(September 14, 2021 / JNS) After more than two hours of public comments, the Burlington City Council meeting in Vermont ended on Monday night with a vote to withdraw a resolution that would have made it the first city in the United States to support the BDS movement and efforts to boycott Israel.
“Last night’s vote was an incredible win for those opposed to BDS,” said Yoram Samets, chair of the anti-Semitism task group of the Jewish Communities of Vermont. “We found out about this resolution two weeks ago. When we jumped into this challenge, we knew that seven city council members supported the resolution, and we were uncertain where the mayor would stand.”
“The past two weeks,” he added, “have created a fear that many Jews have never experienced.”
On withdrawing the resolution from the agenda, council member Ali Dieng, who sponsored it, said it went through a process that included approval from the city’s Racial, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee and was supported by at least 27 local organizations.
But on Monday, he said he welcomed more discussion, and after hearing the feedback and opposition, the resolution was “not yet ready” for passage.
The resolution said, in part, that Burlington “expresses solidarity with the Palestinian people … and endorses the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.”
It also blames the violence between Israel and the Hamas terror organization that runs the Gaza Strip—and with its proxies launched more than 4,000 rockets at civilian population centers in the Jewish state in May—squarely on Israel’s shoulders.
According to council member Karen Paul, the city received 2,000 emails from throughout Vermont and across the country, and only 10 or 11 of those were “supportive” of the resolution. “The rest were opposed overwhelmingly,” she said, “more so than any other resolution I have ever seen. … BDS is not about finding common ground, it just isn’t. That’s why [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden, [former] President [Barack] Obama, 50 governors and our own delegation are opposed to this.”
However, she was among those voting against withdrawing the resolution because that means it can be reintroduced in the near future, putting the city right back in the “firestorm of controversy. … As hard as it is, I’d rather we have the debate tonight and just vote, and just hope we would be able to move on from there.”
Council member William “Chip” Mason, who also opposed withdrawing the measure, acknowledged that when he walked into the building “I was legitimately concerned that violence would erupt. … I was scared for people in this room. … I want to acknowledge the very real fear. I looked out in the room—people were crying; people were shaking their heads make this stop.”
On this issue, ‘we are all one’
The vote to withdraw the resolution came hours after Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger expressed his opposition to the measure, which Jewish groups claimed was anti-Israel and would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism.
Even before the meeting began, as people filled up the chambers and the balcony overlooking the room, shouts of “Free, free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” rang out from the audience as people held up Palestinian flags and posters.
Opponents held their own placards opposing the resolution, some of which read, “BDS delegitimizes Israel,” “Burlington, we are better than this. Vote NO,” and “BDS = hate.”
One after another, people came to the microphone to speak for two minutes about their concerns and feelings. Opponents of the measure, including many Jews in Vermont, said the resolution was one-sided and demonized Israel, and would endanger the Jewish community there.
“It’s hard for me to believe that we are even discussing this resolution that will create so much division,” Rabbi Yitzchak Raskin, director of Chabad of Burlington, told the city council. “I kind of want to beg you, the Jewish community here in Burlington is over 100 years; [we have] strong roots, and I know a majority of them oppose this resolution.”
He added that it is often hard to get the different synagogues in town to agree on anything, but on this issue, “we are all one.”
Wearing a well-worn Israel Defense Forces T-shirt, Spencer Karofsky, a student at the University of Vermont, said he was reluctant to speak but was doing so “out of fear” because “I am terrified that I will be attacked on account of my religious and ancestral identify if I do not. When pro-BDS activists marched into this meeting, I felt an emotion I have felt never on account of my religion: fear.”
“I am Jewish and a proud Jew, an unapologetic Jew,” he said, noting that when other BDS measures were passed, “disgusting rises in anti-Semitic incidents occur.”
Karofsky told JNS “that angry pro-BDS activists screaming slogans that indirectly call for the destruction of Israel—the one safe space for Jews—was the first time in my life that I have ever felt unsafe on account of my religion. I was shaking when I wrote and delivered my speech, as many of the pro-BDS activists were fellow UVM students.”
He said it’s a 30-minute walk from city hall to his dorm room, and he was concerned about possible retribution: “I sprinted the entire time, plus looked behind my back at least a dozen times to make sure that no person or car was following me.”
Another speaker, Jason, noted that he is open to learning about both sides of the issue; however, “BDS calls for an end to Israel. ‘From the river to the sea’ means an end to Israel,’ ” he said. “The BDS movement goes beyond the protection for Palestinians—it calls for death to Israel. I don’t know you can have a conversation with someone when the opening salvo is you need to die.”
“There is pain on both sides. There is injustice on both sides. But,” the Burlington resident said, “we need to have that conversation, and to start, we need to recognize each other’s right to exist.”
‘It appears that they were heard’
While most of the speakers were local, the evening’s final one was not.
David Feldman, a member of the Neturei Karta, an outlier anti-Zionist haredi group, wore a scarf with the word “Palestine” on it and an ID card that had appeared to have a Palestinian flag and Arabic writing, as he claimed the “occupation is totally wrong” on a religious and moral basis.
He received applause primarily from the Palestinian supporters in the crowd.
More than 2,000 people contacted council members directly, and more than 1,000 signed on to a letter organized by Jewish Communities of Vermont with support from AJC New England, ADL New England, the Israeli American Council, StandWithUs, and other organizations and synagogues in the region, opposing the resolution, according to the American Jewish Committee.
This outpouring of opposition to BDS took place despite the hearing having been scheduled during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, also known as “The Days of Awe.”
AJC New England director Robert Leikind said “this resolution was based on carefully curated information, deprived of context and designed to create a false and deceptive portrait of Israel and its supporters. Such tactics feed polarization, defeat prospects for peace and inspire hate. Thousands of people appealed to members of the City Council to reject this morally troubling BDS resolution. It appears that they were heard.”
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