Divestment Meets its Waterloo in Somerville, Massachusetts – Jon Haber – Engage Journal, Issue 1: January 2006

Jon Haber is a Boston-area writer who created the Somerville Middle East Justice Web site during the Somerville divestment debate. Jon has just started this website that focuses on issues related to the campaign for divestment in the Presbytarian Church.

How did the US city of Somerville, Massachusetts become a decisive battleground in the international anti-Israel divestment wars? How did the most extreme anti-Israel divestment campaign in the U.S., one that included blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric challenging Israel’s very right to exist, almost succeed in a major U.S. municipality?

For readers of Engage, the exploitation of progressive rhetoric to subvert an institution (in this case, a US city) will sound depressingly familiar. Fortunately, the success of fair-minded citizens to turn back anti-Israel divestment, boycott and vilification mirrors Engage’s own success in halting the misuse of positive principles like human rights and academic freedom for misguided, even wicked, political ends.

While Somerville, one of America’s most densely populated cities located next to Cambridge and Boston, has a diverse population, the city has never had a politically organized Jewish, Arab or Muslim community. Yet several factors combined to roil local politics for almost a year as partisan extremists attempted to hijack the city and add the municipality’s name to those “supporting” divestment from the Jewish state.

As supporters of Engage well know, economic divestment and professional ostracization have become popular worldwide weapons among anti-Israel activists since the breakdown of the Oslo Accords. In Europe, formal and informal boycotts of Israeli goods have been widespread, and professors at European universities have been at the forefront of attempts to blacklist Israeli academics from professional associations and programs. In the US, economic divestment (which attempts to bypass US anti-boycott legislation) has become a staple at several colleges and has made inroads within “mainline” Protestant churches such as the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).

Efforts within the state of Massachusetts to extend this tactic to municipalities were boosted by the nature of the anti-Israel activist community in the Boston area. Within greater Boston, a core of 30-40 activists (mostly hailing from the far left) have been at the center of most of the organizations and events (from petition drives to lectures and film series) designed to de-legitimize the Jewish state’s right to exist for the past 25 years. Their work is supported by a rotating cast of university students and recent college graduates, many with ties to political organizations in the US, Europe and the Middle East. As usual, such groups fly their flag under the banner of “Peace” and “Justice,” which gives rise to a question similar to the one that asks why organizations whose name includes “The People,” usually include the smallest number of them.

Because of its proximity to Harvard, MIT and Tufts universities, Somerville has always been a focal point of such groups that have a tendency to form, break up and reconfigure based on the latest events in the Middle East, or the latest tactics, such as divestment.

Ultimately, it was Somerville’s local political culture that gave one such group the opening to attempt to turn the city into the first municipality to openly support divestment from the Jewish state. To begin with, the city is divided between “Old Somerville,” long-time residents with only passing interest in international affairs, and “New Somerville,” younger residents (many recent college grads) who have brought a new level of progressive and internationalist politics into the city. In many ways, this has been a welcome addition to the city’s culture, although as is often the case, these new attitudes ran into trouble when trying to confront the complexities of the Middle East.

The drama began with the city’s aldermen (Somerville’s 11-member legislature), which has a history of making official statements on national and international affairs, notably protesting the Gulf War, the USA Patriot Act and the political situation in Burma. While other city legislatures have avoided taking official stances so far beyond the purview of the locality (with cities like Boston actually banning the practice), the readiness of Somerville city leaders to use their official voice to make statements on international affairs gave divestment advocates the hook they needed to import the Middle East conflict into the city.

Somerville divestment activities were spearheaded by a group called the Somerville Divestment Project (SDP), allegedly a “grassroots” organization of Somerville citizens concerned over investments by the city’s retirement account in Israeli Bonds and in defense contractors and other businesses (such as Caterpillar) doing business in Israel. In reality, the SDP was simply the latest configuration of Boston, Cambridge and other area activists, some of who had been involved with a now-defunct group called the Middle East Justice Network (once headquartered in Somerville), with enough local “recruits” to give the organization the face of a local “movement.”

In 2004, this group tried to get the city’s aldermen to pass a non-binding motion recommending the city’s retirement account managers review and potentially divest from holdings that benefited Israel. Taking advantage of the alderman’s lack of understanding of the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they painted a simple, stark portrait of Israeli villains and Palestinian victims, giving city leaders the impression that there was no more moral ambiguity to this struggle than the one going on in Burma. Because these discussions took place without the knowledge of the city’s citizens, those who understood these issues and could provide a more balanced portrait of the region had no opportunity to present another side of the story.

Accompanying this campaign was a rather masterful draft resolution that portrayed the call to divest city retirement account assets from Israel as a simple case for fairness. Since the conflict was between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and since the city did not make investments in Palestinian bonds or companies, then divestment was a simple matter of “balancing the playing field” between the actors to the conflict. Again, a less partisan commentator reviewing these issues would point out that the conflict in the Middle East could be reasonably interpreted as an Arab-Israeli conflict, meaning the investments the city has made in energy stocks and other equities that in any way benefits Middle East oil states could be construed (by the SDP’s own standards) as “investments” in the Arab side of the equation. Again, however, voices that could present contradictory information were not informed about what was happening in the city’s name and were thus excluded from “dialog” on the subject.

The resolution also included an important clause, generally condemning the killing of any innocent civilians in the conflict. While generic in the extreme (as opposed to other clauses in their resolution which condemned Israeli in highly specific terms), divestment supporters pointed to this clause again and again to demonstrate their own “even-handedness” with regard to concern for suffering on all sides.

This combination of secretiveness and the well-crafted wording of the resolution led to the aldermen throwing support behind the motion and nearly passing it without public debate. Fortunately, two of the city’s eleven aldermen, recognizing the seriousness of what they were doing, sent the motion to a committee for further review meaning (to the great displeasure of divestment advocates) that it would now be open for public hearings that would be publicized to the general community.

It was only at this point, in early November 2004, that citizens of Somerville became aware of the meetings of the SDP and the Somerville aldermen, reading in the local paper that hearings were to be held over a divestment stance that the city had almost taken in our name. While city leaders may have thought they were simply taking a symbolic moral stand on a purely humanitarian issue, they were soon to discover that the storyline they had been fed on the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a far cry from the complex reality of the Middle East, and that their community was being recruited for a world-wide effort to smear the Jewish state via the vehicle of divestment.

The divestment drama played out between early November and early December through a series of three aldermen’s meetings that were open to the public. The first meeting was an open hearing in which members of the public were invited to make short statements supporting or criticizing the motion before the city’s leaders. While divestment supporters would have preferred a situation where their voices were the only ones to be heard, they were ready for this public event with speakers brought in from across the Commonwealth to vilify Israel. For over an hour, speaker after speaker brought home a simple, emotional message: Palestinians were suffering, Israel was solely to blame, the investments by Somerville’s retirement account in securities related to the Jewish state were an “investment” in this evil, and divestment a way of taking a moral position and “evening the playing field.” Continuing to “invest” in Israel was characterized as “racist” and the continuation of such investment meant the city of Somerville would have “blood on its hands.”

Israel’s supporters were also allowed to speak, decrying the resolution as unfair in its singling out of Israel. In addition to short statements by Somerville citizens (Jews and non-Jews), the list of critics of the divestment resolution included Israel’s consular general in Boston, the local US congressman (a former mayor of Somerville), and the city’s current Mayor who indicated that he would veto the measure if it was passed by the legislature. A manager of the city’s retirement fund also spoke, making it clear that no motion from the alderman would influence the retirement fund’s decision-making with regard to investments. Unfortunately, the two synagogues in town (whose members, as is often the case, populated both sides of the debate) chose to remain neutral during the controversy.

While the official positions of the Mayor and retirement board meant that any “Yes” vote by the aldermen would have had only symbolic value, those of us familiar with the goals of divestment understood that a symbolic victory was all the SDP was after. For all divestment supporters ever wanted was to add the city’s reputation to their message, that Israel was a racist, apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment. A “Yes” vote, while “only” symbolic, would have allowed the SDP and other organizations to travel the country and the world, furthering their strategy to turn Israel into this decade’s South Africa, with the city of Somerville “under their belt” as the first municipality joining their crusade against the Jewish state.

Over the course of the next month, citizens on both sides of the conflict became galvanized and began a heavy flow of communication with the city’s aldermen. During the course of November, the aldermen were to receive over 1000 letters, e-mails, petitions, and phone calls by supporters and opponents of divestment. While most of this communication was thoughtful and informative, many harshly worded pro-divestment messages from out of state succeeded only in turning off several aldermen to divestment. The letters to the editor page of the local paper became a battleground for advocates and critics of the motion, as city business all but ground to a halt as Somerville came under worldwide klieg lights for the vote it was about to take.

Because this drama would play out over such a short period of time, opponents of divestment never had time to organize into a unified front. While Jewish organizations like the Boston-area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) kept their members informed of what was going on in Somerville and helped to turn out volunteers at the various aldermen’s meetings, opposition largely consisted of citizens working on their own, individually or in small groups. While the Jewish community would eventually become more organized as subsequent chapters of the Somerville divestment drama played out, it is interesting to note that the initial battle was carried out largely by people working on their own.

On December 7th, the aldermen met in committee to decide if the original SDP divestment motion would go to the full board with a recommendation that it be passed. At that event, divestment supporters outnumbered opponents by more than three to one. By now, however, city leaders’ support for divestment had seriously cracked. If a month of constant communication had not taught them all they needed to know to make a decision on what stance to take on the Middle East conflict, it had shown them that the conflict was far more complex than the simple-minded “good vs. evil” storyline originally sold to them by the SDP. After more than an hour of debate, the committee unanimously voted to send the motion to the full board with a recommendation that it not be acted upon.

By the time the full aldermen’s meeting took place two nights later on December 9th, support for the motion had completely fallen apart. All of the aldermen who had originally voted Yes chose this time to accept the committee’s recommendation that the motion be voted down. After some time spent searching for a compromise, the board decided that this issue was too complex for them to take any action that would imply support for one side or the other and all compromise motions were put “on file” which suspended discussion of divestment within the board indefinitely. Divestment supporters, who this time were matched in numbers by opponents, threw a tantrum in the aldermen’s chambers, storming the podium, and forcing the alderman chairing the meeting (who happened to be the only supporter of divestment among the board) to call in the Somerville police to eject protestors.

While divestment proponents would eventually settle on a storyline that had the aldermen bowing to Jewish political pressure, it was clear that the aldermen had been influenced less by the communication of partisans on either side of the debate, than by constituents with no opinion on the Middle East but who were baffled over why the city would be taking on these complex, international political issues at the expense of their local responsibilities. The alderman’s anger at having originally been sold a “bill of goods” regarding the allegedly black-and-white nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict was also a decisive factor leading to their change of votes.

While pleased with the outcome of the vote, many of us took divestment proponents at their word when they said they would be back. If city officialdom was now closed off to them as an avenue for having their political opinions on the Middle East made the law of the land, the SDP had one more avenue to get their motion passed: a signature-based petition initiative that would put their motion on the city’s 2005 election ballot.

To get a motion onto the ballot in Somerville, a group is required to either get approval by the board of alderman for such a ballot initiative, or else gather the signatures of 10% of the city’s registered voters, or 4200 signatures in support of the motion. With the aldermen now soured on the issue, the SDP had no option but to collect signatures in a door-to-door petition drive.

Because the city had no specific rules regarding non-binding ballot questions, both proponents and opponents of divestment turned to state law for guidance in how to proceed (a legal process that would ultimately prove decisive in the 2005 chapter of the Somerville divestment saga).

Unlike in 2004, the Jewish community had enough time to organize a response early in this process. In the spring of 2005, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) facilitated the creation of a coalition against divestment. This group consisted of Somerville citizens who had been involved in the 2004 divestment debate, as well as local Jewish community and labor groups that understood the significance of divestment getting onto its first municipal ballot in the US.

As divestment foes began to organize, there were also significant changes taking place within the SDP. While the group responsible for the 2004 aldermen’s drive had managed to gather a number of young, local human rights activists under their banner by playing down rhetoric that challenged Israel’s right to exist, in 2005 more virulent members of the SDP wanted their 2005 ballot petition to be cast in much harsher language, excoriating Israeli “apartheid” and “racism,” and removing what little reference their once was to Jewish victims of terrorism. When it became difficult for them to get their way, radicals imported new leaders with far more extremist views that further alienated more moderate members of the group. By the time a new petition was “hitting the streets” in March of 2005, many members who had originally supported the human rights goals of SDP had left the organization. This change in character of the SDP was accompanied by their communication taking on a much grimmer tone. Their Web site, once focused on issues of “even handedness” and “fairness” became a focal point for anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic diatribes by some of the world’s most notorious Jew baiters such as Israel Shamir, Joachim Martillo and (surprisingly, given the SDP’s pose as a “progressive” organization) Pat Buchannan.

As a more factional and extremist SDP began collecting signatures on a new petition that dropped all pretence of even-handedness, the anti-divestment coalition spent most of the summer laying the groundwork for a fall “Decline to Sign” campaign and, if need be, a full political effort if the SDP ended up being successful in getting divestment onto the ballot. As with many such political efforts, leaders had to contend with different actors (local Somerville activists vs. members of Jewish organizations), of differing political persuasions (left to right), with a range of opinions as to what the message of the anti-divestment campaign should be. While some members wanted to stress the virulent, anti-Semitic nature of the pro-divestment forces (whose message was growing more ugly by the day), eventually, the group settled on a straightforward political theme designed to reach out to the maximum number of voters with a message that said divestment was “Bad for Somerville, Bad for Peace.”

While resources were kept in reserve for an election campaign that we all hoped would never happen, anti-divestment activists spent time in the streets of Somerville in September and October, holding signs in public places and distributing leaflets at subway stations and public events. Telephone banking was organized, as were a series of “decline to sign” direct mail pieces.

It was in the legal arena, however, that the drama would reach a resolution. As noted previously, the rules regarding non-binding ballot initiatives were not clear-cut, which gave wide latitude to the city’s Election Commission to decide how such a petition drive should take place. Turning to precedent regarding previous ballot drives, and the signature-gathering requirements used by all candidates for office in the city, the Election Commission told the SDP that it’s petition must first be presented to the city’s aldermen (who, by now, had soured on divestment and would be certain to veto or table another divestment motion). Once the petition was rejected by the aldermen, the SDP would have until 45 days before the election to gather the required 4200 signatures and have them verified by the Board of Election as representing the names of legitimate Somerville voters.

For reasons still unclear, the SDP chose to ignore the advice of the city’s Election Commission and started collecting signatures on it’s own petition in March, months before the same petition was submitted to the aldermen and thus months before they could legally begin their signature gathering. Reflecting the new character of the SDP, the petition consisted of several paragraphs excoriating Israel as “apartheid” and “racist,” with a poorly worded petition question ending the document (the question just asked whether or not the signer supported divestment, not whether he or she was in agreement that a question on divestment should be put onto the ballot). Election commissioners informed the SDP that their petition was not properly worded, that the question needed to clearly indicate what the signer was agreeing to, and that language critical of Israel belonged on campaign literature, not on an official ballot. In order to ensure that signatures were collected on a legal document within the proper timeframe, the election commission presented SDP with a significantly edited petition that simply contained a question asking the signer whether or not divestment should be on the ballot.

Rather than use the official forms, the SDP chose instead to continue using the petition that Somerville officials had already rejected. They submitted 999 forms in early August, 672 of which were determined to contain the names of legitimate Somerville voters. The group then chose to take the city to court to force them to accept names collected outside of the sanctioned time frame and on petition documents the city had already refused.

The SDP argument, brought to Superior Court, was rejected by Judge Julian Houston who agreed that the city had the right to make its own rules provided that those rules were clearly communicated and consistently applied to all. The SDP claimed that the city had thwarted their efforts, while also claiming that they had collected more than enough signatures to get onto the ballot. In the end, they angrily acknowledged defeat, ending divestment efforts in the city of Somerville (at least until the next election cycle in 2007).

The SDP storyline regarding their loss rests on a claim to have collected over 4500 signatures, and thus the city’s action (supported by the courts) represented a “thwarting” of the people’s will. Yet those of us who followed the issue were left scratching our heads as to how a group that had only managed to collect 999 signatures (672 allegedly legitimate) between March and August somehow got more than three times that number of signatures (an additional 3500 names) in just one month, a month that (unlike March through August) anti-divestment campaigners were out on the streets and (at least according to telephone polling) anti-divestment sentiment was outpolling pro-divestment ten to one.

The SDP has a history of inflating its numbers (uncannily, always by a factor of three). In 2004, they claimed a petition signed by 1500 Somerville citizens was the catalyst for their campaign with the aldermen. Yet when that original petition was documented in the press, it turns out to have contained only 540 (unverified) Somerville names. And days after divestment was defeated, SDP hosted an event with the parents of Rachel Corrie, boasting on their Web site that over 100 people attended the event (regardless of the fact that anti-divestment advocates who attended the meeting counted no more than 30 attendees). Based upon SDP antics over the entire year, it seems more than likely that their efforts failed to get even halfway to the required number of signatures, and that all of their tirades against the city was meant to seize a legend of success of martyrdom from the jaws of defeat.

At a closing celebration for anti-divestment supporters, one of the leading anti-divestment activists provided an historic context to the Somerville debate, reminding our group that ten years earlier an organization akin to the SDP (James Zogby’s Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee or AADC) had achieved some success in getting anti-Israel language written into the platforms of Democratic state committees in several U.S. states. It was in Massachusetts that their efforts met a wall of resistance by an organized Jewish community, much as divestment faced its Waterloo in the city of Somerville. This effort broke the critical momentum AADC had achieved and, within a year, language critical of Israel was removed from state party platforms, never to return. Given that efforts to organize divestment at other municipalities have all but ground to a halt between 2004 and 2005, it may turn out that Somerville was a decisive battle in getting divestment off the political agenda, at least in US cities and towns.

A familiar dynamic has emerged with regard to anti-Israel activities, not just in the US but worldwide. A small, single-minded group, willing to cynically misuse the language of human rights, attempts to leverage the reputation of an institution such as a city, university, church or other organization, towards nefarious ends. Whether it’s the AADC trying to gain the support of state Democratic parties, the SDP in Somerville, Sabeel (a radical organization of Arab Christians) appealing to Protestant churches like the Presbyterians, or anti-Israel extremists within an organization (such as the Association of University Teachers in the UK), anti-Israel activists continue to try to “punch above their weight” by dragging schools, churches, cities, unions and other institutions into their camp by any means necessary.

It should also be noted that while organized opposition to divestment was important, the SDP effort largely cracked under the weight of it’s own fanaticism. Once extremists seized the levers of power after the 2004 alderman’s defeat, they succeeded in turning off all but a small circle of supporters with a flood of the most bile-laden language, gross misinformation and bigoted accusations ever seen in Somerville political debate. Sources of information that Sue Blackwell of AUT has banished from her personal Web site under the banner “Nazi Alert” were and still are regularly posted on the SDP Web pages. And despite wrapping themselves in the progressive banners of “peace,” “justice,” and “fairness,” it’s hard not to remember the face of several SDP members chanting at Boston’s 2005 Israel Independence Day celebration: “Palestine from the river to the sea.”

As was demonstrated in Somerville, the time and effort needed to resist these efforts is considerable, yet necessary, for divestment and similar activities represent not just an attack on the Jewish state. They also represent the abuse and manipulation of civic organizations and progressive political principles, especially those who have historically demonstrated sincere concerns over real human rights issues. Extremist groups have no reservations regarding forcing the Middle East conflict onto the agenda of such well-meaning organizations, regardless of the divisiveness and bitterness such a campaign can cause, since, for the SDP and other like-minded organizations, these civic groups are merely props to be used for their own purposes. If perpetual diligence is the price we pay for democracy, diligence against the abuse of the building blocks of our civil society is the price we must pay to ensure that not just Israel, but the cause of human rights, is not perpetually abused by ruthless, cynical political forces willing to do anything in the furtherance of their campaign that Israel must cease to exist.

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