Middle East Conflict: How a seemingly-innocuous resolution thrust New Orleans into an international tumult

As proponents of R-18-5 press posters against the window, Arnie Fielkow addresses the New Orleans City Council during the Jan. 25 meeting.

On the face of it, Resolution R-18-5 was just another feel-good resolution that City Councils like New Orleans’ pass every so often.

The resolution, presented by Councilmembers Jared Brossett, James Gray, Stacy Head, Jason Williams and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, was described in the Jan. 11 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.”

After the 5-0 vote to adopt the resolution, though, the Council quickly became embroiled in an international battle that it did not anticipate, as the resolution was characterized by its backers as being a major victory for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement.

After a contentious two weeks, culminating in a heated discussion at the Jan. 25 Council meeting, there was a unanimous vote to withdraw the resolution, with the resolution’s proponents making heated charges about the Council and the Jewish community, and denying their previously-stated intent to target Israel with the resolution.

The resolution, which does not explicitly mention Israel or the Middle East, 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.”

Where did it come from?

The resolution was listed at the end of the published agenda for Jan. 11 as “under suspension,” but was addressed after a vote to suspend the rules, toward the end of a six-hour Council meeting.

Ironically, the Council meeting had started with a presentation by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which was then honored by the Council with “a special proclamation for their tremendous philanthropic work and positive impact on the entire New Orleans community.”

The resolution’s history goes back to January 2017, when the New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee worked with other social action 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, and Cantrell expressed interest in working with the group. The resolution that passed on Jan. 11 was a shorter version of the December 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.”

For NOPSC, 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.”

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.”

At the meeting, four speakers from NOPSC spoke in favor of the resolution. Mustafa noted the proximity to Martin Luther King Day, and asserted that King was a supporter of the Palestinians, and this resolution upholds his legacy.

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.

On their Facebook page immediately after the vote, NOPSC touted “We Won!” The vote was immediately touted on social media in the Arab world and among the extreme anti-Israel websites like Mondoweiss as a breakthrough victory for BDS, with New Orleans becoming the first Southern city and one of the largest cities to support BDS.

The Jewish community, meanwhile, had no idea the resolution was being discussed, let alone passed, when this publication called around asking for comment that afternoon.

The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans immediately contacted Council members, and late that night issued a statement , with the Anti-Defamation League, decrying the way this measure was taken up suddenly, outside the usual rules, guaranteeing NOPSC the entire floor in discussing the resolution. “These stealth tactics divide communities and do not provide for an equitable forum whereby all voices can be heard.”

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.”

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, over the next few days 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 Cantrell. “The Resolution simply seeks to keep City contracts and investments in line with our commitment to upholding universal human rights.”

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.”

As Council members backed away from the notion that the resolution targeted Israel, so too did NOPSC — to a degree. The group began to emphasize the previously-unmentioned coalition of 20 groups and pointed to the broad wording of the resolution, not singling out any country. Instead, they charged the Jewish community organizations with bringing Israel into the discussion, claiming it’s because Israel’s supporters know Israel is guilty of abuses and want to carve out an exception for Israel in the resolution.

Since the push for passage focused on Israel, the NOPSC was asked by Southern Jewish Life which country was second on their list. Their response was to disagree with the characterization that Israel was the primary target.

The ADL and Federation pushed for a withdrawal of the resolution, and with more unwanted international attention on New Orleans, Council members started to agree.

Williams said the “resulting flurry of debate and controversy has played out locally, national and internationally,” and the voice of this council has been represented as saying far more than was ever said in the four corners of the document” by linking it with the BDS movement.

Political theater

As the next Council meeting, scheduled for Jan. 25, drew near, it became more apparent that the Council would be revisiting the resolution.

Numerous activist groups in New Orleans and around the world issued statements supporting NOPSC and the resolution, and NOPSC put out a call for allied groups to attend the Jan. 25 meeting.

The meeting was in the Orleans Parish School Board office, as the Council chamber at City Hall, a much larger venue, is being renovated. In an odd coincidence, the School Board office is in a section of New Orleans known as the West Bank.

While there were many members of the Jewish community there to speak against the resolution, proponents of the resolution filled the rest of the seats and crowded the hallway outside the room. Four speakers from the local Jewish community opposed the resolution, while speakers in favor of the resolution took aim at the local Jewish community, claiming the community wants to deny Palestinians basic human rights, and framed it as a battle between justice and bowing to campaign contributors, an antisemitic stereotype.

Mustafa said those in the hallway were people of color, from the LGBTQ community, immigrants, Palestinians, Muslims, “those who stand for justice are all outside, and there are a few of us who made it into this room.”

She painted opponents of the resolution as opposing human rights, especially when it comes to Palestinians, and that the Jewish community was willing to sacrifice a blanket human rights resolution because of a “scorched earth” policy to deny rights to Palestinians.

Mustafa said, “It is completely unfair and ridiculous to think that a group of all-white Jews can say that every person out there, every person of color, every person from a marginalized community, doesn’t matter. That is worth rescinding an entire human rights resolution in the name of everyone, in order to exceptionalize and protect a few people.”

Despite her characterization of the resolution’s universality, BDS was still the star of the show. When Cantrell noted that the resolution had been interpreted by outsiders as a statement that New Orleans was now one of the largest cities to support BDS, there was a massive cheer from the resolution’s proponents in the room. Cantrell continued by stating that characterization was an “undesired and damaging falsehood” and that “this is totally inaccurate, untruthful and does not reflect the values of New Orleans.”

Williams stated that each side would be given 15 minutes to comment, with those opposing the resolution going first because they had not been given an opportunity to speak on Jan. 11. Proponents of the resolution were then given the final 15 minutes. As some proponents interrupted and protested that they had many more people to speak in favor, Williams said “we’re not going to solve the Middle East crisis in the city of New Orleans today… but I want to make sure we have equitable time on both sides.”

As Williams and Cantrell spoke, activists in the hall chanted “Let Us Speak.” They continued to chant “our voice matters” and “human rights for all” louder as representatives of the Jewish community spoke in opposition to the resolution, then were silent during the proponents’ remarks.

Aaron Ahlquist, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, spoke first, followed by Temple Sinai Rabbi Emeritus Ed Cohn, National Council of Jewish Women President Barbara Kaplinsky and Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans Chief Executive Office Arnie Fielkow, himself a past president of the City Council.

Each spoke of their groups’ history of advocating for groups throughout the community, including speaking out against the anti-Muslim travel ban, for immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights and the removal of Confederate monuments. Ahlquist said the ADL “unequivocally supports civil and human rights” but “this resolution is not the way to do this.”

Cohn said the resolution was “cleverly masqueraded as a high-minded civic statement” that “sounded so good.” It took no time, however, to see the deception, he said, in the form of “the joyous and triumphant proclamation touting the historic first by the BDS movement in a U.S. Southern city,” a comment that also drew cheers from the resolution proponents.

Cohn, a founding member of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission, noted the presence of Jewish Voice for Peace members who were dressed in identical green T-shirts that read “Jews for Human Rights: No Exceptions.” Cohn said there used to be a whole lot more Jews who were anti-Zionist like them, “but after 1933 and 1945, there were many fewer,” an observation that drew howls of protest from JVP.

Fielkow said he has “great respect” for the groups behind the resolution. “On another day, and another topic, the Jewish community would be standing shoulder to shoulder with them as we have historically stood up for human and civil rights, equity, diversity and the core tenet of Jewish values, tikun olam, repairing the world.”

On the topic of BDS, “we must respectfully disagree with the resolution’s proponents,” Fielkow said. “It does not in any way advance what I hope is the common goal of everyone in this building… a peaceful resolution of a historic and complicated conflict so that all parties on both sides can live with peace, security and prosperity.”

“Being labeled a BDS city is not beneficial to New Orleans in any way,” he noted.

In concluding his remarks, he addressed everyone, including the resolution proponents, with “may all of us be strong and courageous enough to sit together and have dialogue on difficult topics” like the council does every two weeks.

As Fielkow spoke, those in the hall started to press handwritten posters against the glass above him, above where the glass was frosted. The posters had individual responses to the phrase “I support human rights because…”

There were also two Jewish speakers in favor of the resolution (see sidebar).

In her remarks, Mustafa asked “who opposes human rights? Terrorists. White supremacists. The president. But it also seems that the Jewish Federation, the ADL, the mayor of New Orleans and now suddenly the city council have taken the side of opposing human rights.”

She said that even though Israel is not mentioned in the resolution, the Federation, ADL, Jewish Community Relations Council, Sen. Bill Cassidy and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, “the very same mayor that brought down the Confederation monuments,” and the Council, all oppose the resolution, asking when all of them have been on the same page. “Never,” she asserted.

Trying to figure it out, “It wasn’t shocking for me to find out that ironically the very same donors who contributed to the campaigns of Cassidy, Landrieu and multiple city council members are also opponents of the human rights resolution,” she said.

She added the only explanations for opposing the resolution are Islamophobia, since “the Palestinians are one of the groups that helped pass it,” and complicity, that the opponents “know that Israel has human rights violations.”

Mustafa asked “Is the Zionist lobby willing to continue to destroy and defame reputable social justice movements by using the scorched-earth policy in order to deem anything that is a critique as anti-Semitism, and not hear out valuable concerns of the oppressed?

“It is never the job of the oppressor to tell the oppressed how to defend our rights,” she said.

In a comment that stunned many in the community, Mustafa also charged, “Let’s think of the role that the ADL played in having Muslims and African-Americans here in the U.S. murdered during the apartheid South Africa era. Is that who you want to stand with?”

After the time for public remarks, Williams said he has been proud to stand with NOPSC against Trump’s travel ban, and “I have disagreed with NOPSC on other issues… sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree.”

He said being an ally “is not ownership. It does not mean you own my voice on every vote.”

Williams continued, “We all need to realize there’s a difference between a friend you’re in disagreement with and a mortal enemy. There are not two sides to this issue. There are a number of sides.”

Williams said “the passage of that resolution was flawed” both by being done under suspension and by being erroneously portrayed.

“I’m certain folks on both sides agree with the black and white words in that resolution,” he said, but “how we are reflected nationally and internationally is up to the members of the city council. No one else is going to interpret a resolution that comes from this body.”

With that, he moved to withdraw the resolution, and the withdrawal passed without opposition.

The resolution’s proponents then broke into song in the chamber, staying in the room for another 20 minutes, causing the council to go into recess. After the room was cleared and the meeting continued, the song continued in the building’s lobby.

At the end of the Jan. 25 debate, Williams expressed hope that there would be dialogue between those in favor of the resolution and those opposed.

Is there a possibility?

In a statement later that day, the Federation and ADL thanked the City Council for the reconsideration. “By withdrawing the resolution, it allows the opportunity for a clean slate to begin to engage in meaningful, transparent and inclusive dialogue on how this community advances issues of civil rights and human rights, and how we collectively build a better New Orleans reflective of our commitment to these values. The Federation, ADL, and the Jewish Community Relations Council stand-by as willing partners and participants in this discussion.” The statement continued, “The withdrawal of the resolution in no way reflects a lack of commitment to human rights, from either Federation, ADL or the City Council. Rather, this important conversation can now happen in the light, with transparency and inclusivity.”

Conversely, on Jan. 27, the NOPSC said the reversal “was a loss for the entire City of New Orleans” and said ADL and Federation opposition was “because the resolution might include Palestinian rights.”

The group also said “By and large, the Council only took meetings with pro-Israel Jewish groups, excluded the voices of Jews for human rights, and refused to take meetings with the Palestinian community or our allies,” calling it “blatant bias” that “proves that when it comes to human rights, Palestinians are viewed as an exception.”

The statement also noted that Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Republican State Senator Conrad Appel, who both condemned the resolution, “have received thousands of dollars from the law firm Jones Walker LLC and the company Acadian Ambulance, both of whom were also underwriters for JFGNO,” echoing Mustafa’s claim before the Council.

To NOPSC, the whole episode demonstrated that “some groups are willing to discard the rights of everyone in order to exceptionalize a select few. Those who unconditionally support Israel have been exposed for its racism and disregard for human life.”

The Federation statement said “Federation and the ADL are opposed to BDS, and believe that it does not advance the discussion towards meaningful resolution and peace between Israelis and Palestinians, or a workable two state solution,” and it’s not an issue for the New Orleans City Council to decide.

Nevertheless, “ADL and Federation have each demonstrated their commitment to social justice and civil rights… we remain committed to advancing an open dialogue to build understanding, and creating meaningful change to improve the lives of all.”