Divestment at:
  Illegal Activity
Breaking Myths
Online Forum
News Archive
About Us
Contact Us
Somerville 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 twenty-five years.

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 target, notably:

· " 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.

As noted 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 affair).

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 or orphaned.

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 resolution.

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 heard.

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 measure.

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.

The 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).

The vote 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 efforts.

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 survive).

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.

Another 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.

Finally, the 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.
Click Here for Somerville Resources
© 2005 Divestment Watch
Article © 2005 Jon Haber