly and honestly discussed.
“As discussion moved away from the reality of the situation and from human rights violations to a discussion of whether ‘Israel is being singled out’ or ‘the issue is too big and too complicated for the board,’ support for the resolution declined,” Wallace wrote.
Wallace called the decision to kill the resolution “very sad and infuriating,” and claimed that the aldermen ignored 1,500 residents.
The spokeswoman from the JCRC disagreed. “I think the aldermen … feel very used. And they were used,” she said, claiming that the SDP and allies forced an issue upon the city government that was out of its sphere of influence.
It is unclear where the issue will go from here, and whether or not groups in favor of divestment will attempt new plans to broach the issue. Curtatone, however, has promised to oppose and veto any action or resolution that encourages or demands divestment.