Last November, Village Green reported that members of Hadassah and the Simon Wiesenthal Center had asked the Maplewood Township Committee to consider a resolution in opposition to the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the State of Israel.
However, at the December 5 Maplewood Township Committee meeting, a number of community members asked the governing body to reject such a resolution, and Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich announced that that TC had decided not to take up the resolution.
BDS, according to its website, is “A Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice, and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.”
Stephanie Bonder, immediate past president of Hadassah Northern New Jersey and a teacher at Golda Och Academy, told the Maplewood TC in November that BDS’s “only goal is to isolate Israel.” Bonder said that “no state is perfect,” but that the “BDS movement is hateful and divisive” and ultimately would reduce the chance for peace in the Middle East. Bonder was joined at the November meeting by Gail Black, President of Hadassah Northern New Jersey, and David Blechman of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Conversely, a letter signed by 25 South Orange and Maplewood residents read aloud at the December 5 Maplewood Township Committee meeting, urged the TC not to adopt the resolution. Two local residents — David Letwin and John Gordon — spoke against the resolution at the meeting.
Gordon read the letter which asserted that BDS was “modeled on the movement that brought down apartheid in South Africa” and was not anti-Semitic: “There is nothing in the BDS call for freedom, justice and equality that is anti-Semitic.” The letter stated that the BDS movement rejects all discrimination and racism, and called Israel “a settler colonial and apartheid regime.”
“This resolution is part of a campaign to effectively deny American BDS supporters their constitutionally protected right to boycott,” read Gordon. “At the federal, state, and local level, a coordinated anti-BDS campaign is seeking to prevent Americans from employing their protected right to engage in political speech and action, including criticizing and boycotting foreign governments.”
Lembrich said that the he was “sure that he spoke for everyone on the TC in condemning anti-Semitism” and that he supported the peace process in the Middle East. Lembrich called the Israel/Palestine question “a complicated issue” that “could not be properly litigated on the local level.”
Resident David Letwin said that, despite knowing that the TC would not take up the resolution, he felt it was important to respond to the presentation on November 21. Noting that he is “not only a SOMA resident but a Jewish SOMA resident,” Letwin said he was “distributed that non-residents would come here with the presumptuous arrogance and confidence that they spoke for all Jews in mischaracterizing” BDS and Israel. “I wanted to go on the record as Jewish person that my family is very intimately connected with history of violent anti-Semitism. … wherever there is an issue of people calling out for justice my family has been involved. … For me supporting Palestinian rights, support for BDS and rejecting the narrative that they proposed of this democracy in the Middle East when in fact it is an apartheid regime, I found very offensive as a Jewish person.”
Lembrich noted that the TC has taken positions on issues but that he did not feel confident that there was a clear consensus sentiment among residents on this issue.
In a followup email to Village Green SOMA resident Leila Saad called the efforts by local residents to block that passage of that resolution “a completely homegrown effort, unlike the resolution itself, which was proposed to the Township Committee by non-Maplewood residents.”
Below is the full letter read by John Gordon at the December 5, 2017 Maplewood Township Committee meeting:
We, the undersigned SOMA residents, are writing to express our adamant opposition to a resolution submitted on November 21 to the Maplewood Township Council condemning the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel (BDS) by three non-Maplewood residents.
This resolution is part of a campaign to effectively deny American BDS supporters their constitutionally protected right to boycott. At the federal, state, and local level, a coordinated anti-BDS campaign is seeking to prevent Americans from employing their protected right to engage in political speech and action, including criticizing and boycotting foreign governments.
The resolution, which condemns the non-violent, Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice, and equality for the Palestinian people, also attempts to obscure the crimes and abuses perpetrated by Israel and to mischaracterize and suppress the Palestinian struggle for justice.
Modeled on the principled movement that brought down apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian BDS movement is a rapidly growing international movement made up of unions, academic associations, churches, and grassroots movements across the world. The BDS movement has garnered the respect and support of Black Lives Matter, as well as the United Nations, Amnesty International, and the ACLU, and many other people of conscience. In its commitment to freedom, justice, and equality for all, the BDS movement is part of the shared struggle of people of color against racial and economic injustice.
The Palestinian BDS call urges nonviolent pressure of Israel until it complies with international law by meeting three demands:
- Ending its occupation and colonization of all Palestinian land
- Providing full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel
- Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties
Instead of attempting to refute these demands on principled grounds, the presenters of the resolution attacked BDS for being anti-Semitic. But there is nothing in the BDS call for freedom, justice, and equality that is anti-Semitic. In founder Omar Barghouti’s own words, BDS “consistently and categorically rejects all forms of discrimination and racism, including anti-Semitism.” Growing Jewish support for BDS is evidence of that.
The presenters also attempted to suggest that Israel is a beacon of democracy. In fact, Israel is a settler colonial and apartheid regime. Beginning at its founding in 1948, Israel ethnically cleansed 750,000 indigenous Palestinians, who have never been allowed to return to their homes, although the right of return is guaranteed under international law. This tragic event has devastated the lives of millions of Palestinians, including the Palestinian signatories of this letter. Israel maintains an ongoing violent military occupation of the West Bank and subjects Gaza to repeated brutal bombing campaigns and a barbaric blockade. Meanwhile Israel’s settlements continue to swell, while Palestinians living in Israel are subject to racist laws and segregation policies, making them second class citizens in Israel. A state that gives different rights to different people based purely on their religious identity cannot be described as a democracy.
Finally, the resolution presenters asserted that BDS threatens peace because it promotes a “hateful agenda.” BDS actually offers the best chance for peace because it is based on an agenda of freedom, equality, and justice, derived from international law.
At a time when the right to dissent and protest in this country is increasingly under attack, we call on the Maplewood Township Council to categorically reject the campaign attempting to smear BDS, deny its supporters their constitutional protections, and provide cover for settler colonialism and apartheid.
At a minimum, the township council should make sure a full and open discussion of the resolution and the issues it raises takes place, one that includes voices of Palestinian SOMA residents. As supporters of equal rights for all, we enthusiastically welcome that debate.