Divestment Failure not Bitter, but Sweet
| The residents of the city of Somerville,
Massachusetts woke up to a post-Halloween scare when they read their local
paper in early November. Apparently, on October 28th, eight out of eleven
members of the Board of Aldermen (our local legislative council) voted to
recommend that the city's retirement fund divest itself from Israel bonds and
companies doing business with the State of Israel.
Those of us who know
something about worldwide efforts to boycott the Jewish state were appalled to
discover that this insidious movement had invaded our city, and shocked to find
out that an issue of such magnitude had gotten to this point without the
awareness, much less involvement, of the public.
Fortunately, two of
the city's eleven alderman smelled a rat and used parliamentary procedures to
forward the resolution that had just passed to the board's Legislative Affairs
Committee where it would be studied before taking a final, binding vote, a
process that would give the public crucial time to comment (and organize).
Apparently, the divestment resolution was the work of The Somerville
Divestment Project (www.divestmentproject.org), allegedly a "grassroots" group
of local citizens petitioning their leaders to "stop taking sides" in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict by halting investments that benefit Israel.
Suspicious that our small city had a critical mass of anti-Israel activists, I
quickly discovered that the Divestment Project was simply the latest front for
the same set of activists (very few of which hail from Somerville) responsible
for most of the anti-Israel activities in the Boston area for the last
While Somerville, a densely populated, ethnically
diverse city near Boston and Cambridge, would seem an unlikely place for the
divest-from-Israel movement to make its first major stand at municipal
divestment, our city has some unique characteristics that made it a tempting
· " Our board of aldermen has a track
record for passing resolutions taking stands on national and international
issues, including resolutions condemning the state of Burma, or protesting the
Gulf War and the US Patriot Act
· " The city has been
outspoken in the past on issues related to human rights, and even set up a
local human rights commission
· " Most, if not all, of
the aldermen had little to no knowledge of the Middle East, beyond what they
read in the daily newspapers or saw on TV
This critical combination of
principled outspokenness combined with lack of understanding of the
complexities of the Middle East made our leaders highly vulnerable to a "pitch"
by the Divestment Project spokespeople who had framed the debate just as
skillfully as they had kept their work unknown to the public.
elsewhere in DivestmentWatch, the goal of the divestment movement is to get
institutions to (wittingly or, more frequently, unwittingly) lend their
reputation to anti-Israeli boycott activity in an effort to portray the Jewish
state as a racist, apartheid society alone in the world at deserving economic
punishment. Tactically, however, advancing this agenda requires that such a
goal be hidden behind a cloud of human-rights vocabulary and that the issue
itself be given a local "hook."
As with divestment projects on college
campuses, the "hook" in Somerville's case had to do with the local investment
portfolio, in this case, the holdings of the city's retirement account. In
addition to small holdings of Israel bonds, the city's retirement portfolio
also includes stocks in a number of defense contractors that do business with
Israel as well as in Caterpillar Tractor (a company that has come under attack
by the national arm of the Israel boycott movement because of the Rachel Corrie
By focusing on these investments, the divest-from-Israel group
made the familiar argument that these holdings represent a city or school's
"investment" in the Israeli side of the Israeli Palestinian dispute. And since
Somerville does not invest in Fatah, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, it should not
invest in Israel either. Thus divestment, part of an age-old boycott movement
targeting one state and one state only, was magically transformed into a simple
issue of "fairness."
Anyone familiar with the fact that the
Arab-Israeli conflict involves more than Israelis and Palestinians would bring
up the obvious point that all of Somerville's investments in energy stocks
could similarly be construed as the city's "investment" in the Arab side of the
equation. Yet those familiar with such information were kept in the dark about
the goings-on inside our Board of Aldermen as the Divestment Project presented
tales of relentless Israeli cruelty divorced from any context of a conflict
that has left over a thousand Israelis dead and thousands more injured, widowed
With countless facts that would expose their one-sided
storyline "dumped down the memory hole," the carefully circumscribed
conversation was solely about "human rights" (of Palestinians only) and
"fairness," (towards Palestinians only) which resulted in eight out of eleven
of our representatives voting in favor of the original, highly lopsided
What followed should inspire anyone living in another city
or town (or school, church, business or organization) facing similar
challenges. For with just a month to react, the citizens of Somerville turned
back the divestment petition, turning what once seemed like a sure victory for
the Divestment Project into total defeat.
Interestingly, once the
public got news of the original vote, reaction against the resolution was far
from organized. While state-level activist groups (such as the Jewish Community
Relations Council or JCRC) galvanized for the fight, most of the
anti-divestment side was made up of individuals or small groups working largely
independently. Local citizens communicated and met with their own aldermen, and
representatives of labor unions, churches and citizen groups made their voices
It was during this time that I launched
www.somervilleMEjustice.com, a Web site committed to posting daily articles
that took on the divest-from-Israel movement's arguments one-by-one. The local
Jewish community, as represented by the one synagogue in town, was split on the
issue, with some members leading the charge for divestment, and others
vociferously fighting it.
The first public hearing took place in early
November, with over 200 people attending an ordinarily quiet aldermen's public
meeting. The public was invited to speak on the issue, and by now we had gained
critical allies, notably the city's mayor, Joe Curtatone, who let the assembly
know that he would immediately veto the resolution if it passed in its present,
one-sided form. Several (but, by no means all) state and national
representatives for Somerville also urged the aldermen to vote down the
In addition to the mayor and Israel's consul to Boston, who
spoke at length to condemn the resolution, people representing each side of the
debate were invited to speak for two-minute intervals. The nature of the
comments should ring a bell to those involved in similar conflicts.
anti-divestment side, which spoke first, represented all of the strengths and
weaknesses of Israel-advocacy tactics in the U.S. Each speaker was passionate
in condemning the resolution, and most spoke of the unfairness of singling out
Israel, especially by those who have ignored far worse human rights abuses in
other parts of the world. Many suggested compromise resolutions, and even tried
to ensure that the audience knew their impartiality by condemning the Sharon
and Bush governments before letting us know that divestment, while
understandable, was not "constructive."
Once the pro-divestment side
took the floor, nuanced discussion of the Middle East disappeared, as did calls
for compromise and peacemaking. In their place was speaker after speaker
painting emotional word pictures (supplemented by bloody photos in the
audience) of the pain and suffering of Palestinians under the occupation. The
medical side of that suffering was highlighted, followed by the economic side,
followed by the psychological side. At no point was there ever any doubt who
was solely responsible for this horrific picture.
While part of me was
appalled by a performance that clearly thrilled divest-from-Israel advocates, I
had to admit that the presentation from the other side was as focused,
coordinated and gut wrenching (if highly manipulative) as our side was all over
the map. Speaker after speaker stuck to the script: "human rights," "fairness"
"suffering," "human rights," "fairness," "suffering," without ever stopping to
let our representatives know that there were any victims of violence in the
Middle East who were not Palestinian. In addition to playing backroom politics
quite successfully, the divest-from-Israel movement seemed to have one other
skill: staying on message.
It was during the next month that the issue
played out in the city, with advocates of both sides of the debate writing,
calling and visiting each alderman (who would ultimately receive over 1000
e-mails and letters by the time the debate finished), while carefully counting
"pro" and "anti" divestment letters in each week's local paper to gauge current
levels of support for one side or the other.
It should be noted that by
this time any vote would have only had symbolic significance. The mayor had
already promised a veto, and the retirement board (which is independent from
the city's legislature) had already indicated that it had no interest in acting
on a recommendation from the aldermen (which is all the resolution was), given
that they had already made the decision to avoid social investing beyond that
mandated by the state (which only disallows investment in tobacco companies).
Symbolism, however, was a double-edged sword. The fact that a final
vote would not be binding on anyone led to the fear that our leaders might vote
"Yes" just to have a say on the matter, thinking that their vote would not have
any practical impact. For the Divestment Project, a "symbolic" yes vote would
be a massive victory since all they were ever after was a symbol that they
could take to the rest of the country claiming that Somerville agreed with them
in characterizing Israel as a racist, apartheid state uniquely deserving not
just censure, but economic sanction (even if never enacted).
first came up in the Legislative Affairs Committee, at which less than half the
aldermen were members in attendance. By this point, even those aldermen who had
not fully informed themselves of every element of the Middle East conflict
understood that the simple, symbolic issue of human rights and fairness they
had been sold in October was a lot more complicated and less one-sided than it
had originally been presented. It was during this meeting (in which supporters
of divestment in the audience outnumbered the rest of us 3-1) that the
committee made it clear that the original resolution would not go to the full
board with a positive recommendation and a search for a compromise ensued.
By this time, only one alderperson was still advocating for language
that would focus primarily on condemning Israel (albeit in much milder language
and without a call for divestment). When the committee vote was finally taken,
the resolution and several suggested compromise measures were forwarded to the
full board with a recommendation that the original petition be voted down.
Two days later the final vote was taken at the full board meeting,
attended this time by an equal number of "pro" and "anti" divestment advocates,
with hundreds of signs, stickers and handouts circulating around the room
before the vote in the packed hall. By this time it was clear that the original
resolution was dead and it was indeed voted down by ten out of eleven aldermen
(one alderman had recused himself since he was a current recipient of the
retirement fund being discussed), a complete reversal for eight legislators who
had originally voted "Yes" to the motion in October. .
When the time
came to discuss alternatives, a motion was made to put all compromise
resolutions "on file" where discussion of them would be suspended indefinitely.
While some aldermen objected to ending a month of debate with nothing to show
for it, most agreed that this small city outside of Boston was not the place to
open up a new front in the Arab-Israeli war and the motion to file was
accepted, ending the Divestment Project's hope of getting anything for their
While many of us cheered the alderman's courageous decision to
stand up to the moral bullying that originally framed this debate, we were
drowned out by the original petition's supporters who stormed the podium,
showering the alderman with the same leaflets they had seen a hundred times
while singing the national anthem of the African National Congress (an ironic
choice of hymns, given how many divestment supporters hail from countries that
had secretly supplied Apartheid South Africa with the oil it needed to
Once the battle had been won, the final post-vote
letters-to-the-editor page of the Somerville Journal included a missive from
Ron Francis, the local "beard" for the largely non-Somerville Divestment
Project, who informed us that it was the original 8-2 vote in October that had
real significance and represented a "shot heard round the world" calling for
cities and towns to follow Somerville's lead in condemning the state of Israel.
As I looked over his letter, slack jawed, I wondered aloud: would someone be so
dishonest as to continue brandishing a vote taken when they had almost tricked
Somerville's representatives to support their agenda, yet not make mention of
the fact that all of those votes melted away once aldermen had a better
understanding of the issue? To ask the question is to answer it, and thus my
involvement with DivestmentWatch.
There are a number of important
lessons to be drawn from the Somerville experience, not least of which is the
harm caused to a community when they decide to become embroiled in messy
international affairs about which they have little knowledge or understanding.
Already, our town council is discussing whether to join Boston and other cities
in disallowing any votes on national or international issues that do not
directly affect the municipality. Whether or not this is a good thing in and of
itself, it reflects an understanding that outspokenness about human rights
issues, divorced from knowledge, is a recipe for manipulation by the likes of
Ron Francis and the barely-local Somerville Divestment Project.
important lesson for institutions considering or thinking about considering
similar measures is that divestment is hideously divisive, splitting whole
communities for no productive purpose. For the month of November, citizens who
used to say hello on the streets were divided into rival camps, turning up to
town hall to wave bloody photos at one another, with local synagogues, mosques
and churches becoming divided or mobilized for political purposes. Indeed, it
was this divisiveness (played out in the local paper and in the barrage of
communication to our alderman) that played the largest role in convincing our
leaders to vote "No."
It should also be noted that the divestment
movement lost, even though they had years to prepare and were far more
organized and mobilized than their opposition. Currently, the Divestment
Project is communicating myths that they faced a unified front of local, state,
national and international Jewish power that killed the measure, but as has
already been noted, opposition was quite fragmented. While organizations like
JCRC were able to coordinate communication to bring out a critical mass of
activists to attend the final meeting, there was no central "command"
equivalent to the Divestment Project operation. While there is nothing wrong
with heading into such a conflict with fully mobilized forces, Somerville
demonstrates that individuals acting separately, but towards common purpose, is
also an effective strategy for political action.
successful outcome is also a testament to the common sense of the average
citizen who may not be active, or even fully informed about the Middle East.
During the debate, alderman after alderman talked of being inspired to vote no,
not because of the work of activists on either side, but because the bulk of
the constituents they had talked to were not in a lather about divestment, but
were concerned that the alderman had lost their minds importing the Middle East
conflict into a city that had its own problems to solve. While I and other
activists would like to take credit for the downfall of divestment in
Somerville, I am happier to know that the common sense message that won the day
("Are you guys nuts! Get back to work!") came from the average citizen I pass
in the street every day.
As many schools and communities have
discovered, divestment is poison being peddled by a cynical and manipulative
movement who care more about winning the propaganda war against Israel than
they do about the communities to which they sell their toxic wares. Let the
story of Somerville send a message to every city or town considering similar
measures: You cannot say you were not warned.
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