Somerville Divestment Failure is Bittersweet

It is not difficult to find the silver lining in the very sad and infuriating conclusion (temporary) to the issue of divestment in Somerville, MA. After a long process and sometimes rancorous debate, the aldermen caved to pressure from powerful Jewish groups who blindly support Israel; as one woman said to me “no matter what, no matter what, “no matter what” with her eyes closed and shaking her head poetically.

That the Somerville Divestment Project got as far as it did towards passing a divestment resolution is nothing less than spectacular. They were extremely successful in raising public awareness of Israeli oppression and human rights violations as well as the plight of the Palestinian people, and most importantly, Somerville’s role in that plight.

Like many other American cities, towns, states and labor unions, Somerville is directly, albeit unwittingly, contributing to the oppression, dispossession, humiliation, and overall suffering of the Palestinian people. Many did not know this and when they found out, they could not understand why. But now that they do know, the issue will not go away. Somerville residents are claiming the right to determine how their money is spent and invested. And they have vowed to continue to claim that right. As the discussion continues so will the free flow of information. This is not a good trend for oppression and ethnic cleansing. It’s much easier to continue when no one knows about it.

On the night of December 9th the Aldermen ignored 1,500 residents who had signed a petition calling on the City to encourage divestment from Israel bonds. They also ignored overwhelming numbers of supporters, a large number of whom were Jewish, who came out for every meeting. They clearly did not set out to do this, so what happened? What changed and why?

Initial discussions painted a picture for the Aldermen of the reality on the ground in Israel and Palestine, as well as Somerville’s relationship to that reality. When discussion was based on fact, issues and truth, the aldermen were divided into two groups; eight supported divestment and 2 opposed it, with 1 abstention. 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. Once again the discussion was moved from substance to veiled accusations of anti-Semitism. However, the fact that the accusations have to be veiled indicates that the armor of the accusation is wearing out.

What Happened

The resolution was introduced and cosponsored by eight aldermen. The Aldermen’s original statements supporting the resolution were based on human rights, international law and requests from Somerville residents. There was one Alderman who made a statement in opposition to the process. Alderman White thought it should be sent to committee. He made it clear that he would not block the vote but that the other side should be heard from in the form of Israel’s Consul General. One of the many ironies throughout this process is that in killing the resolution, many of the Alde rmen said that the City of Somerville and the board of aldermen have no business in foreign affairs. Yet it was those most opposed to the resolution who sought the Israeli Consul General. What business does a foreign Consul General have determining what Somerville residents do with their money?

At the second hearing, the aldermen were treated to a display of power by the opposition, including the Israeli Consul General, the Mayor of Somerville, a State Senator, and labor representatives. The opposition argued that Israel was being singled out and that therefore the resolution was anti-Israel. They argued that Israel is a democracy and is our friend. They also argued that the issue was too big for the Aldermen to take up, that they should not be involved in foreign affairs. They did not argue wit h the claims of human rights violations; rather than addressing the core issue—whether or not the city of Somerville should be invested in foreign governments guilty of human rights violations—the opposition reframed the debate with a new set of language: namely, “anti-Israel” and “singled out.”

Supporters then spoke passionately about witnessing and experiencing the occupation of Palestine. They talked about human rights, international law, and about how Israel continually violates 29 of 30 articles from the International Declaration of Human Rights. They pointed out the important fact that Israel is the only country in which Somerville is directly invested by owning Israel Bonds. So contrary to being singled out for some sort of punishment, Israel had been granted a special status with favored treatment. Also, if the Aldermen believed that Somerville should not be involved in foreign affairs then they should divest. As things stand, Somerville is taking Israel’s side.

At the same time, people were making calls, sending letters, emails, books and all kinds of information to the aldermen, The Somerville Divestment Project continued organizing and were endorsed by the Green Rainbow Party of Massachusetts. They held a fundraiser, continued to hand out flyers and collect signatures for the petition. The JCRC was also organizing with the help of the ADL, AIPAC, Harvard Hillel, the Isreali Consulate and Jewish and Israeli media.

By the third meeting, which was the committee meeting, one of the original supporters had already caved into the pressure of the opposition using the new language: “the issue is divisive and too big for the Aldermen.” The aldermen on the legislative committee voted 3 to 0 (with 1 aldermen absent and 1 aldermen excused herself out of disgust) to recommend against divestment to boos and cheers of the audience who turned out roughly 4 or 5 to 1 in favor of divestment.

At the final meeting, the full board of aldermen would vote to accept the recommendation or reject it. By accepting the report of the committee, they would be accepting their recommendation and the resolution would be dead. They would then be able consider the alternative resolutions submitted by aldermen and which were on the agenda. They voted to accept the report, thus killing the resolution.

They allowed the opposition to successfully reframe the debate with gross inaccuracies—the divestment resolution would have restored balance and even-handedness to the City’s role in the Middle East, but instead, by not passing the resolution, the Aldermen have chosen to endorse investments in human rights violations.

As soon as they did Ron Francis and Christina Bolton stepped up to the podium and began singing the Anthem of the African National Congress. Simultaneously, other supporters began placing a statement from Desmond Tutu and poet Mahmoud Darwish in front of the Aldermen. Though dramatic and cathartic, it may not have been effective. Denise Provost, the one supporter from the committee and President of the Board was chairing the meeting and standing at the microphone screaming that “you have been offered every courtesy by this board”, “officers please remove…”. Several police officers carefully escorted Ron and Christine out of the hall while roughly 30 others walked out with them. From the hall they spontaneously began chanting “Free Free Palestine”.

Ms. Provost herself was about to be undermined and humiliated by one of the detractors, Alderman Bill Roche. He motioned that discussion of all alternative resolutions be filed. One after the other of the aldermen agreed with him using the newly adopted language of “Israel being singled out” and “this is too divisive and too big an issue for the aldermen”

With that, the power brokers in the Jewish community had their victory. But it was as bittersweet as SDP’s loss. The city of Somerville is still divided and far more knowledgeable. Until now the only force to be reckoned with was the pro Israel Jewish lobby, which obviously represents only one Jewish voice. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the media coverage which completely (and I think deliberately) ignored the Jewish voice supporting this resolution.

Several factors converged to facilitate the defeat of the Somerville Divestment Resolution not the least of which was media combined with the fill weight of the Jewish establishment. But it is important first to note what worked.

The success of the campaign was rooted in its effective grassroots organizing model. It took several years to build, but the time was invested and it paid off. SDP canvassed door to door, they organized film nights, education events, and they met with most of the aldermen individually in residents’ homes to educate them prior to introducing the resolution . They tabled in the town center and spoke to anyone who would listen while collecting signatures for the petition. As a result, there is growing grassroots support for justice in Israel Palestine, at least in Somerville, Mass. And because of that success, it can and will be repeated elsewhere.

The Role of Media

Events in Somerville were covered by the Somerville Journal, the Boston Globe, the Jerusalem Post, most of the Jewish newspapers and websites, the Electronic Intifada and Israeli television. The most influential was the Boston Globe.

With the exception of the Somerville Journal and EI, all news media covered the issue from the same pro Israeli angle. The effect was to create enormous support for the pro Israel lobby. However, the Jewish Advocate, which is not supposed to be objective, at least ran several pro-divestment letters written by prominent members of the Jewish Community. By contrast, Electronic Intifada was the only media supportive of Palestinians to cover Somerville. Neither The Palestine Monitor, the Palestine Chronicle or Al Jazeera ever responded. One reporter from Al Jazeera tried to help me get coverage but both of us failed.

The Boston Globe played its part by presenting one side of the issue. Its reporter, Benjamin Gedan included and excluded facts that I think was a deliberate attempt to influence opinion and paint those in favor of divestment with an unstated smear of anti semitism. One example is to emphasize the notion that Israel was being “singled out.” As the aldermen caved, this became their mantra, in addition to the fact that it was an issue of foreign policy and out of their jurisdiction. In three long articles, Mr. Gedan never mentioned that Israel was the only country that Somerville is invested in. He mentioned the accusation of Israel being “singled out” in every one.

He also framed the issue as one of Jewish groups versus pro Palestinian groups. He deliberately left out the Jewish groups and the large Jewish presence in favor of divestment. He couldn’t have missed them. They held large signs that read “another Jew for divestment”. In addition, many including an Israeli attorney Shamai Liebowitz and Larry Miller former President of the congregation B’nai B’rith, testified at the public hearing. . Mentioning Jewish supporters would have taken the sting out of the insinuation of anti-Semitism. At one point Gedan actually provided a quote from each Jewish group represented and opposed to the resolution: ADL, AIPAC, JCRC. Even Alan Dershowitz got a mention because he donated his book to the Aldermen.

The net effect of these two failings is that anyone who read the Globe articles would conclude that the issue of human rights, whatever the truth, is irrelevant because the motive of the divestment campaign was to single out Israel and was therefore rooted in anti-Semitism. The Globe ombudsman was made aware of this following the first article when it was apparent that is was a one sided report and the Globe sent Gedan back twice more.

The ultimate irony was a statement by Alderman White at the final vote where he had introduced one of the alternative resolutions (that would not be heard). He acknowledged that the Palestinian people were the most oppressed people on earth. At the same time, his resolution was written by the opposition. He truly believed that any criticism of Israel was and is anti-Semitic. In fact he seemed to believe that any criticism of anything with a Jewish name is anti Semitic. I don’t know who he thinks is oppressing the Palestinians. I also don’t know how to address such insanity other than to just expose it. I do know that we must find a way.

Related Links

  • Sell-by date of war crimes about to expire in Somerville, MA? Tom Wallace (16 November 2004)
  • BY TOPIC: Divestment and Boycott
  • BY TOPIC: The New Anti-Semitism

    Tom Wallace is the former Media Coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement, and the Executive Director of MidEast Focus, a communications awareness project. Contributions can be made to Somerville Divestment Project, PO Box 441259, Somerville, MA 02144, USA, or visit our website at www.divestmentproject.org and click the ‘Contributions’ button.