‘Twas two nights before Yom Kippur, when all through Burlington City Hall, a half-mile from Lake Champlain’s eastern shore, many a creature of sorts was stirring…stirring up unrest for Jewish Vermonters 5,400 miles from the land that inspired a City Council resolution urging “justice and (a) peaceful end to (the) Palestine and Israel conflict.”
As any reasonable person can predict, Monday’s City Council session only intensified passions as Jews and pro-Arab advocates squared off over the measure to support that getting-ever-old Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and ending military aid to Israel. The confrontation was crammed with the usual pro-Palestinian distortions and provocations, some of which will be parsed below.
“This resolution is not going to improve the situation in Israel. It can only bring pain,” said City Councilor Joan Shannon, understating the case as Council voted 6-5 to withdraw the resolution and return it to a committee for possible modification. Shannon and the four other councilors who voted against withdrawal sought an up-or-down vote to do to the resolution what Arabs have vainly tried to do to Israel for the last 73 years, eliminating the measure once and for all.
The Jewish population of Vermont, at 7,100, is the least populous in New England, but the Jewish presence there is outsized for any small community. This new conflagration follows the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company’s decision to withhold ice cream from West Bank settlements. Jewish residents of Burlington (pop. 40,000) and vicinity include the state’s junior senator, a former governor, the Jewish spouse of a former governor and folk singer Peter Yarrow. The little-known (until Monday) mayor is Jewish.
The photos that glared up from multiple Vermont news websites displayed scenes of chaos and antagonism between Jews and pro-Palestinian activists. Her mouth agape, Libyan native Asma Elhuni held aloft a Palestinian flag in the middle of the council floor, and former city councilor Rachel Siegel held a sign proclaiming “Jews for Palestinian Human Rights.” Siegel appeared to be part of a tiny minority, possibly a minority of one.
On its website, the weekly newspaper Seven Days reported, “Singing by Jewish members of the audience overlapped with the pro-Palestinian contingent’s chants of ‘free, free Palestine!’ When the slogan shifted to ‘Equal rights are human rights,’ pro-Israel attendees responded, ‘Then tell Hamas!,’ referring to the extremist Islamic group that maintains control of the Gaza Strip.”
The lead-up to Monday’s confrontation was in itself contemptuous of Burlington’s Jewish community. Councilor Ali Dieng slated a council meeting in the middle of Judaism’s holiest week to introduce the measure, but he announced Monday afternoon that he would withdraw it in the wake of excessive pressure from the Jewish community.
According to the website VTDigger, Jewish Communities of Vermont on Sunday called upon its members to voice their concerns to city councilors, stating in an email, “With all the issues facing the city today, that the Council will use its precious resources to debate an extremely complex, contentious, divisive issue of international politics is a tip-off to its real intent: to bring harm to Israel and the Jewish community through opposition to the one and only Jewish state, Israel.”
In announcing his reversal, Dieng said, “There is so much suffering around the world. What we can control is our city. What we can control is our state. What we can control is to bring our people together, regardless of their race, their gender, religion.”
If that is his conclusion, why didn’t Dieng think of it beforehand? Anyone who follows the BDS conflict on a cursory basis is aware that the issue has ignited hostility for going on two decades. Is this how he intends “to bring our people together?”
And how does it promote peace when he is about to call such a resolution for a vote during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
VTDigger reported that Councilor Joe Magee changed his mind about backing the resolution after considering Jewish concerns, saying, “I think it’s important for us to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. But I think it’s also important for us to recognize the rising anti-Semitism in our country.”
How can they do both? Expressing “solidarity” with the Palestinians means taking sides in the conflict when most supporters of Israel believe we should be expressing “solidarity” with Israel. How do they reconcile that with “the rising anti-Semitism in our country”?
Meanwhile, Councilor Zorava Hightower condemned Israel’s human rights violations while recognizing Jews who fear anti-Semitic acts, and Councilor Jack Hanson said everyone at the meeting wants “to work towards justice, peace, towards self-determination for all, and wanting to stand against oppression,” according to Seven Days.
What human rights violations is Hightower talking about? What “oppression” is Hanson referring to?
Israel is vulnerable to considerable criticism and questioning, but the Palestinians are far worse. Neither Hanson nor Hightower mentions that Israel proposed creation of an independent state for the Palestinians 21 years ago, which was rejected, or that the Arabs initiated a half-dozen military confrontations since then.
In the VTDigger piece, Ashley Smith, a member of Community Voice for Immigrant Rights, accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” by driving Palestinians from their land and to refugee camps. “It is time for Burlington to take a stand with Mandela against racism, occupation, colonialism, endless warfare and an apartheid state. It’s time for justice,” she said.
What is her evidence of such? How would this amount to ethnic cleansing? How does Israel compare to South Africa’s former system of apartheid, which Nelson Mandela fought before becoming president of South Africa?
“If you supported the Black civil-rights era, you support the strategy of boycotting,” said Asma Elhuni, who is listed as the New Hampshire movement politics director for Rights & Democracy, a political advocacy group.
Yet another comparison to black Americans. Many Palestinians, though probably not all, are dedicated to driving Israel’s Jews into the sea. My experience with African-Americans has been that they seek equal justice and opportunity, not to drive white citizens like myself into the Atlantic Ocean.
Can we blame Jewish Vermonters if they now fear being driven into Lake Champlain?