The New Orleans City Council meets on Jan. 11. Photo courtesy Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.
At the start of the Jan. 11 New Orleans City Council meeting, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans was honored with “a special proclamation for their tremendous philanthropic work and positive impact on the entire New Orleans community.”
Toward the end of the meeting, six hours later, the council voted on a resolution presented by the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee that the committee refers to as the first step toward the city divesting from Israel, and afterward proclaimed it as a major win for the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement to isolate Israel, though in a Jan. 12 statement, the council members disagreed with that interpretation.
The resolution, presented by Councilmembers Jared Brossett, James Gray, Stacy Head, Jason Williams and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, was described in the agenda as “Encouraging the creation of a process to review direct investments and contracts for inclusion on, or removal from, the City’s list of corporate securities and contracted partners, according to the values of the City as referenced in this Resolution.”
While the resolution does not mention Israel or the Middle East, the pro-Palestinian group explicitly stated their goals during the 10-minute discussion of the resolution, which passed, 5-0.
The resolution, R-18-5, was listed at the end of the published agenda as “under suspension,” but was addressed after a vote to suspend the rules.
The resolution notes that New Orleans was declared a “welcoming city” in 2015 “to create a more inclusive, receptive city environment for all local populations” and the city “commits itself to protect, respect, and fulfill the full range of inherent human rights for all, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and numerous other international human rights instruments.”
It continues by stating New Orleans “has social and ethical obligations to take steps to avoid contracting with or investing in corporations whose practices consistently violate human rights, civil rights or labor rights, or corporations whose practices egregiously contradict efforts to create a prosperous, educated, healthy and equitable society.”
Therefore, the resolution, which is non-binding, said the Council “encourages the creation of a process to review direct investments and contracts for inclusion on, or removal from, the City’s list of corporate securities and contractual partners, according to the values of the City as references in this Resolution.”
While the Federation presentation was the first item on the agenda after the 10 a.m. meeting was underway, supporters of the resolution arrived five hours later for the discussion.
At the council meeting, four NOPSC activists spoke in favor of the resolution. Williams called out a list of others in attendance who were interested in the issue; of the roughly 20 names, all were said to be in support.
There were no speakers against the resolution.
That evening, after being informed of the resolution, Federation leaders spoke with some Council members. In a statement issued later that night, the Federation said “in a patently undemocratic and unfair procedural move, today’s resolution was passed without any public knowledge, six hours into the Council’s session and after the suspension of rules to add this untimely resolution to the agenda, and without the opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard for a broader discussion. These stealth tactics divide communities and do not provide for an equitable forum whereby all voices can be heard.”
Expressing “deep disappointment,” the Federation noted that “Since its creation 105 years ago, the Jewish Federation has always stood for supporting human rights and combating racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and other injustices.”
While the Federation “fully supports the values of human rights expressed in the resolution, we are deeply concerned about its unintended consequences relating to Israel and in bolstering the divisive BDS movement. The BDS movement, which has inherently anti-Semitic components, is designed to challenge Israel’s economic viability and very right to exist.”
The South-Central Region of the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director, Aaron Ahlquist, said the resolution’s adoption was “both a deep disappointment and a one-sided, undemocratic process” because of the lack of public notice or opportunity to promote alternative views.
While the pro-Palestinian group touted the bill among their supporters as targeting Israel and did not mention any other countries in pushing for the bill, Council members stated they did not intend to single out Israel or any other country.
“The Council did not single out any particular companies, countries, nations, issues, conflicts or existing contractors,” said Mayor-elect Cantrell. “The Resolution simply seeks to keep City contracts and investments in line with our commitment to upholding universal human rights.”
“If and when” a group is formed to review investments, “the members will consist of a cross-section of community members and stakeholders, including members of our faith communities,” Cantrell added.
Council President Williams said “My support of this measure was not, and is not, intended to in any way be reflective of either an anti-Israel or pro-BDS sentiment,” and any decisions will be made by a cross-section of New Orleanians. “This resolution is pro womankind and mankind. It is simply humanitarian,” he added.
Gray said the resolution “was an affirmation of our belief in the basic principles of American Society. No more, no less.”
Brossett added that the resolution “simply recognizes our support of human rights, labor rights, and New Orleans being an inclusive city.”
For NOPSC, though, getting New Orleans to divest from Israel has been a primary goal. On its website, there is a petition to that effect, charging Israel with an “official system of segregation and repression,” and stating “New Orleans should no longer be party to contracts, licenses, or investments with the apartheid state of Israel. Consumer goods contributing to the illegal Israeli occupation must also be banned.”
Last January, the group worked with other left-wing groups in New Orleans, under the concept of “intersectionality” or shared struggle, to present a list of demands to the city after President Donald Trump’s immigration order.
On Dec. 12, NOPSC held a protest outside City Hall. Max Geller said after months of inaction by the council, the Palestinian group “has taken the step of writing our own resolution because we were sick and tired of waiting for the city council members to do their job.”
After a press conference, group members distributed their resolution to the council members. The resolution that passed on Jan. 11 was a shorter version of that resolution.
The December protest came just days after Trump declared that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, so numerous speakers decried that decision.
Tabitha Mustafa, a NOPSC organizer, said Jerusalem “has always been the economic, political and cultural home of Palestinian livelihood.”
The resolution was important, she said because of the U.S. military aid that she said Israel uses to “militarize, humiliate and police Palestinians on their indigenous land every day, much the same way and the same companies that communities of color in Louisiana and throughout the country are routinely stopped, humiliated and killed because of the color of their skin and immigration status. New Orleans plays a part in that and funds many of these companies.”
After the December protest, Cantrell expressed interest in meeting with the group.
For a few days before the vote, NOPSC promoted attendance on its Facebook page, urging supporters to “Join us Thursday for this historic city council vote! We need you to come out and speak in favor of our municipal BDS legislation. Companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other human rights abuses have no place in New Orleans.”
On Jan. 11, a reminder was sent that “Today’s historic vote determines whether New Orleans will be the first city in the South to begin the process to DIVEST from Israel.”
In leading the discussion, Williams cited the precedent of when New Orleans stood against apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s with a similar resolution. Comparing Israel’s policies to apartheid is a common tactic of anti-Israel groups to delegitimize the country and draw broader support from human rights advocates.
In her comments on the resolution, Mustafa noted the proximity to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. King “launched the poor people’s campaign, spoke against the war in Vietnam and advocated in support of Palestine,” she said. “We hope that all of you will uphold the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by unanimously passing this resolution.”
King’s stance on Israel was that “Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is uncontestable,” and two weeks before his death in 1968, declared “peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity. I see Israel as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy.”
He also rebuked a hostile student questioner at Harvard by stating “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.”
One speaker in support of the resolution compared the Palestinians to the New Orleans post-Katrina experience of losing homes, in charging that the Caterpillar Company’s equipment has bulldozed “35,000 Palestinian homes.” Caterpillar is often a target of anti-Israel groups that see the company as supporting or enabling Israel’s “occupation.”
Geller also linked the bulldozing of Palestinian homes to post-Katrina displacement. In his remarks, he said there were Palestinian business owners in all five Council districts, and “it is very heartening to include this community in the political process.”
Williams moved for adoption of the resolution, with Brossett seconding, and the resolution passed, 5-0.
The Friends of Sabeel North America, which advocates for boycotts of Israel, congratulated NOPSC, “who are pushing for the city to take part in the global BDS movement. Passing the resolution brought them one step closer to that goal.”
Sabeel stated the resolution “could mean the removal of BDS targets such as Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, both of which operate in New Orleans.”
In a statement to Southern Jewish Life, Councilmember Stacy Head said she was not present for the debate and vote, and had put her name on the resolution because “When I saw it early this week, I naively thought it was yet another example of the Council’s historical pattern of putting forward feel-good resolutions, which have no legal effect. The language that was presented to me was merely that we, as a council, want to encourage inclusivity and for our city to be a welcoming place.”
She took the resolution’s language “at face value without understanding its intent,” and added that her co-sponsorship “should not be taken as a slight to the Jewish Community in New Orleans, which continues to contribute so much to our city.”
In a Federation statement issued during the afternoon of Jan. 12, the group said “In a vacuum, the language of resolution’s support for human rights is beyond laudable, but the context surrounding its passage is concerning… supporters of the resolution are promoting the notion that New Orleans is now the first major southern city to pass a resolution in support of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.”
Louisiana U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy said “This measure is rooted in anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel. This measure stands in solidarity with a Palestinian government that routinely sponsors and encourages terrorism. I hope the council recognizes their error and reverses this misguided decision.”
Louisiana Rep. Conrad Appel tweeted that he was “speechless” at a measure he called “beyond absurd.”
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and a true friend,” Appel said. “So the City Council votes to support those who want to destroy Israel!”
In general, Louisiana has not been fertile territory for anti-Israel groups. In May, the Louisiana Legislature took up an anti-BDS bill, which passed the House 75-8 but was then bottled up in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
In June, both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature took part in resolutions and floor speeches marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967.
Under former Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, who is now a U.S. Senator, the state purchased at least $18 million in Israel Bonds.
The New Orleans Federation has organized numerous exchanges with Israel, in the fields of medicine, music and the culinary world. There have been two major collaborations between emergency medical staff and first responders in New Orleans and Israel in the last four years.
While the resolution did not specify who would oversee the process to disqualify companies, some have suggested the Human Rights Commission would be a logical venue. Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai, is on the commission, as is Caroline Good.
Cohn said the resolution was a “surprise attack,” a “vicious move” that is “shocking and dismaying.” He said the council members “have been duped” and hopes they will move quickly to reconsider the resolution.
The Jan. 11 Council meeting had begun with the Council recognizing the Federation “for their work for the growth, prosperity, equity and improvement of our citizens,” also noting that “2018 makes the 300th anniversary of the establishment of New Orleans and the 70th anniversary of Israel’s statehood.”
Bradley Bain, Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow, Ana Ester Gershanik, Jewish Endowment Fund Executive Director Sandy Levy and Federation Board Chair Henry Miller presented the Federation’s story to the Council and received the proclamation.
The proclamation detailed the Jewish history of New Orleans, dating back to the arrival of Isaac Monsanto in 1757, who was followed by “generations of Jews of diverse backgrounds and persuasions” who “participated creatively and industriously in every facet of our community.”
Today, the “Federation and 11,000 members of the Jewish community in New Orleans continue to contribute to the welfare of our city and to improve the city for the benefit of all of its citizens; and… can be proud to be part of the city that has championed religious freedom for people of all faiths.”
The Federation also brought Dong Phuong Bakery king cakes from Pizza Nola for the councilors and staffers.
The Federation’s second statement on the NOPSC resolution says the agency “immediately undertook an aggressive effort to combat a legal instrument which is harmful to the City of New Orleans and also the Jewish community,” and is in constant contact with city leaders, coordinating with the Jewish Federations of North America and the national ADL office.
Also see: Opinion: Does the New Orleans “BDS vote” have any significance?
(Updated 1/12/18 at 1:36 p.m. with reaction from Councilmember Head, updated 4 p.m. throughout).